Sunday, July 11, 2021

Hagerty's Tatra Rollover Stunt


Death Eaters images courtesy of Hagerty Media. Photos by Andrew Trahan.

Several years ago, in the UK there were three idiots with a TV show about cars. In their desperate search for ratings they would do stupid things like purchase older cars and drive them to destruction for the amusement of the masses. In one of their popular stunts they purchased a number of three-wheeled Robin Reliants and drove them sharply around corners, flipping the cars over. The masses were amused and laughed and tutt-tutted at the ridiculous idea of a three-wheeled car. What was not disclosed was that those dangerously unstable Reliants had had their rear suspensions removed and were carrying extra ballast, strategically placed to ensure they would roll over in a turn.

It was all a bit of fun and foolishness, and few people would have lamented the destruction of a few clapped out old Reliants. Certainly, no one would exercise such dangerous stupidity with an expensive and rare automobile, would they?

Hagerty is a prestigious US auto insurer, auction house and motoring publisher. They have a popular website, which can be visited here: https://www.hagerty.com/ The internet is a cesspool of lies and disinformation and modern online publishing is a desperate search for clicks, likes and impressions. In 2021, Hagerty endorsed a group of ‘motoring journalists’ who were keen to test out some of motoring history’s greatest myths. The series they proposed was called "The Death Eaters." One of the first myths the Eaters chose to test was the Tatra T87’s reputation as a ‘Nazi Killer.’

I’m going to stop right here and state for the record – no one ever called the Tatra a Nazi killer. No one. There was no spike in Tatra related deaths in the German office corps and there never was a ban on German officers driving Tatras. Never. It’s not even a myth. It is a lie cut out of whole cloth long after the war, possibly to obscure the fact that Tatra, under their German owners, the Ringhoffer Group, was a major manufacturer of trucks, trains, rolling stock, diesel engines, tanks and half-tracks for the German army. Not that they had much choice in the matter as all automotive concerns in ‘Greater Germany’ were nationalized by the Nazis and directed to war production, but you get the picture. Personally, I don't think the motive for the story is even that complex. I believe the story is wholly invented by lazy journalists creating an angle to popularize an obscure marque that few people (in the west) had ever heard of.

The Facts
Ivan Margolius' "Tatra - The Legacy of Hans Ledwinka", is an excellent book and the Tatra reference work in English. Ivan mentions a wartime German ban on driving Tatras due to accidents on pages 132-134. The reference to that claim traces back to a 'Road and Track' magazine article by Ray Thursby (pg 312) in 1987. That's a very late claim and therefore cannot be relied on without supporting evidence. Ivan backs up the claim with a quote from Ing. Albert Richter, a former Tatra employee who provided repair and service facilities for German Tatra owners during the 1930s. Richter claimed to have been interviewed by the Wehrmacht transport commission in Berlin about the safety of Tatra cars. Richter claimed he informed them the Tatra was safe if handled appropriately (this applies to any car really), but 'the order came through.' The date of this discussion is not specified and the quote and its context is extremely vague. The reference is to Palmer p15 noting "Palmer interviewed A K Richter for his article" but the article is not otherwise cited in the references. What might Richter be referring to?

Tatra cars were well known in Germany. The revolutionary Tatra T77 was unveiled at the Berlin Motor Show in 1934 and created a sensation. Adolf Hitler held an enthusiastic discussion with Tatra Technical Director, Hans Ledwinka, at the show, much to his handler's annoyance. Hitler was so impressed by what he saw that his ideas about Germany's 'volkswagen' were transformed. In the eyes of Hitler, the Tatra was not a Czech or foreign car, but a practical example of cutting edge German engineering. Ledwinka may have held a Czech passport, but was in fact, like Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche, a German speaking Austrian. He never learned to speak to Czech and surrounded himself with German and bilingual colleagues. After Germany annexed the Sudetendland from Czechoslovakia in 1938 (which included the Tatra plant in Koprivince), motoring magazine 'Motor-Kritik' would openly describe Tatra as a new German automobile manufacturer.

Tatras were extremely popular with the avant-garde in Germany, famous owners being Robert Ley (director of the Nazi labour front), Ernst Heinkel, and Erwin Rommel. After Tatra was bought under German control, they became fully integrated into the German centrally managed economy. The 1938 Schell Plan saw comprehensive rationalization of automobile production. Designs were standardized and all surplus models were removed from the market. Tatra manufactured both cars and trucks and was instructed to focus primarily on trucks, but they were also permitted to continue building the T87 in small numbers (they were only ever built in small numbers). I believe the Richter story probably ties into this rationalization and if we knew more of the backstory we would likely find the context would be in terms of approving the T87 for an official staff car contract, such as Mercedes Benz obtained. We know for certain that the T87 continued to be built right through the war so clearly there was never any ban on their use, otherwise T87 production would have been stopped. Interestingly, Tatra was one of the only German auto manufacturers permitted to continue building civilian cars throughout the war.

The Tatra T87 is a big, heavy car. It is powered by a 3.4 litre air-cooled V8 engine mounted behind the rear axles. For its size, the engine is remarkably light thanks to its use of aluminium-magnesium alloy, but its placement far in the rear does make the car’s handling at speed ‘delicate.’ This is not helped by the fact that the Tatra uses swing axles, which were seen as extremely modern at the time but are well known not to perform well in a high speed turn. If not driven with care, the car could be flipped. Tatra knew this and the T87 drivers manual provides explicit warnings about driving at speed and how to handle hard turns. There is no mystery here.

Despite not being an 'officially sanctioned' staff car, a small number of T87s were commandeered for military use and they saw service all over Europe. There was an SS division in Italy that used them as staff cars. I am not aware of any reports of major accidents or death toll. If the story had any legitimacy we should at least have one anecdote or a name of some officer killed, but there is none that I am aware of. Ergo - the story is without factual basis.

So, where does this story come from? After the war the Allies undertook a comprehensive survey of German technology. Specialists from the British motoring industry analyzed and test drove all captured German vehicles they could get their hands on. There was a lot of lessons that the British should have learned from Germans, especially when it came to high precision engineering, something the Germans excelled at. Something the British did poorly at. However, the British proved not particularly willing to learn the lessons that were served to them on a plate. Famously, the Rootes Group were invited to evaluate the Volkswagen and determined that it ‘did not meet the minimum requirements of a motorcar.’ Rootes would later go bankrupt and Volkswagen took over the world, so what did they know?

The Allies had captured several Tatra T87s during the war and they too used these luxurious vehicles as staff cars. In 1946 the British Vauxhall company were handed a captured Tatra staff car for evaluation. The car was an extremely poor condition, having completely shot suspension, four different tyres on four different rims, and an out of tune engine misfiring on several cylinders. Nevertheless, Vauxhall followed Rootes' example and decided to road test the car ‘as is.’ Needless to say, they rated the car highly unstable and poorly engineered. It is amazing how petty the assessors were, criticizing the floor mounted gear shift as making it difficult for the driver and passenger to switch places and complaining that the front wheel arch intruded into the footwell, requiring one to move their feet towards the centreline somewhat. If Vauxhall - indeed anyone in Britain - wanted to evaluate the Tatra's actual performance and handling, they need only have requested well-known motoring enthusiast, Captain Fitz-Maurice, to take them for a drive in his Tatra T77. Fitz-Maurice had purchased his car in 1935 and it was, for many years, the only Tatra streamliner in Britain. Fitz-Maurice was so impressed with his Tatra that he wrote a glowing letter to the factory on 29th October 1935 outlining his observations. It's worth quoting him here:
"When this car was "run in" and had covered about 10,000 kilometres, I had a good opportunity of trying it for maximum speed and on the main Coventry road, with driver and two passengers, the speed of 95 m.p.h. was obtained.....Points that strike me and my friends about the car are:-
First class road-holding without anxiety.
Excellent suspension and wonderfully light and untiring steering control at all speeds. The wide field of vision makes fast driving safer.
The excellent braking.
The petrol consumption, considering the performance, is abnormally light.
The increased loading space is a great advantage.
There is no doubt that you have provided a solution of the owner driver's Reisewagen de luxe for general world use that is year's ahead of any similar product."

The point of these evaluations however, wasn't to learn anything. They were political exercises designed to reassure the British people and industry leaders that the Germans had nothing to teach plucky Britain. After all, if the Germans were so clever, why had they lost the war - twice. The point however, is this. The story of the Tatra and dead Nazis originates in Britain and the source of the myth of Tatra's poor handling likely originates with the Vauxhall report, being the only one available in English.
https://tatrat600.blogspot.com/2020/11/bios-final-report-no-922-tatra-car-type.html

The Stunt

So the 'journalists' from Hagerty decided to test the fake Nazi Killer myth by putting the Tatra T87 from the Lane Motor Museum through a slalom course where they could push the car beyond its limits. Like their predecessors at Vauxhall, they took no care to ensure the car was adequately prepared. Observers pointed out at that the car’s rear tyres were rather flat, but the testers determined to press ahead regardless. The car was swung around the course with the driver snapping out the tail as hard as he could. It would not take a genius to realize this was dangerous, but driver was certainly taken by surprise when the US$300,000 car flipped over on its side and slid down the road.

The Death Eaters have been at great pains to explain away the accident. In a lengthy interview with Jeff Lane of the Lane Motor Museum (see below), they clam that the Tatra rolled over at 20 mph on its first chicane. I don't believe a word of it. There is no way that the car can simply flip over at only 20 mph. You have to try really hard. The published photos tell a pretty convincing story. Tellingly there is no video of the incident. The photo sequence are courtesy of Hagerty. Photography by Andrew Trahan.

Seconds from disaster - a view from the rear shows the right tyre is rolling under. This is not natural. The tyres are under-inflated.

Now the left hand rear tyre is sliding under of its rim.

And now the car lifts off. The car cannot be traveling at only 20 mph for the front to lift this far from the road.

And the car continues to roll

And it's over.....

...and begins to roll over onto its roof. 20 mph....

Tatras are built tough. Despite the flip, the panels are in relatively good shape.

With a bit of manhandling the Tatra was put back on its wheels and Jeff Lane commented that the test should be repeated with tyres at the proper pressure. The subsequent handling tests didn’t have quite the same ‘frisson’ but it scarcely mattered. They had secured spectacular photos of the Tatra upending and therefore confirmed the fake myth of the Nazi Killing Tatra. Hagerty, the insurer, also gained a little publicity, approving a claim for repairs to Lane’s formerly stunning T87.

This is one of the dumbest stunts ever pulled by new media 'journalists.' Tatra enthusiasts around the world have expressed outrage at such an unprofessional and unscientific test. Any old car can be unsafe if handled beyond its limits. It's clear that something was wrong with the Tatra's suspension and tyres. Tatra owners have identified issues with the cars tyres, tyre pressure, dampers and leaf springs. Nothing was proved. The fake Nazi killing myth is still just as fake.

The Death Eaters version can be found here - https://www.hagerty.com/media/car-profiles/the-death-eaters-chapter-1-tatra-t87/

A very disingenuous interview - https://www.hagerty.com/media/livestreams/tatra-the-greatest-car-no-one-has-ever-heard-of/

A skeptical analysis by Paul Neidemeyer - https://www.curbsideclassic.com/uncategorized/step-by-step-instructions-on-how-to-flip-a-tatra-t87-at-20-mph/

Tatra - The Legacy of Hans Ledwinka - https://www.veloce.co.uk/store/Tatra-The-Legacy-of-Hans-Ledwinka-p153904391

I have covered the Nazi 'myth' earlier here - https://tatrat600.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-moronic-dross-that-passes-as.html

For dedicated Tatra content, see my blog - https://tatrat600.blogspot.com/