Finally, something right up my dorsal fin. It’s no secret that I have a slight preference for the T87, but any Tatra sighting is a post-worthy occurrence. And it so happens that the Jesada Technik Museum, not too far from Bangkok, has two Tatraplans. To quote the eminent philosophers Ren and Stimpy: “Happy happy, joy joy!”
The car in the title pic is a 1952 for sure – says so on it. This green one, though, seems like an earlier model, so I’ll peg it as a ’49. It was also easier to access than the silver car for detail shots. It was, however, missing a few trim pieces here and there. But beggars can’t be choosers.
So let’s dig a little into the history of these amazing automobiles. When the Soviets conquered in Prague in 1945, Tatra were still manufacturing the V8-powered T87, as well as the front-engined T57B. Production had not really stopped during the German occupation, with the exception of the T97, which was deemed a bit too much like Dr Porsche’s KdF-Wagen, so that model was nixed in 1939.
After the war, Tatra figured they needed a mid-sized car to go between the T87 and the T57B. Some lobbied to just resume T97 production, but it was soon decided to develop a fresh design – something even more streamlined, and a bit bigger. After all, with only about 600 units made, the T97 hadn’t exactly set any sales records. Thus a new Tatra prototype, the T107, was created. But there was an issue: Tatra’s design team lacked its historical leader, Hans Ledwinka.
Ledwinka had designed all the Tatras since 1920, pioneering several innovative concepts such as forced-air engine cooling, backbone chassis and an improved swing axle design. He was the driving force behind the marque and had earned the respect of all who worked under him. Alas, he considered himself an Austrian (he spoke German and never applied for Czechoslovak citizenship) and was accused by the Soviets of collaborating with the Germans. He was put in jail in 1945 and soon tried and convicted. The folks over at Tatra nevertheless got permission to visit him in his cell to discuss the new T107, probably sometime in 1946. Ledwinka was happy to look at the blueprints and made several suggestions. In 1951, he was set free and settled in Austria, never to work again on his beloved Tatras.
Thus, the T107 was the last Tatra to have some first-hand influence from Hans Ledwinka. By the time the model was refined and put in production though, Czechoslovakia had become a very different place. In 1947, after a couple of years of dithering, Stalin turned the screws on the country and it was made to toe the Party line. Just prior to introducing their new model in October 1947, a newly nationalized Tatra ditched the T107 designation as the firm switched their numbering system: 100 numbers stood for light trucks, 200 for delivery vans, 300 for railcars, 400 for trolleys, 500 for coaches, 600 for passenger cars, 700 for machinery, 800 for heavy trucks and 900 for engines. Therefore the car’s name, mooted to be T107 Aeroplan, was finalized as T600 Tatraplan.
The T600 was very advanced by any standard. The 1948cc air-cooled OHV flat-4 had aluminium hemi heads and produced 52 hp – not too shabby for the time. The unit body was streamlined to perfection, being the most aerodynamic Tatra yet produced, and roomy too: the Tatraplan could accommodate six passengers, thanks in part to its new column-mounted gear selector. Extra luggage space was available behind the rear seats, just over the transmission. Suspension was independent all around, with twin transverse leaf springs in the front and torsion bars in the back.
Racing was not the T600’s original calling, but the company realized the flat-4 had potential. Tatra made a two-door aluminium special, dubbed T601 Montecarlo, for international rally car events. They also made a two-seater T602 mid-engined racer and T607 single-seater. These cars usually had souped up versions of the T600’s engine, but production four-door Tatraplans were also raced around Europe at the time, and did quite well.
Staying with the specials for a bit, Tatra commissioned coachbuilder Sodomka to make a one-off T600 cabriolet in 1949. The car was exhibited at the Prague Motor Show and then shipped off to Moscow as a present for Josef Stalin’s 70th birthday. Some dictators get all the perks.
The last Tatraplan special we’re going to look at here was very special indeed. The T201 used the T600’s engine, but positioned in the front. At least four T201s were made circa 1949-1950, including an ambulance, a station wagon and two pickups. Ever the truck-maker, Tatra also put together a few Diesel-powered Tatraplans, but no series production ensued.
The aerodynamics of this car were truly astonishing for the times, with a body drag coefficient of 0.32 – a figure that only became commonplace in the ‘80s. To achieve this, the unibody was smoothed to perfection with pontoon wings, unlike the T87 (Cd: 0.36). And special attention was paid to the underside of the car as well, something that was obviously facilitated by the location of the engine.
But there were a myriad little touches added in pursuit of the ideal aerodynamic shape. Take the door handles, for instance: no wind resistance on those. That’s the kind of attention to detail that one might have expected from bespoke Italian coachwork on a Ferrari chassis, but here it is on a four-door saloon made in Eastern Europe.
Of course, such dedication to streamlining comes at a cost. One of these costs is rear visibility. All you get are two tiny portholes out on the rear lid, split by the trademark dorsal fin. And said portholes are viewed from the cabin via another split window, as there’s an engine in between the two.
Out in front, it looks like Tatra stylists did the classic faux grille between the headlamps trick seen on many rear-engined cars. However, the grille is not a fake. “But how can that be,” I hear you ask, “isn’t there an air-cooled engine in the tail?” Well, yes. The Tatraplan’s engine is air-cooled, which really means oil-cooled. There are about 10 litres of oil in this machine – consumption runs at about 0.2 litres per 100 km, by the way – and the oil radiator is at the front.
Let’s see what it’s like inside, shall we? The green T600’s interior had a nice well-worn feel to it. One thing that must have taken a bit of doing was the fashionable column-mounted lever for the 4-speed manual, which is located between the rear wheels. Mind-boggling.
The rear compartment looks exceptionally roomy for a mid-range ‘40s car. The floor is completely flat, too. Folks who drove these (or rode in the back) say that the distinctive air-cooled flat-4 sound is not too intrusive, especially compared to a VW. That’s probably due to better insulation from the engine, as the T600 certainly sounds very Beetle-like from the outside.
Interestingly, the silver T600 is RHD, which makes it a genuine unicorn. The overwhelming majority of Tatraplans that were exported went to Western Europe (but not the UK), Canada, COMECON countries and China – all LHD countries. And Czechoslovakia itself switched to LHD in 1939, well before the Tatraplan came on the scene.
About 6200 Tatraplans were made from 1948 to 1952, but production stopped at Tatra’s Kopřivnice plant in the spring of 1951, just as the car’s rear lid was redesigned with slightly larger windows and a curved edge. We can see this plainly in the two cars I found at Jesada Technik Museum: the green one, with its pointy end, is clearly a pre-1951 Kopřivnice-built car.
Here’s a rear shot of the silver ’52 model (I couldn’t get any closer than this, those cars were in a cordoned-off area). Late model T600s like this one were built in Mladá Boleslav by Škoda. This was a government decision, aimed at rationalizing car manufacturing and freeing up factory space over at Tatra for bus, truck and railcar production. For the next five years, from 1951 to 1956, Tatra did not build any passenger cars. But the powers that be, authoritarian and arbitrary as they were, soon regretted this exercise in bureaucratic shortsightedness and allowed Tatra to resume carmaking with the V8-powered 603, seen here next to the Tatraplan.
Too late for the Tatraplan, of course. Škoda, who were were less than thrilled with having to make T600s at their factory, were able to get rid of the cuckoo in their midst as soon as the export quotas for 1952 were met. Czechoslovakia’s auto sector, such as it was in the early ‘50s, probably did not really need a complex, unconventional and quasi hand-made 2-litre streamliner.
Still, the world is all the better for Tatra having had the wherewithal to get the T600 made in (relatively) significant numbers. My heart still belongs to the T87, but if a couple of Tatraplans came my way, I just might consider myself satisfied. Flat-4 + flat-4 = V8? A bit wonky mathematically, but it sort of makes sense to me.
Automotive History: Hans Ledwinka’s Revolutionary Tatras, by PN
CC Capsule: 1949 Tatra 600 Tatraplan – The Four-Cylinder Tatra, by PN
I had an opportunity to talk Tatras with a Czech Tatra mechanic recently ( there were two of them, but only one spoke English). He explained that even after Hitler made the Czechs drive on the “wrong” side of the road, the cars were still offered with the controls on either side of the car. Sometimes the driver might want to get out onto the curb side to let rear passengers out.
The photo is of the transverse leaf front suspension of a 1934 T77, here in the early stages of restoration.
Nice cars, oddly enough Ive actually seen one RHD in Australia, it was dead and not in very good condition and just parked under some trees, there was also a late 40s Skoda at the same place, theres one T87 V8 in Nerw Zealand at the Southward museum near Paraparaumu fully restored in bright blue, awersome cars. The later 603s are rare even in the Chech republic a friend who spent time there was shown one in a garage of a hotier he stayed the car didnt run due to lack of parts but he would never part with it apparently.
I’m trying to piece together how complicated the shift linkage from the column to a rear engine/trans was. Even GM noped out of that for the Corvair and went with a floor shift for both the 3 and 4-speeds and that weird little dashboard switch for the Powerglide.
And note that it’s also a “concealed” change, by which I mean integrated into the column rather than a rod running down next to it, even on the RHD version.
GM’s big rear engine buses like the “Silverside” PD-3751 had column shifters for their rear mounted transmissions, almost 35′ feet behind the driver. It’s not that unusual or difficult.
Rear engines were big right when column shifters were in fashion. Yet I struggle to think of another example (on a car), apart from Tucker. So I’d say it’s rather unusual…
Great finds and a well-told backstory to go with them. You have been as instrumental as anyone at getting me to see the beauty of the Tatra.
Could Tatra have been the automotive pinnacle of East Bloc Europe during that bleak period? I would guess so.
One last thing, that one-off convertible could be one of the least attractive cars I have seen in many a moon. But then Tatra was never about conventional beauty.
Sodomka was always hit-and-miss. The T600 cabrio: miss. The Aero 50 below: hit.
Am I to understand that the factory for these was in Prague? I wonder what ever happened to it, or if it became repurposed. Prague is remarkably preserved, given the events it experienced of the past 75 years or so. Thanks for these great photos!
Before 1920, Tatra were called Nesselsdorfer Wagonsfabrik. The Nesselsdorf works started making cars in 1898 and present-day Tatra trucks are still made there. The town is now called Kopřivnice, and it’s in Eastern Moravia, near the border with Slovakia.
I believe all Tatra cars (except the Škoda-built T600s) were made in that factory. But Tatra became a conglomerate in the ’20s/’30s, so there were Tatra plants all over the map – even in Austria.
The Prague factory in Smichov was the Ringhoffer side of the business. It was dedicated to trams and railcars, and operated as ČKD-Tatra until 1999, when that branch was sold to Siemens.
You mention that Canada was one of the main export markets … any idea on how many were sold there? Certainly only a very small number of Tatras ever migrated to the US, but I always assumed those were private imports from Europe, not from our neighbor to the north.
One source estimates that some 850 Tatraplans were bought by US servicemen, and presumably many of them brought back to the US.
It seems at least 168 Tatraplans were exported to Canada. That figure is a minimum, as it doesn’t include the 1951-52 Škoda-built ones
CC’s symbol should be the entrance to a rabbit hole.
Having just now returned, I can inform that 50 of these beauties were imported into Australia in RHD in 1952, but the rabbit who told me this knew no more than that. I also recall there was one auctioned in Melb in 2014 (RHD with floorshift), and Bryce mentions seeing a ruined one somewhere. Seems remarkable to me, as the country had not long elected what was to be 23 years of conservative govts, and anti-communist fears were rife (and were to split Labor in two shortly after). In that context, someone bringing in 50 strange objects from the kingdom of Uncle Joe seems so unlikely, but then, the first VW’s from the former German enemy were sold here in ’53 and by ’54 were being CKD assembled, so who knows.
I’m glad ole Joe got the convertible: it’s suitably hideous. )Seems Sodomka had an ironic sense of humour, which, with that name, I s’pose should be assumed).
In contrast, the local one at auction was passed-in at $65K, and if I had anything like that amount, I would have jumped.
Here’s a link for the rabbiteers present. Some very sweet posters down one tunnel. Enjoy. Keep note of your tracks.
That is one serious rabbit hole. Must start eating carrots before my next trip, to help me see in the dark…..
Oh, I didn’t relay anything like the full journey. Btw, don’t take the carrots in, you’d be stifled in the rush.
The one I saw was in northern Victoria the fin gave away what it was, I did wonder at the time how the hell it got there.
Here is the only one I’ve ever seen, actually snapped curbside in California, in 2013.
Congratulations. Finding a curbside Tatra was my Holy Grail.
Looks in beautiful condition, too.
Is there any car that cannot be found in CA?
I’ll be honest, this one could be considered a bit of a ringer. I did shoot it curbside, after recovering from the shock of actually seeing one parked on the street. It was near an automotive event I went to at Stanford, and I learned that it in fact belongs to a friend of a friend, who I later met at the same event. So it wasn’t quite a random sighting like seeing a Tatra in a grocery store parking lot. However the event had nothing to do with exotic or historic cars; the rest of the attendees seemed to show up in the usual BMW’s or Toyota’s. And the Tatra was parked curbside, and it was driven there.
I like that station wagon, but I LOVE that green paint! Imagine seeing that coming down the road.
Hans Ledwinka was born in Wiener-Neustadt, near Vienna. Until 1945 Europeans were assigned the nationality from their parents, not from their birthplace. For instance, Ferdinand Porsche was born in Bohemia, nowadays Czech Republic; but he always was considered Austrian because of his parents. Joseph Ledwinka, Hans’ cousin, migrated to the US and worked at the Budd company. He was instrumental in the development of the unit body Opel of the 1930.
“Until 1945 Europeans were assigned the nationality from their parents, not from their birthplace”
That’s overly generic. Nationality was traditionally passed on by the father, nor the mother, in many countries – including the UK. Some countries have a long tradition of granting citizenship to anyone born on their soil (e.g France).
Things were more complicated for people like Porsche or Ledwinka, who were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When they broke that up into several countries after WW1, individual allegiances and passports could be switched fairly arbitrarily (I know this from family history as much as anything else).
There was a Tatraplan on our street in Innsbruck, and it had a magnetic attraction to me. Even though I was very young, and the Tatra was already obsolete in terms of its styling, it still looked like something out of the future to me, compared to the gaudy late ’50s Fords, Opels and fintail Mercedes. I instinctively saw it as a distant relative of the ubiquitous VW, given the many similarities, the other car I obsessed on. To me, the rear-engine design with streamlined bodywork was clearly the most progressive one, and it was hard for me to fathom why other cars were still so conservative.
The seats (and interior space) n these is remarkably roomy, and they were very legitimate 6 seaters (for the BMI’s of the time). The luggage space behind the rear seat was a bit awkward to access, but folks had tidy suitcases back then, and a fair number could fit there.
The Tatraplan was exported aggressively in Western Europe in its time to earn hard currency. They show up in vintage photos and such not infrequently.
A roomy, more powerful VW four door; what’s not to love?
Seeing a T600 as a kid would have blown my tiny mind. Unfortunately, I was born in the wrong decade and the wrong place. But I do remember the first classic streamliner shape that really impressed me (about age 7): the Peugeot 203.
There was one at that museum, actually. A rather uncommon 1st model year (1949/50) car, it seems. I left it out of the pile because I didn’t capture it that well on camera and there were many other interesting cars there, but the 203 has a special place in my memory. And if you add a fin to it and squint a bit…
The ’52 ain’t bad at all, and I’m intrigued by the dark red 603(?) to its right. But that living-green ’49(?) is sexy AF, detracted only by the counterfeit Marchal headlamps.
Can you help me. I have tatraplan 1950 600 i got in hight school the old man that sold it to me. Him and a friend got 3 of them. Thay took one cut it up for parts . I have the door transaxle trunk. I mom and dad told me no way are you getting it. . As a 17yr boy i was thinking any body can have a Rolls Royce . But not a tatra. Mom and dad never been in it.dad has past a way. My 90yr old mom ask one thing before she dies. To go for a ride in it. The mortor is in pieces. You know were to get a shop manuel.or a shopthat can rebuild it. Or buy another mortor. I live in Seattle wash
The T107 prototype of 1946 looks a lot the Saab 92 prototype of 1947. I know the Saab engineers were influenced by DKW, but I wonder if Tatra cast its spell on them, too.
It’s interesting to bring up the Saab. My memories of the early sixties (in the US) were that there were enough late-model VW’s, Volvo 544’s and Saab’s on the streets (no Tatras or Peugeot 203’s) that the “aero” style didn’t seem that unusual, or dated. And they were quite a contrast with the finned and post-tailfin domestic behemoths; just as Paul described the Tatra and Beetle as contrasting with the mini-Detroit style of German Ford’s and Opels, and fintails that were common in Austria. Perhaps those of us that bemoan the sameness of modern cars aren’t just being old curmudgeons.
I thought that too. But a very different layout underneath.
I think they are both kind of pretty in a non-traditional way, which is the first time I’ve ever said that (being pretty) about any Tatra. Especially the silver one. Thank you for the thorough history!
My old high school friend had both Tatraplan and 603 when I lived in Dallas, Texas a long time ago. I had an opportunity to drive both around a small aeroport north of Plano, which was very interesting experience.
One thing that befuddled me the most was shifting pattern being lopsided in 603. I will let this hand-sketched diagram describes the convoluting pattern better. It took me a while to get hang of the Czech weirdness.
That lends a new twist to the current meme that a stick shift is a millennial anti-theft device. This is a boomer anti-theft device.
You can’t get too Tatra!
Thanks for sharing the finding and your compendium of Tatra knowledge.
Is it just me, or is there a bit of Jaguar Mk1/Mk2 in the style of the silver car? Go to the title photo, and cover the area ahead of the screen….