Today when you talk about Czech cars, you think “Skoda”. You are not entirely wrong, it was created in Czechoslovakia, the plants are still in what is now called Czech Republic, but the brand has been owned by Volkswagen since 1991, and all the cars are based on German chassis and use German engines.

As an automobile passionate as well as a History passionate, I have always been interested by brands who didn’t get their chance, or have been robbed, or were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

That, added to my Czech origins, made me think about something: what went wrong with Tatra?

Tatra is the other Czechoslovakian automobile brand, the one that was thinking out of the box, the outsider.

Tatra was founded in 1850 by Ignac Sustala, to build bodies for horse-drawn vehicles. When he died in the 1890s, technical director Hugo Fischer von Roeslerstamm took over the company and, together with engineer Hans Ledwinka, created the first automobile of Austria-Hungary in 1897: the Nesseldorfer Wagenbau-Fabriks-Gesellschaft Präsident (or to simplify, the NW Präsident). Inspired by the Benz Wagen, it actually used the same 2.75 liter, 5hp, two cylinders engine.

The good reviews and interest in this car made them work on a 100% Tatra car. Ledwinka came up with the 2.7 liters, two cylinders Type A in 1900. Then came the Type B in 1902, with a rear mounted 3.1 liter flat-two engine. Let’s remember that at this time, when there were more horse-drawn vehicles than cars in most of the streets in the world, a flat-two engine, mounted at the back, was quite of a revolution! Approximately fifty Type Bs were made between 1902 and 1904, while Ledwinka left the company to work in Vienna on a steam engine project. He was hired back in 1905 and created the Type S. Again, the car used revolutionary technical features, such as overhead valves and hemispherical combustion chambers. It was available with a straight 4 or a straight 6 engine. Seventy-five cars were made before World War I began.

After the war, Austria-Hungary was a thing of the past, and Koprivnice was the new name of Nesseldorfer, now part of the newly created Czechoslovakia. In 1921 The company changed its name to Tatra, the highest mountain of the country.
Ledwinka in the meantime left to work for Steyr, and came back in 1921 at Tatra to work on the Tatra 11 (At Steyr he was succeeded by Ferdinand Porsche).

Despite being an affordable car, the 11 was full of new technologies: Backbone chassis, independent rear suspensions, an air-cooled 1 liter flat-two engine… The car was a success, with 4 000 units sold until it was replaced by the Tatra 12 in 1927. The 12 was produced until 1936, and more than 7 000 were sold.

The backbone chassis of the Tatra 11

The success of these affordable, economic cars allowed Tatra to work on different projects, even more revolutionary ones.

From 1931 to 1935 for example, Tatra entered the “Premium” range (a marketing word that didn’t even exist at the time but describes well the model) with the Type 70, equipped with a 3.4L 6 cylinders engine, and the Luxury range with its big sister, the Type 80, a 6L V12 car that competed with Rolls Royce or Duesenberg.

A Tatra Type 70, the 6 cylinders version of the Type 80

But in the early 1930s, Hans Ledwinka (still working for the company and still having great ideas) joined forces with aeronautical engineer Paul Jaray (the man behind the Zeppelin airships) to work on an aerodynamic car. The first prototype was based on the Tatra T57, a mid-range car. But in 1934 a second prototype was created: the V570. The car was aerodynamic, and had a revolutionary 854cc flat-two engine at the back, seating for four, and as a result was very economic. However, the car never made it into production and its development helped to create a bigger car: the Tatra T77, which was the first streamline car put on the market (the drag coefficient was a very low 0.24), and as Tatra advertised, it was « The car of the future ».

The genius of Tatra was not only technical, but also in the advertising, with this perfect illustration of the advantage of a streamlined body

The affiliation with the aeronautical world was also used advertising the cars

Indeed, the T77 was the car of the future, and to this day not every car has these features, such as the 3 (then 3.4) liter air-cooled, dry-sump, rear mounted V8 producing 60 (then 75) horsepower. Presented in Prague on March 5th 1934, the car was driven at 145 km/h, an impressive speed for a 5m plus limousine!

It was subsequently presented at the 1934 Paris Motor show, where it amazed French journalists. Between 1934 and 1938, 250 T77 were produced.

A beautiful dark blue T77…

… And its massive rear end, hosting the air-cooled V8!

In 1936 it was replaced by the more modern T87, which featured an 85hp engine and had a top speed of 100 miles per hour. It was produced from 1936 to 1950 and more than 3000 were sold. It was not only modern, fast and advanced, it was also reliable: two Czechoslovaks adventurers drove a T87 around the world, with almost no problem at all in the 1950s.

This T87 has been driven on four continents!

The T87 was unveiled alongside its baby sister, the T97: they shared the same streamline body style, but the T97 was a meter shorter and featured a 1;4L flat four engine, still rear-mounted.

The French Curves Collection, owned by Peter Mullin and opened to the public, has a beautiful dark blue T87.

In the early 1930s, Hitler, meeting Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Ledwinka, told Porsche about the T97 and V570 “That’s the cars we need for our new Autobahns”.

And in 1938 the KdF Wagen (later known as the Volkswagen Käfer) was unveiled in Berlin. The car, developed by Porsche, was largely inspired by the two Tatras, so the Czechoslovakian brand tried to sue KdF and Ferdinand Porsche. Hitler reportedly advised Porsche not to settle, saying that he’ll settle the matter. The invasion of the Sudetenland by the Nazis followed soon after, and the lawsuit was discontinued. Ferdinand Porsche later admitted that he looked over Ledwinka’s shoulder while working together at Steyr, and reported Ledwinka did the same.

After WWII Tatra sued Volkswagen, who finally settled the matter by paying Tatra 1 000 000 Marks in 1965.

Thanks to its tiny engine and aerodynamic body, the V570 was very economical.

During World War II, the Nazis put a stop to the production of the T97, and forced Tatra to only built trucks for the Nazis. Still, high ranking officers from the Nazi regime posted in Czechoslovakia preferred to use Tatra T77s over the Mercedes they had access to. At the time some people said that T77s, because of their handling, killed more SS officers than actual combat.

In 1946, after the defeat of the Nazis and liberation of Czechoslovakia, now under Soviet management, Tatra was able to use the Plan Marshall money to build an economical car, the T600, nicknamed Tatraplan. It was a development of the V570 and T97 initiated almost 15 years earlier, moved by an air-cooled 4 cylinders boxer engine. The T87 was resumed until 1950 to ensure that Soviet Official had parade cars.

The T600 was developed thanks to the founds of the Marshall Plan

That is why it was nicknamed Tatraplan.

The Tatraplan sold well until the USSR decided, in 1952, that Czechoslovakia should stop making cars and concentrate on trucks, while Russia was to build cars with makers such as Zil or Gaz (and its famous Volga and Tchaïka).

This decision was short lived, and due to the lack of reliability of Soviet cars and the delay to have them, Czech government asked Tatra to build a replacement for the T87, for the officials to use.

Ledwinka had retired after some time in jail for collaboration with the Nazis, and engineer Julius Mackerle was put in charge of the project.

He chose to keep the T87 architecture (a rear-engine limousine), and in 1955 was presented the 603.
The streamline body was even more modern, with three center headlamps gathered under a glass, hydraulics suspension, and a downsized air cooled V8 (2,5 liter) which now produced 95hp. It allowed the car to reach 100mph, in a great comfort. The 603 had a long career, with 20,500 cars manufactured between 1957 and 1975. In-between these years it evolved (603/1, 603/2 and 603/3), producing 105ch at the end of its production. But only a handful of 603 were sold outside the USSR (some sources say that 3 were exported to Belgium, two in Switzerland and only one in Germany).

An early example of the Tatra 603, with its three central headlights.

As it can be seen in a lot of movies (sich as The Living Daylights) the 603 was used by the KGB, which is why a lot of them are black.

It was replaced in 1973 by the 613 (they actually cohabited on the production line from 1973 to 1975). The 613 was designed by Vignale, and had a bigger engine than the 603: still an air cooled V8, but with a 3,5-liter capacity, and 165hp. Thanks to this power and its Italian aerodynamic design it was capable of 120mph. It was produced until 1996 with a big evolution in 1980: 3 more horse power!

Conception of the 613 started in the late 1960s. It was styled by Vignale, and the first prototype was presented to Czechoslovakian Prime Minister in 1969. History says that he wanted to keep it!

Between 1973 and 1996, the world had changed, the Wall of Berlin had collapsed, so had the USSR, and Czechoslovakia was separated. With new comers to the Czech and Slovakian markets, Tatra had to adapt, mostly to western standard. As excellent as they were compared to Soviet standards, they didn’t fit on the 1990s roads.

That’s why in 1993 the T613/4 Eletronic, with an onboard computer, was unveiled. This was at a time when Chrysler began negotiations with the Czech government to buy Tatra, which ended with the American group owning 15% of the Czech brand.

Half as much as the 603 were sold: 11,000, or an average of 500 cars built per year.

The fall of the Comecon also meant that engineers could use their creativity to do whatever they wanted, and in 1991 in Czechoslovakia, some people dreamt of a national Sportcars. Engineered by Vaclav Kral for the tool company Narex, and built by Metalex, a coachbuilder who was manufacturing the Skoda Favorit Convertible, the MTX Tatra V8 was a pure 1990s hyper car, fitted the famous air-cooled Tatra V8. Two cars were fitted with the carbureted 3,5L, producing 220hp, but another one used a resized 3,9L, fuel injected 300hp engine. Capable of 265km/h, it was mostly overpriced: at 3.7 million crowns, ten times the price of a brand-new Ferrari, in a country where most people could hardly afford a used car… This outside project failed and only four cars were built, the 4th one without engine and sold in the USA.

The MTX Tatra V8 wasn’t an official Tatra, but it can be seen as a official 1990s car!

Tatra tried one last time, in 1996, to prove that their saloon cars could be the best, with the T700.

Lack of founds meant it was basically a 613 with a new body, not designed by an Italian but by an Englishman: Geoff Wardle. The interior was modernized with wood and leather, and while the first cars (1996) had the same 3.5L, 200hp engine as the 613, in 1997 it was resized to 4.4L and 240hp. But despite all that, the car was still outdated compared to the other luxury sedan cars you could have not only in Western countries, but also in the post-soviet countries after the opening of the markets. Why buy a car whose conception was basically done in the 1960s, when you could buy a brand-new Mercedes, BMW or Audi, full of the latest technologies for approximately the same price?

How to look modern with a 30 years old model? Add alloy wheels and a spoiler! The last of the breed: the Tatra T700.

Some things never change: Tatra used the rear mounted air-cooled V8 disposition for more than 60 years.

As a result, at 100 years old, Tatra stopped production in 1998, after 97 T700 came out of the production line, to focus on the trucks, which it is still producing to this day.

In the end, we can say that Tatra never was at the right place at the right time. Despite having great ideas, great engineering, and great cars, the only time they could have make a hit, it was too late: the western carmakers were too advanced, Tatra was late because of 50 years under soviet management, and lacked founds to catch up.

It’s a shame, but as with all great car makers (such as Tucker), there are still today a lot of aficionados of the brand, and we often see Tatras in car events. And also, like Tucker, a lot of innovations made by Tatra are still used today in the industry.: backbone chassis, independent suspensions, but also aerodynamics are more relevant than ever today to help fuel consumption. And doesn’t Porsche still use the rear engine architecture on its 911?