Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Tatra versus Volkswagen lawsuit

One of the great tales of Volkswagen lore is the lawsuit between the Czechoslovakian Tatra company and Volkswagen. The internet is filled 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 Beetle. It makes for a great story and, like all great stories, it contains a kernel of truth, but is now encrusted in layers of myth and bullshit.

Porsche and Ledwinka photographed together in the late 1930s at Grand Prix meet. 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 the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both were native German speakers from German dominated regions, Ledwinka from Lower Austria and Porsche from Bohemia. Neither were formally qualified engineers, but rose through the ranks thanks to their natural talents. Following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the Great War, both adopted Czechoslovakian citizenship. This decision was largely political, as ethnic Germans and German-Austrian nationals found international travel and work opportunities severely curtailed in the 1920s. Nevertheless, doors were opened for men of talent like Ledwinka and Porsche. Porsche would find work in Germany and Austria, while Ledwinka would find opportunities in Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Much is made of the fact that their paths crossed several times during their careers. Hans Ledwinka had left Nesseldorfer in 1915 and joined the Austrian Steyr company as the technical director of motor car development. The cars he built for Steyr were practically identical to the heavy, prewar Nesseldorfers, but Ledwinka recognized that the times were changing and post-war there would be a market for a cheap, mass produced car. This bought him into conflict with the Steyr board, so when Nesseldorfer - now renamed Tatra - offered him the technical directorship in 1921, he resigned from Steyr and moved to Czechoslovakia, taking his Steyr design team with him. 

Similarly, Porsche had risen through the ranks at Austro-Daimler to become managing director, but his plans to develop a budget car led to conflict with the Austro-Daimler board. He was forced to resign in 1923 and moved to German Daimler in Stuttgart, where he became technical director of their racing division but continued to agitate for a budget car project. In 1926 German Daimler and Benz merged to form Daimler-Benz. Porsche's ongoing conflict with Daimler-Benz management led him to resign in 1929 and take up a position at Steyr. His tenure at Steyr would not last long as that company was plunged into bankruptcy by the Great Depression. Austro-Daimler stepped in and purchased the struggling company and Porsche was made redundant. His experience with conservative boards led him to establish his own consulting engineering company.

It is true that both men had filled the same position at Steyr, but there was eight years between their respective tenures. There was little that Porsche could have gleaned from Ledwinka's budget car plans in the Steyr archives that he couldn't have seen with his own eyes on the road, as Ledwinka's revolutionary Tatra T11 had gone on sale in 1924. In any case, Porsche had already expressed his views about an 'auto fur der jedermann' (or car for the common man) while he was at Austro-Daimler in the early 1920s. The idea of a ‘people’s car’ was not unique or even uncommon after the Great War.

Ledwinka's Tatra T11 proved to be a tough little car that bristled with innovative features, including a front-mounted twin-cylinder air-cooled engine which was directly mounted to a sturdy tube chassis, which doubled as the transmission tunnel, with drive delivered through independently sprung half axles to maximize traction. The Tatra T11 was a game changing car that inspired engineers across Europe.

One German engineer was particularly inspired by the Tatra T11, but felt he could do better. Josef Ganz believed further cost savings could be achieved if the engine was moved to the rear. There were simple engineering reasons for moving the engine to the rear as placing the engine over the rear driving wheels would improve traction, and would reduce weight and minimize loss of power by dispensing with the drive shaft. This ultimately meant a smaller engine could be employed, in turn reducing production and running costs. Ganz' ideas would be showcased in the Standard Superior, which was first unveiled in 1933. Ganz's design utilized Tatra's independently sprung half axles and tube chassis, and was powered by a 400cc two-cylinder two-stroke engine mounted ahead of the rear axle. The car drew the interest of the engineering community but it was a vehicle of limited practicality and sales of the little car were disappointing.

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." Calling it a 'Volkswagen' doesn't mean it is a Volkswagen.

Looking back towards the rear-mounted engine. The 400cc two-stroke engine was water cooled with a small radiator mounted behind an air scoop on the back deck.

Carl Borgward's contemporary Hansa 400 was similar in style and concept to Ganz' Standard Superior and yet no one claims Borgward as the 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 a small fan drawing air through vents in the rear and blowing across the air cooling fins on the cylinder heads.

Hans Ledwinka and his team felt that Ganz was onto something and embarked on his own rear-engined car project. One of the problems with the Superior and similar cars, such as the Hansa 400, was effectively cooling the rear-mounted engine. Air cooling, as used by Borgward in the Hansa 400, reduced the weight of a rear mounted engine, but required constant airflow. As the engine was enclosed in a compartment in the rear, fan cooling was required. The Hansa 400 used a small fan attached to the flywheel to blow air across the engine's exposed cooling fins, but this was about the limit of such of an arrangement as engines of larger capacity required a more efficient method of cooling.

To power a modern, steel rear engine car would require a much larger engine with 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 the tested air-cooling design configurations were patented by Tatra's Austrian owners, Ringhoffer AG. 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 adopted air-cooling for their entire vehicle range, including in their front mounted, air-cooled petrol and diesel truck engines. For example:

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 12 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 the Porsche layout is not a direct copy of the Tatra design, but Ringhoffer-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 model T97.

The Tatra T97 was powered by a flat-four boxer engine like the Volkswagen, 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 streamlined and had rear-engines. The cars also targeted totally different markets – the Volkswagen was a cheap car for the working man, while the T97 was a car for the wealthy.

Nevertheless, once technical details of the Volkswagen were made public, Ringhoffer's lawyers began examining the design for evidence of patent infringement – which they found in abundance. The Ringhoffer's - who where quite litigious - 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 too. Tatra was instructed to build trucks, trains and diesel engines, but thanks to the reputation of Tatra's streamliners, Tatra was permitted to continue manufacturing the T87 and budget T57. Despite the myth, the T97 was not cancelled because ‘it was a competitor to the Volkswagen’ but because it was unnecessary under the Schell rationalization plan.

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 postwar Czech government and sentenced to six years with hard labour. When he was released in 1951 he was offered the Tatra managing directorship, but this was politically impossible so he declined the honor and retired to Austria. 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 car and truck production 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. 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.

The Ringhoffer case attempted to assert 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 found to have merit. Volkswagen vigorously contested the case, then attempted to drag it out. When at last it became apparent that Volkswagen would lose the case, 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 were involved in the lawsuit of received anything out of the settlement.

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.

Other links
and for a laugh:

And because people really don't understand this, I try and summarize it all here:

For more comprehensive information about Tatra, see my dedicated Tatra blog:


  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.

  4. It must not be forgotten that Tatra was developing one people’s car even before T97. It wast the Tatra V570. The VW beetle resemblance to V570 is much more obvious than the one with T97.

    1. That's exatly what I wanted to comment. I am glad I am not the only one who remembered about the V570. I hoped that it would be at least mentioned in the article.

  5. Also check Porsche type 12 from 31/32 when taking about how early Tatra was with a rear engine people car.

  6. This comprehensive historical account eloquently explores the intertwined journeys of Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Ledwinka, two brilliant minds who shaped automotive history through their innovative designs and tenacity. Their distinct contributions to the evolution of rear-engine cars and air-cooling systems are thoroughly examined, dispelling myths while honoring their individual achievements. This insightful narrative underscores the complexity of design influences and the diverse paths that led to iconic vehicles. Amidst the fascinating historical narrative, don't forget to explore modern opportunities like Cash for Cars Sydney, making today's car transactions as seamless as these pioneers' groundbreaking designs.