(first posted here on 8/16/2013. Updated 4/9/2019) Not uncommonly, a brilliant career and an enduring reputation for innovation all derive from a single kernel of inspiration. Perhaps even a rather ordinary one, like say…a hollow tube. At a certain point in 1919, the Austrian designer Hans Ledwinka imagined how a hollow tube could radically transform the automobile from its horse-drawn wagon origins to a completely new architecture befitting its modern propulsion system. His breakthrough was realized at the Czech firm Tatra, and although that firm’s stunning dorsal-finned aerodynamic streamliners are most strongly associated with Ledwinka and Tatra, those were just the latest designer clothes artfully draped over his hollow tube.
There was a reason the automobile was commonly called the horseless carriage in its early days. That was the obvious starting point, and all of the engineering genius of those times was poured into making the mechanical components that propelled the carriages more effective and reliable. Although there were a few creative aberrations in the very earliest days, most of them clearly showed their carriage roots. The 1901 35HP Daimler “Mercedes” (above) designed by Wilhelm Maybach, set the pattern that was a natural progression from the carriage/wagon, that predominated the industry and still endures with trucks (and a very few cars): a steel frame, with an longitudinal engine in front, driving a rigid rear axle through a sliding-gear transmission and a drive shaft.
Whereas the 1901 Mercedes was a breakthrough in its own right, and the first “modern” automobile, its frame and rigid axles suspended by leaf springs were conceptional carry-overs from the horse-drawn era. Rather than this compromised mixture of the old and new, Ledwinka imagined something utterly new and elegant, a cohesive architecture befitting of a modern automobile. No one would ever call a Tatra a horseless carriage.
Take a good look at the picture above, because it was one of a very few truly revolutionary advances in the evolution of the automobile. Perhaps Ledwinka’s inspiration came from nature: its core was a strong central backbone, a hollow tube, if you will. At the front, the power plant (head?) and transmission were attached rigidly, made of aluminum, and were fully enclosed, a novelty in its own right. To minimize vibrations, the engine architecture was in the inherently most balanced form: a horizontally opposed boxer.
At the rear, the differential was rigidly attached (the hips). The individually suspended rear swing axles (legs) pivoted from the differential. It was light, rigid, smooth, efficient, and all encased in a neat and tidy package, unlike the exposed universal joints, gears, valve trains and drive chains of the time. And the front suspension is attached directly to the engine, itself a structural member. (Note: the swing axle was first designed and patented by Edmund Rumpler in 1903)
Ledwinka envisioned his breakthrough while he was then employed at the Austrian firm Steyr, but they passed on building it. And perhaps the mammalian anatomy wasn’t actually his inspiration. But in 1921 he returned to Tatra, where his ideas were realized: the legendary Tatra Type 11.
The T-11 had a light air-cooled boxer OHV twin engine at the front; a later T-12 variant had a boxer four. Further developments of this very successful configuration were built through 1948. It was a remarkably light, agile and efficient design, and shares honors with the 1922 Lancia Lambda in ushering in many of the basic principles of modern small-car design (the Lancia pioneered the the monocoque structure and independent front suspension). Although Ledwinka’s central tubular chassis/torque tube configuration has long been eclipsed by unibody FWD in modern small car design, it lives on in the remarkable off-road capable Tatra trucks employing the same principles today as well as in a host of cars over the years like the 1961-1963 Pontiac Tempest, the Porsche 928, and the current Corvette.
The next evolution in Ledwinka’s adventurous thinking on the subject of hollow tubes and small cars was to move the engine to the rear, keeping the central backbone frame, but now without a drive shaft. There were several advantages to this approach: the tunnel could now be smaller, drive line losses and engine noise was reduced, traction was improved, and a new independent front suspension didn’t have to fight for space with the engine.
Ledwinka’s son Erich and the brilliant designer Erich Überlacker worked on what became the Type V570 prototype of 1931 (above), which may have looked conventional on the outside, but was anything but. It was at this point too that Ledwinka moved on the next automotive frontier: aerodynamics.
Inspired by the pioneering Rumpler and Paul Jaray’s patented aerodynamic principles, the second V570 prototype of 1933 was transformed (with Jaray’s help) into what looks remarkably like a proto-Volkswagen. Well, even though Ferdinand Porsche admitted that he been looking over Ledwinka’s shoulder when he sat down to design his definitive Volkswagen concept of 1934, he was mostly interested in certain details of the Tatra boxer four, especially its forced air cooling system. Actually, Porsche and Ledwinka regularly exchanged ideas and the state of their current projects. They were both Austrians, and interested in similar directions of their work.
This chassis for Tatra’s never-built T97 might easily be mistaken for a VW chassis. Despite the exchange of ideas, Ledwinka was not happy when Porsche’s VW arrived in 1936, and sued for patent infringement, for the details of its forced air cooling. Tatra had been pioneering forced air-cooled engines since 1921 T-11, and had taken out patents on what covered many or most obvious approaches to that. Porsche was close to settling it, when Hitler told him he had a better solution that would manifest itself very soon. In 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, and the nasty business was deferred for some time. In 1961, VW finally ponied up 3 million DM to settle the matter. Contrary to common assumption, it did not cover the whole car, but just aspects of the VW’s air cooling system.
Hitler also put a stop to the production preparations for the V570 and T97, as he was not about to have the VW potentially upstaged, despite the fact that the T97 was going to be priced five times higher than the VW.
We’ve gotten a bit ahead of the time line, so let’s back up to 1933 again. Tatra had already decided to hold off on the V570, because the more conventional (T-11 derived) Type 57 was still selling well. Instead, the V570 architecture and aerodynamic principles were to be scaled up to a luxury car that would turn the world on its ears, the stunning Type 77, as well as the “mid-sized” 1.5 liter Type 97.
Utterly uncompromising in its approach to aerodynamics, the Type 77’s long flowing tail resulted in a Cd (coefficient of drag) of .212 (well below the Cd .26 of today’s Prius). Paul Jaray was hired to develop the 77’s aerodynamic body.
With its rear air-cooled OHC hemi-head V8 engine, back-bone chassis, all-independent suspension, a central driver’s position (on a few versions) and a central headlight that swiveled with the front wheels, the 77 (and its more pragmatic successor, the Type 87), inspired awe as well as imitation (Tucker Torpedo, among others).
Developed in great secrecy, the 77 was finally unveiled at the 1934 Prague and Paris motorshows. Despite its modest power output, the Type 77 was able to cruise comfortably at speeds of 140-150 kmh (85-90 mph), a remarkable achievement at the time. The press raved:
“It is sensation when it comes to its construction, to its appearance and to its performance. However, it isn’t a sensation that would just fall down from the skies, but a logical continuation of the road, which Hans Ledwinka took thirteen years ago. The ideological principle of the new Tatra is an understanding, that the car is moving at the divining line between the ground and the air. … The car maintained 145km/h, it has astonishing handling, it drives through the curves with speeds that are both mad and safe, and it seems, that it is only floating on whatever road. … It is a car, which opens new perspectives to the car construction and automotive practice.”
Vilém Heinz, Motor Journal, 1934 
Despite the accolades, the Type 77 was only built in very limited numbers, some 250 total, in two series, through 1938. They were essentially coach built, and there were numerous small variations and running changes. Ultimately, its tricky handling and certain other limitations led to a substantially changed successor, the Type 87.
The definitive Tatra streamliner, the Type 87 was lighter, more powerful, had better weight distribution, and was produced in larger numbers (some 3,056 from 1936 – 1950). And its rear V8 and swing axles still led to potentially lethal handling at the limit, which was now over 160 kmh (approx. 100 mph).
Hitler, a major auto buff, is seen here admiring the very advanced alloy SOHC 3.4 L V8 Type 77 power plant at the Berlin Motor Show in 1934, initially loved the 77/87, and is said to have told Porsche: “That is the car for my highways!” And unlike the very Volkswagenesque T97, the 87 was kept in production after the Nazis took control of the Tatra factory.
Thanks to its ability to cruise effortlessly over 90mph with only 75hp on Germany’s new autobahns, the 87 became the favorite car of high-ranking Nazi officers. It was dubbed the “Autobahnmobil.” More ominously, the T87 was also soon dubbed “the Czech secret weapon” after many of these high-speed demons died at the hands of the wickedly-abrupt “terminal” oversteer of the tail-heavy V8. Hitler reputedly had a change of heart and banned his top Luftwaffen officers from T87 seat time to forestall the recurring carnage.
After the war, the communist-era planned economy presented serious challenges to Tatra. The T87 was made for a few years, but the post-war economy was too austere for V8s.
So a smaller T97 design was resurrected and updated. The resulting four-cylinder T600 Tatraplan (above) was exported to the west in modest numbers (including the object of my childhood obsession) during the early fifties. Two small windows were a rare concession to rear visibility. But then the 77 and 87 had no real use for rear windows, seeing that there were very few cars that could outrun it on the autobahn.
But Tatra was never equipped for efficient mass production. After a few years, the communist party apparatchiks instructed Tatra to change gears again; forget about mass market cars, which had now been given to Skoda, and design a luxury vehicle suitable for their own use. The dorsal fin now gave way to (two) rear windows, and the rest of the car was substantially restyled and updated for the fifties, if in a decidedly eccentric Czech idiom. The resulting and now highly collectable T603 was built from 1955 through 1975. (603 CC here)
Tatra T603’s have found their way into the movies, including a star turn as a sinister sedan in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.” The very capable and multi-talented T603 was also the star of a highly camp communist-era promotional infomercial. The T603 shows off its hooning prowess, eluding the police with lots of tail-out oversteers and a daring sideways roll down a steep meadow (Youtube: Tatra T603 Happy Journeys Part 1 & Part 2“). A superbly spent half hour.
The evergreen T603 continues to inspire new generations. It recently had a new role, as the host for new interior concepts by industry supplier Faurecia. Sadly, its drive train was sacrificed to show off some new trunk technology.
By the mid seventies, the aero-look was passé. The 1974 T613 successor sported sharp-edged styling by Vignale of Italy. But Ledwinka’s basic formula stayed fully intact, right through 1996. It was the upscale, high performance corollary to the similarly boxy rear-engine VW 411; a 411 Panamera if you please. After the fall of Communism, once again mostly futile efforts were made to sell the T613 in the west as a BMW competitor.
More recent efforts to revive the boxy T613, like this T700, have failed. But with the new-found emphasis on efficiency and aerodynamics, perhaps it’s time to dust off those old body dies of the T77. With an EV drive train under that dorsal fin, it could be just the ticket back to the future.