Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Tatra versus Volkswagen lawsuit

One of the great tales of Volkswagen lore is the lawsuit between the Czech Tatra company and Volkswagen. The internet is still abuzz with claims and counter claims that Dr Porsche stole the VW concept from Hans Ledwinka; of a pre-war lawsuit by Tatra squashed by the Nazis; and the consignment of the 1938 Tatra T97 to oblivion to prevent its comparison with the VW. It makes for a great story, and like all great stories it does contain an element of truth but is now encrusted in layers of myth and bullsh*t.

Porsche and Ledwinka photographed together during a pre-war Grand Prix. Porsche was the technical director of the Auto-Union 'Silver Arrows' racing team in the mid to late 30s.

Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Ledwinka were both born in the later years of the 19th century in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both were native German speakers. Neither were formally trained engineers but were mechanically gifted. Work opportunities took Ledwinka to Czechoslovakia and Porsche to Germany. Their paths crossed several times during their careers, most notably when Porsche took over from Ledwinka as chief engineer at Steyr-Daimler-Puch when Ledwinka moved to Tatra in 1921. There Porsche undoubtedly came across the designs for an air-cooled engined people’s car that had led Ledwinka to fall out with the Steyr-Puch board. Not that Porsche wasn’t considering something similar himself. Porsche had fallen out with the directors of Daimler-Benz and Austro-Daimler in the 1920s over his demands to build an 'auto fur der jedermann' (or car for the common man) car plans. The idea of a ‘people’s car’ was commonplace at the time.

The people’s car that Ledwinka eventually delivered in 1924 was the Tatra T11. This tough little car bristled with innovative features – a front-mounted twin-cylinder air-cooled engine, directly mounted to a sturdy tube chassis which doubled as the transmission tunnel, and with drive delivered through independently sprung half axles to maximise traction. The Tatra T11 was a game changing car that inspired engineers across Europe.

One German engineer was particularly inspired by the Tatra but felt he could do better. Josef Ganz believed further cost savings could be achieved if the engine was moved to the rear.  Driving the rear wheels via a rear mounted engine would minimize loss of power and reduce weight by dispensing with the drive shaft, which meant a smaller engine could be employed. The result was the Standard Superior, which was first unveiled in 1933. The Superior utilized Tatra’s independently sprung half axles and tube chassis combined with a 400cc two-cylinder two-stroke engine mounted ahead of the rear axle. The car drew the interest of the engineering community but sales were disappointing. The air-cooled rear mounted engine, which sat beneath the tiny rear seat, was noisy, hot and underpowered.

This contemporary German cigarette card shows off the modern, streamlined lines of the improved second version of the of Standard Superior, promoted as the 'Deutschen Volkswagen."

Looking back towards the rear-mounted engine. The 400cc air-cooled two-stroke relied on cooling air flowing beneath the car.

Carl Borgward's contemporary Hansa 400 was similar in style and concept to Ganz' Standard Superior and yet no one claims Borgward as a progenitor of the Volkswagen.

The Hansa 400 design had its origin in Borgward's rear-engined three-wheeler, the Goliath Pioneer. The car's air-cooled two-stroke was mounted on a platform far in the rear. The engine was cooled by ambient airflow through vents in the rear.

Like many of his contemporaries, Hans Ledwinka felt that Ganz was onto something and embarked on his own modern, steel bodied, rear-engined car project. The problem with the Superior and similar cars, such as the Hansa 400, was that their air-cooled engines relied on ambient air flow, which was dependent on the cars moving to maintain the flow of cool air. Their engines could become very hot when they were still or idling. Ambient air cooling was fine for small displacement engines, but it set a fixed upper limit for engine size of about 600cc. Anything larger required some form of mechanical cooling. Ledwinka had addressed this problem with the Tatra T11's 1057cc engine by attaching a fan and cooling shroud to the engine's flywheel.

This view into the engine bay of a Tatra T12 shows the fan driven cooling shroud at the rear of the engine. The flywheel at the back of the engine was provided with fins in order to double as a fan. The cylinder heads and barrels remain open to the air and protruded through the underside of the coal scuttle bonnet so that they could be cooled by the car's slipstream.

Powering a modern, steel car with a rear engine would require a much larger engine that would require much more efficient mechanical cooling. For almost two years Ledwinka and the Tatra team experimented with dozens of combinations of air-scoops, vents, ducts and fan-forced cooling systems. In the end they settled on a combination of air-scoops with fan-forced cooling. To capitalize on their depth of the company's research, all trialed air-cooling design configurations were patented by Ringhoffer family who basically owned the company. Ledwinka was not named in the patents.

In 1934 Tatra unveiled their first rear engine car – the magnificent T77. One of the car's enthusiastic fans was the new German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Ledwinka, like Porsche met with Hitler on several occasions to talk about cars and Hitler is reputed to have told Nazi Labour leader, Robert Ley, “the Tatra is the car for my autobahns.”

In the meantime, back in Germany Ferdinand Porsche had been engaged by Hitler to work on his pet ‘people’s car’ project. Porsche too had settled on a rear-engined layout for the 'Volkswagen' and his design team found themselves struggling with the problems of rear engine cooling in the same way Ledwinka's team had. They too chose a forced air-cooling solution. Whether they consulted Tatra’s patents or developed their solution independently isn’t clear or indeed relevant, because regardless how they arrived at it, Tatra’s patent’s on air-cooling were so comprehensive that it covered all logical design configurations.

Tatra did not patent so many different forced air-cooling configurations in order to 'corner the market' but because they used a wide variety of different engine configurations in their vehicles, including their front mounted, air-cooled petrol and diesel truck engines.

The Tatra T87 of 1934 used two fan forced ducts beneath the engine.

The Tatra T97 of 1938 had a single fan offset to the right.

The Tatra T111 truck of 1942 was powered by a 10 cylinder front mounted air-cooled diesel engine, which was cooled by twin cooling fans. 

The post-war Tatra T600 engine used a centrally mounted fan downdraft fan. This is the Type 2 engine of 1950 with the vertically mounted fan. The earlier Type 1 had a horizontally mounted fan.

The Volkswagen Type 1 engine used a centrally mounted fan. Clearly Porsche didn't 'copy' the Tatra specifically, but Tatra held the patent for this configuration.

Porsche’s Volkswagen took far longer to develop than expected and by the time that it was finally presented to the German public in 1938, Tatra already had two rear-engined cars in the market – the luxurious T87 limousine and the smaller, "budget" model T97.

Like the Volkswagen, the Tatra T97 was powered by a flat four boxer engine, but that was pretty much where the two car’s similarity ended. For a start the Tatra’s engine was a substantial 1,761cc capacity, compared to the Volkswagen’s meagre 998ccs. The cars did not even look similar, except in the general sense that they were both rear engined. The cars also targeted totally different markets – the Volkswagen was a car for the working man while the T97 was a car for the well to do, though not the extravagantly rich.

Nevertheless, once technical details of the Volkswagen were made public, Tatra officials began examining the design for evidence of patent infringement – which they found in abundance. Tatra’s lawyers began preparing a case against KdF but were to overtaken by events as in March 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Under the German administration Tatra had no legal recourse to sue the state owned German car manufacturer.

In 1938 the Nazis had regulated the German auto industry under the Schell Plan. Vehicle designs were standardized and duplication of models removed to free up industrial capacity for war production. Following the annexation, Germany bought Czechoslovakia’s industries under their centralized control. The Nazis had no need for Tatra’s streamlined supercars and Tatra’s automobile division was shut down and the company instructed to build trucks, trains and diesel engines for the German army. Despite the myth, the T97 was not cancelled because ‘it was a competitor to the Volkswagen’ but because the Nazis centrally planned war economy had no need for non-German luxury cars.

Germany's real interest in Tatra was their trucks. This photo taken in 1940 shows Hans Ledwinka and Tatra management escorting German officers on an inspection tour of the factory. The trucks are T27 3 tonners. Trucks like this served on all fronts during the war.

Nevertheless the Tatra 87 still provided a welcome distraction for some.

Post War
For the protagonists in this story, the war and its aftermath were filled with disappointment and tragedy. Dr Porsche was arrested and imprisoned by the French as a war criminal. He never faced trial however and was released in 1947. He then found himself frozen out of Volkswagen by the new managing director, Heinz Nordhoff, who regarded him with ill-disguised suspicion. Porsche visited the factory only once at the end of 1950, shortly before he died in January 1951. The company he had helped to establish made a rapid recovery and Volkswagen went on to become one of the most successful cars in the world.

Hans Ledwinka was arrested for collaboration with the Nazi’s by the new Czech authorities and sentenced to six years with hard labour. When he was released in 1951 Tatra again offered him the managing directorship but he declined the honor and retired to Munich. He died in 1967. Tatra too recovered after the war, but remained a small volume producer whose products remained largely unknown outside of Eastern Europe.

Tatra was nationalized by the Czechoslovakian government in 1946. The company had been devastated by the war and subsequent confiscations by the Soviet Union as reparations for war damage, but the company survived and began production of cars in 1947. In the late 1950s the Ringhoffer family, now living in exile in Germany, revived the breach of patent case against Volkswagen. Ferdinand Porsche had openly acknowledged his influences, referencing his debt to Ledwinka and others, but he was now deceased and the Porsches' were no longer involved in Volkswagen. Volkswagen's new managing director Heinz Nordhoff was keen to sever all links with the company's nefarious past and ensured that any pre-war claims, even the claims of the pre-war savers, were fiercely resisted.

Ringhoffer’s case attempted to assert its primacy over the rear-engined design via three main elements – the fan-forced air-cooling system, the layout of the engine and gearbox, and the suspension. The court threw out the claim against the rear-engined concept as it was simply too broad, but the air-cooling patents and some elements of the engine mounting and positioning of the gearbox were upheld. Volkswagen vigorously contested the case, then attempted to drag it out. When at last it became apparent that Volkswagen would lose they agreed to settle out of court. In 1961 the Ringhoffer's accepted a 1 million Deutschmark cash settlement. Neither Hans Ledwinka nor the Tatra company in Czechoslovakia received anything out of the lawsuit.

Despite Volkswagen’s infringement of some specific Tatra patents, there is no substance to popular claims that Hans Ledwinka – or Jozef Ganz for that matter – should be credited as the true designer of the Volkswagen. In fact, there was nothing particularly unique in Porsche's, Ledwinka's and Ganz' designs. Rear engines, backbone chassis, and independent suspension had all been invented by others earlier. What each designer did however was bring these features together in new ways with various degrees of success. Ganz for instance popularized the idea of a rear-engined car, but his Standard Superior car was poorly designed, under powered and failed to sell. Ledwinka expanded Ganz’ idea into a modern, high performance supercar, while Porsche and his design team bought these ideas together in a new and innovative way to deliver the world beating people’s car.

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  1. This is superbly researched and written. Having read much material on VW, Tatra, and Ganz, I've drawn the same conclusions. Sorry I didn't see this earlier.

  2. Corrections:
    1. Tatra did not sue VW and did not get the compensation. It was the Ringhoffer family, who owned the Tatra works in the 1930's, who had moved to Germany after The 2nd World War and who held the patents. Ledwinka had no ownership to the patents although he probably was the brain behind them.
    2. The settlement was not 3 million DM, it was 1 million DM.
    Oh, and Ledwinka did not live "in obscurity" in Munich after moving there, he was a widely recognized engineer who solved problems for many companies in Germany and elsewhere, and he received a number of honorary doctorates from distinguished universities in Germany and Austria.
    Svend Carstensen, Denmark (long time Tatra owner and enthusiast)

  3. The Standard Superior is water cooled and the Hansa 400 is fan cooled. (both clear on the pics) Neither are ambient air.