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.