Saturday, February 1, 2014

Tatra's Streamliners - Yesterday's car of tomorrow

During the early years of motoring a basic appreciation of streamlining was applied to racing cars but few companies thought of applying these lessons to a production car. Consequently, when the former aircraft manufacturer Rumpler introduced the streamlined Tropfenwagen (tear-drop car) at the Berlin Auto Show in 1921, it caused a sensation. With a mid-mounted engine and nautical streamlining, it was extremely aerodynamically efficient, but sales were low and only 100 cars were built. The car was simply too radical for the market.

Rumpler's stunning and advanced design didn't sell well but they found successful employment as taxis during the 1920s and 30s. They also made an appearance in Fritz Lang's dystopian movie "Metropolis."

One of the two surviving examples in the Munich Technikmuseum. Tests of the Tropfenwagen in the 1970s revealed that it was astonishingly well streamlined with a drag co-efficient of only 0.28.

Contemporary film of a Tropfenwagen on the road

The influence of Zeppelin
In Germany, an aeronautical engineer named Paul Jaray was hard at work trying to put the aerodynamic lessons he'd learnt at Zeppelin to new use. Born in Vienna in 1889, Jaray had studied aeronautics at Prague and wrote extensively about wing design and aerodynamic theory. In 1914 he joined the Zeppelin Airship Company and by the end of the war had risen through the ranks to become its chief designer.

Jaray's post-war passenger airships LZ120 Bodensee and LZ121 Nordstern had benefited from extensive wind tunnel testing and pointed the way towards the great airships like Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg that would cruise the skies in the 1930s.

After the war Germany was banned by the Treaty of Versailles from building any more airships so Jaray turned his interest to automobiles. He'd been experimenting with car designs for some time but the release of the Tropfenwagen in 1921 prompted him into action and he lodged a series of patents on streamlined automobile design concepts. He shopped the concepts around to a number of auto manufacturers who experimented with the design with limited success.

The influence of Jaray's work at Zeppelin was readily apparent in his early design sketches. Cars based on these early 1920s patents proved to be so impractical that experimentation in streamlining was abandoned for almost ten years.

Enter Tatra
Tatra is the third oldest vehicle manufacturer in the world after Benz and Peugeot. The company was originally founded in 1850 as a luxury carriage marker in the Czechoslovakian town of Koprivnice. Like many other carriage makers, they made the jump to automobiles around the turn of the century. Their first car, the Nesseldorfer President, was released in 1897 and was the first car manufactured in Central Europe. The following year Nesseldorfer achieved another first when they produced the worlds first lorry.

The President of 1897 was based on a Benz design. The original is preserved in the Prague Technical Museum.

Edmund Rumpler of Tropfenwagen fame had been Tatra's chief engineer before he struck out on his own. Rumpler was succeeded by Hans Ledwinka, a self-taught engineering genius who had risen through the ranks from a humble mechanic to become Tatra's chief engineer. Like Jaray, Ledwinka was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1879. Although he lived most of life in Czech speaking Bohemia he came from a German speaking family and never spoke Czech. Under Ledwinka's inspired leadership Tatra would become one of the most innovative automobile company's in the history.

Tatra was also a manufacturer of railway carriages and during the First World War Tatra shut down its automobile division in order to build rolling stock for the Austrian army, so Ledwinka resigned from the company and moved to arms manufacturer Steyr-Puch. There Ledwinka took over Steyr-Puch's automotive division, designing cars that looked remarkably similar to contemporary Tatra's.

While at Steyr-Puch Ledwinka began to work on a radical new car design. Ledwinka had become convinced that post-war Europe would need a cheap and robust car that could handle the regions poor roads. This project bought him into conflict with Steyr-Puch's management, who could see no money in building a 'people's car' and in 1921 he resigned and returned to Tatra. Having no interest in the 'people's car', Steyr-Puch let him take the design with him. Tatra however, were very interested and allowed Ledwinka free reign to develop the project. The result was the ground breaking Tatra 11, which showcased a raft of Ledwinka's advanced design features including the lightweight tube chassis, independent suspension, and independently driven half axles. The car was powered by 1200cc two cylinder boxer engine. Fan-assisted air-cooling removed the need for a heavy radiator, giving the Tatra its distinctive snow-plow shaped bonnet. The T11 went on to spawn a range of Tatra air-cooled cars during the 1920s and early 30s.

The Tatra 11 introduced Ledwinka's air cooled engine and tube chassis to the world.

Ledwinka's tube chassis, independent suspension and independently driven half axles design was soon adapted for Tatra's truck range and Tatra was soon producing two, four, six, eight and ten wheel drive heavy trucks.

The Tatra T26 light truck was marketed as an all terrain vehicle. In the early 30s a specially imported Tatra T26 circumnavigated Australia.

This photo of a Tatra T25 heavy lorry shows the effectiveness of Ledwinka's independently sprung and driven half axles. No matter how uneven the terrain all wheels maintain contact with the ground.

Project 570
In 1932 Tatra engaged Paul Jaray as a design consultant on their new Tatra 57 project. Jaray presented a radically streamlined design for a mid-sized sedan. A single prototype was built but Tatra felt it was too unorthodox and handed the project over to Ledwinka's son Erich and designer Erich Uberlacher.

Jaray's Tatra streamliner mock up wasn't particularly impressive.

Ledwinka Jnr and Ubelacher pared the design back to a more conventional, budget car design that was more in keeping with the austerity of the times. In doing so however, all the streamlined elements of Jaray's original design were lost. They built two prototypes, one with a conventional front-mounted engine and the other with an experimental, rear-mounted engine.

The Tatra board decided to stick with the traditional front-engined version and this design soon became the Tatra 57, which was released in 1932 to great acclaim and enormous market success. The Tatra T57 would remain in production until 1949.

The Tatra 57 was an outstandingly successful little car and possibly the best selling Tatra of all time.

Ledwinka Snr, however, was not impressed with the overly conventional Tatra 57 and began to experiment with the rear-engined prototype. At that time, thanks largely to the promotional activity of the German engineer and auto-critic Josef Ganz, rear mounted engines were seen as the cutting edge of automobile design. Designated Project V570, Ledwinka Snr, Jnr and Uberlacher worked together to develop the idea of a modern, rear-engined streamlined car built on Jaray's design principles.

The Tatra V570 looks almost identical to Ferdinand Porsche's' original Volkswagen V3 prototype and indeed they share a common heritage. Porsche and Ledwink's paths crossed many times, not least when they worked at Steyr during the 1920s. Porsche shared Ledwinka's vision of a modern 'people's car' later admitted he designed the Volkswagen with at least one eye on Ledwinka's work.

The rear mounted engine was a key component of the new design as it made the best use of Jaray's teardrop shape bodywork, and placing the weight of the engine directly over the driving wheels provided better traction, but it also created problems with both cooling and handling. Many companies had experimented with the rear engine concept, but all found the effort required to overcome the technical challenges made it uneconomical. In fact it was only Hitler's unconditional financial backing that allowed Porsche to iron out problems with the Volkswagen's rear-engined design, and even then the project took four years longer than anticipated. For the next 18 months Ledwinka and his team worked valiantly to iron out the engineering problems of the rear engine. As a result Ledwinka and Tatra would lodge a dozen patents just covering the engine's forced air cooling system. Despite all their efforts, Tatra realised that the V570 was never going to be viable and cancelled the project.

Tatra T77

Despite the problems Tatra made a brave decision to continue with the rear-engined, streamliner project, but recast as a luxury car. Increasing the wheelbase and size of the vehicle allowed the team to address many of the issues that had plagued the smaller, budget car as it provided a more stable platform for the rear engine and allowed the maximum streamlining to be achieved. The vehicle's drag co-efficient of 0.212 was outstandingly efficient and has rarely been achieved in modern production vehicles.

The design sketch of the T77 includes some of Paul Jaray's typical features, such as the sharply rounded windscreen and boat-tailed cabin. However, moving the engine to the rear allowed the passenger cabin to move forward between the axles. This in turn lowered the car's profile and improved handling and stability.

The car's new 3.4 litre, air-cooled v8 engine was mounted far in the rear and delivered 75 horsepower. Air scoops were mounted in the rear bodywork to ensure a stream of cooling air was directed across the engine. Performance in trials was excellent and the car could maintain speeds of up to 150 kilometres per hour.

Rear mounting of the engine transformed the interior space of the car. As there was no drive-shaft beneath the car, the floor-pan was flat, allowing six adults to be seated comfortably across the two bench seats. Passenger and driver visibility was excellent to the front and sides thanks to extensive wrap around windows. Rear visibility however was poor as the car had no rear window, only a set of louvers. The driver was seated centrally in a number of the early prototypes before they definitively settled the driver on the right hand side (Czech's were still driving on the left hand side of the road at that time). The boot (trunk) was situated under the front bonnet with two spare tyres, to increase the weight over the front wheels. Two large headlights were mounted in the bonnet.

The Tatra 77 prototype is easily recognisable by its split front windscreen. Later examples had a wrap around windscreen with two small side windows. Numerous changes were made to each subsequent vehicle as the design evolved.

The Tatra T77 had been developed and built in secret so when the car was finally unveiled at the Prague Auto Show on 3 May 1934, it created a sensation. Exhibitions followed at the Paris and Berlin auto shows and journalists were lavish in their praise of the extraordinary car, both for its futuristic design as well as its outstanding performance. All commented on the car's speed and smooth handling and the orders started to flow.

Hans Ledwinka explains the details of the Tatra 77 engine to Adolf Hitler at the 1934 Berlin Auto Show. Hitler was keenly interested new technologies and although he normally didn't drive himself, he had a particular fascination with automobiles. Hitler found the ultra-modern Tatra particularly appealing. It is claimed that Hitler later told Ley and Ferdinand Porsche that the Tatra "is the car for my autobahns."

The new improved second prototype of the Tatra 77 featuring the wrap around windscreen and changes to the bonnet, air-scoops and driving position.

The space-age T77 featured in the futuristic 1935 film, "The Tunnel."

The T77 however was very much an experimental car and its handling could be a little unpredictable. Drivers had to be extremely careful however that the car did not become unbalanced and flip off the road. Instability at speed required changes to the large and distinctive vertical tail-fin to prevent the car yawing at speed. The design team continued to work through these issues and made adjustments to almost every element of the car, which meant that no two T77s or the later T77a were exactly the same. Only 249 production vehicles and 4 prototypes were built. All were individually coach-built with steel skin over wooden frame.

Tatra T87

In 1936 Tatra released the new T87 model, which brought together the lessons from the experimental T77 and T77A. The T87 saw the car's headlights moved from the bonnet to the wheel arches. An additional third headlight was mounted in the bonnet. This headlight rotated with the front wheels to light the way around corners. The car also received an improved 2.9 litre V8 engine that delivered 85 horsepower. Lightweight magnesium alloy was used in the engine to reduce the weight. As the car could easily cruise at over 160kph it was a popular seller, especially in Germany where it was purchased by such automotive and military luminaries as Ernst Heinkel and Erwin Rommel. Unlike the T77 the T87 had a fully steel body and chassis.

Servicing a pre-war T77. For ease of maintenance the whole engine and drive train could easily be rolled out of the back of the car. In the 1960s many T87 owners were able to replace their old pre-war engines with the modern 2.5 litre T603 engine.

The Tatra range in 1936 - the T22 heavy truck, the T87 limousine, and the T75 budget sedan.

Tatra 97

In 1936 Tatra attempted to re-enter the 'budget' vehicle market with the streamlined T97. The T97 was basically a shrunk down T87 powered by a 1761cc rear-mounted flat four boxer engine. Certain other features were simplified, such as reverting a dual headlights and a single piece windscreen. Although the engine was only 40 horsepower, the T97 was a very sleek machine and could easily cruise at 130kph. Only 508 examples were built before production was bought to an abrupt halt when Germany invaded and annexed Czechoslovakia in 1938. Tatra had been in the process of preparing a lawsuit against KdF for infringement of Tatra's air-cooling patents, but that was effectively quashed by the Nazi occupation.

The trio of pre-war Tatra streamliners - the T77, T87 and T97

The Nazi's nationalised Czechoslovakia's advanced technical and military industries and turned them over to war production. Tatra's automobile production was shut down and the company ordered to manufacture heavy trucks. Tatra's rugged and advanced trucks saw extensive service on all fronts, as did a military version of the T75 sedan. Tatra also built armoured vehicles, half-tracks and diesel tank engines.

A post-war Tatra OT-810 HAKO half-track at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. Companies like Tatra found themselves building copies of standard German military vehicles, such as this copy of a Hanomag SdKfz.251. Tatra continued manufacturing them into the early 1950s.

The T87 had no military application of course, but continued to be in demand amongst German officers and Nazi bigwigs and a small number of cars were built by special request throughout the war years.

German officers on an inspection tour of the Tatra truckworks at Koprivince in 1940 find themselves distracted by a Tatra T87. Hans Ledwinka stands near the drivers window explaining the cars' finer details.

After the end of the Second World War Czechoslovakia found itself within the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviets treated the management of Czechoslovakian companies such as Tatra and Skoda very harshly. Hans Ledwinka was arrested, charged with collaboration and sentenced to five years imprisonment with hard labour. When he was released in 1951 Tatra were keen to regain his services, offering him the managing directorship, but he refused and retired to Munich, Germany, where he lived quietly until his death in 1967.

Like the Nazis, the Communists weren't particularly interested in Tatra's cars but very interested in their trucks so truck production was prioritised. Car production did however recommence surprisingly quickly with small numbers of both the T75s and T87s rolling off the production line, mainly built out of stocks of pre-war parts.

A pre-war and post-war T87 side by side. The post-war model on the right has bigger and more bulbous bonnet and wheel arches. Internally, the fittings were a little less extravagant. Most surviving T87s are in fact post-war manufactured even though they may contain pre-war parts.


With Ledwinka in his prison, a new design team took over at Tatra. In 1946 they initiated a project to design a new car to replace the T57 and T87, however, the project was immediately hamstrung by the loss of machinery, parts and skilled engineers. It quickly became apparent that a new car design would take four or five years to come to fruition. Tatra couldn't afford to wait that long and decided to rehash the prewar T97. Josef Chalupa, Vladimír Popelář, and František Kardaus simplified almost all elements of Hans Ledwinka's T97 to make it easier and cheaper to manufacture. The new car was powered by a flat four boxer engine of 1921cc capacity. Many of the body panels were hand beaten as industrial presses were not available. 

One of the early T107 prototypes. The bonnet styling and false radiator grill are quite different to the production version.

This early German advertisement for the Tatraplan still describes the car as the T107. Other errors include describing the engine as a flat twin (it's actually a flat four). The earliest engines featured a horizonal cooling fan but this was soon changed to a vertical fan.

The car was originally designated the T107 but by the time the car was released in late 1947, the old nomenclature was abandoned and the car was renamed the T600 'Tatraplan.'  

A photo of the Tatra range in early 1947. The new Tatraplan is in the centre, flanked by post-war T87s. A trickle of T87s continued to be built as custom requests for Communist part notables with surplus parts and engines right through into 1950.

The Tatraplan was definitely an elite car, reserved for Party and industry officials and the export market. but after a little over a year's production, the Central Planning Committee transferred Tatra's car manufacturing to the Skoda works in order to allow Tatra to focus on trucks. This decision was unpopular with both Tatra and Skoda. Approximately 6300 Tatraplans were built before the Central Planning Committee decided to stop production in favour of imported Russian Zil limousines in 1952.

A video review of the Tatraplan from the website: 'Rides with Chuck.'

Tatra 603

Following the demise of its automobile line Tatra focused on heavy truck production. Tatra's independent suspension, multi-axle drive trucks were extremely popular with the Soviets and were used for both military and heavy industrial purposes. They were even used as nuclear missile transporters. The Tatra design team however were less than impressed with this decision and continued to work on car designs in secret. The result was the Vatula, a car no less space age in 1954 than the T77 had been in 1934.

The Central Planning Committee quickly came to regret their decision to stop production of the Tatraplan as the Russian Zil's proved to be disappointing; deliveries were sporadic and the cars poorly built. Tatra saw their opportunity and jumped on it, revealing the Vatula as a fully realised design. The Planning Committee were impressed and gave them the go ahead for the production of a streamlined luxury car.

Full scale mock ups of the new T603 included Tatra's by now characteristic tail fin. The fin was abandoned shortly afterwards and never made it into the production car.

Released in 1955, the T603 was powered by a 2.5 litre V8 engine. The cars were all hand built and luxuriously fitted. Despite the contemporary advertising above, the cars were manufactured exclusively for use by party officials and foreign export. Some 20,000 T603s were built between 1955 and 1975 when the car was replaced by the boxy T613. Almost one third of the T603s were exported, primarily to other Eastern Bloc countries but there was a small export market to the west, especially France and Germany. A small number also ended up in western hands when they were sold off by diplomatic and consular offices around the world at the end of their official life.

The T603 came in three basic models

The original T603-1 is easily recognised by its closely set trio of headlights.

The second variant, the T603-2 was in production from 1962 to 68 is distinguished by its four closely set headlights.

The final model, the T603-3, has a slightly more conventional look, with four widely set headlights.
A contemporary advertising film showing the speed and robustness of the T603-1's handling. It's an amazing and interesting film. During the highway scene Tatra were clearly attempting to demonstrate that the problem of yaw at high speed had been addressed by putting car through a deliberate rear end sway. All the way through the film the car is roughly treated - even rolled down a hillside at the end! It's also noteworthy that the police car that gives chase in the second half of the film is a Tatraplan kombi van.

The end of the stream line....

By no account could the Tatra T613 ever be described as streamlined, although with this car Tatra finally managed to address all the issues of rear end instability. Like other cars of the late 70s and 80s the T613 was boxy and uninspiring and as a consequence is not in the scope of this article.

Tatra survived the fall of Communism, manufacturing cars and trucks until 1999 when Tatra decided to concentrate solely on trucks and retired their car line. They continue to manufacture trucks today which perform strongly in endurance events like the Paris to Dakar Rally. If you want to know why Tatra trucks are so successful, this video should tell you all you need to know:-

Useful links -

Lord K's excellent blog-

Tatraworld has an excellent T77 register listing the known survivors and their current condition -

This is the place to go if you do have a Tatra T87 in need of restoration -

An interesting cross country trip across the US in two Tatra 87s -

Tatra's official site -
Some of my pages -


  1. Another great link -

  2. Lots more good stuff about Tatras. Have a look at for models of T77, T600 Tatraplan and V570 prototype all to 1/43 scale

  3. The B&W photo showing the engine removal is of T77 not T87.