By on September 17, 2011

The question of automotive preservation jogged an unblogged memory loose today, from earlier in this chaotic summer when I was in Wolfsburg, Germany. I was touring the Zeithaus, or “House of Time,” in Volkswagen’s sprawling Autostadt, taking in the remarkably well-curated exhibit of some of the most influential and important cars of all time. Unlike the GM Heritage Center, for example, the Zeithaus is not reserved for VWs alone, but includes fine examples of undeniably iconic cars from various marques. Organizing VW’s official museum in this way gives the brand a sense of sophistication, sending the message that VW knows quality even when it’s not the one producing it. And the Zeithaus’s curators use this well, offering up such flattering (if ultimately apt) comparisons as an Audi A2 poised alongside a Citroen DS.

But as we reached the area showing the roots of the Volkswagen Beetle, full of KdF cars and early Beetle prototypes, I realized something was missing. If Volkswagen were sophisticated enough to give credit where credit is due to, say, Citroen for the DS, surely there would be at least one Tatra in the joint. After all, Ferdinand Porsche has admitted to at least being inspired by Hans Ledwinka’s Tatra designs. And even if he hadn’t admitted a thing, it’s tough to deny that the Beetle design wasn’t on some level influenced by the contemporary Tatra V570. So I asked my guide, a slick young Dutchman who had probably spent half his life with the company: “are there any Tatras in the Zeithaus? Where are they?”

My guide gave me a peculiar Dutch look that didn’t betray a thing. “Tatras?” he asked. “What’s a Tatra?”

I bring this up not to shame Volkswagen, let alone my otherwise highly competent guide. After all, there’s no shame in admitting that one, or one’s company, owes some kind of intellectual debt to an inspired predecessor… but it can be difficult. My point, rather, is that history is delicate… and always written by the victors. One reason I’m less than entirely enthused about creating a National Register for historic automobiles is that many of the most important automobiles in history are well preserved. And yet the majority of preservation is done by automakers themselves, which have the resources to create whole museums depicting the evolution of the automobile… and the motivation to curate them selectively. Sure, a handful of influential automotive museums exist, but they tend to focus on assembling the most rare and beautiful vehicles ever made, rather than faithfully depicting the evolution of the automobile.

Does any of this warrant hyperventilation on a weekend evening in September? Of course not. But it’s worth considering. Just as placing a Tatra or two in the Zeithaus would be worth considering for Volkswagen’s curators. After all, history is like a rambunctious child: difficult to sanitize and resentful at the mere attempt.


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25 Comments on ““Show Me Your Tatras”: An Argument For Automotive Preservation...”

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Well , I have met a guy named Lou who has restored an early Tatra roadster. Lou was born and raised in the town where Tatras were made. The roadster was the town doctor’s, The engine looks “zactly like a 25 hoss bug motor. Except that it is 5 yrs older than Porsche’s Lou documented the restoration in a photo album.

  • avatar

    Ed, I just started reading an advance copy of the English edition of Paul Schilperoord’s book on Josef Ganz. He says in the introduction that the VW archives in Wolfsburg were not entirely cooperative in his research. At first they told him there was nothing in their archive relating to Ganz. Then, after he published some of his initial research, they made some materials available.

    Oh, and to keep this comment on topic, Ganz was an admirer of Tatra’s head engineer, Hans Ledwinka, calling him the leading automotive engineer in Europe, “the supreme master of European car building”. Considering that Ganz had personal contacts with Jaray, Rumpler and Porsche, that’s high praise. Ganz drove a Tatra 11 himself, being an advocate of mid and rear engine layouts with independent suspension.

  • avatar

    One museum that does a pretty good job looking at the history of the car as a whole is the Henry Ford Museum. They’ve been redoing the Automobile in American Life display which will reopen in early 2012.

    Also, the Piquette Ave. Model T Factory has a nice selection of non-Ford cars, including a display acknowledging the Dodge brothers’ role supplying Ford with rolling chassis for the Model T, a late ’40s or early ’50s VW Type I, and a number of brass era cars that either competed with Ford or were sold at a higher price point.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Darn, maybe it’s just me, but that split rear window on that Black Vdub is way cool.

  • avatar

    My only connection with this outfit is the accident of geography, but they have a Tatra for sale at the moment:

  • avatar

    Whatever can be said about Ledwinka and Ganz designs, Porsche’s team took the concept further into the affordable realm. This was only possible because the German propaganda machine was willing to throw considerable amounts of R&D funded by NAZI Reichsmarks into the project.

    The air-cooled boxer engine architecture was chosen by Franz Xavier Reimspiess. Whether or not the Reimspiess engine was cribbed from another design doesn’t matter. Porsche’s team, led by Jake Rabe spent a couple of years working out the kinks and cheapening the design. By the time the engine was ready for production, it had a definite Porsche stamp to its build, as did the car’s front and rear suspension.

    Keep in mind that the VW engine was designed to be inexpensive to produce. The Reimspiess engine would run a long time, if it wasn’t run hard.

    Take a look at Ludwinka’s engines, which show a different approach to cylinder head and fan shroud design:

    If you have ever rebuilt a Reimspiess VW boxer, the differences are striking.

    • 0 avatar

      The truth is that a number of engineers and car companies proposed small rear-engined cars with independent suspension (eg. swing axles), and a backbone frame. Schilperoord makes a strong argument that Ganz stood at the head of that line.

      • 0 avatar

        Sir Alec Issigonis put together a team of engineers that produced the first Mini Cooper back in 1959.

        The VW Beetle turned out to be an evolutionary dead end. While the transverse FWD design seems to be the rule rather than exception in today’s cars. I don’t hear many folks speaking up for Sir Alec in the way they do for Josef Ganz every time a new FWD vehicle hits the showroom. I detect a politically correct grudge against anything that could be accomplished under Nazi rule.

        Ganz may have been pioneer, but the big manufacturers were not interested and the Nazis gave Porsche the R&D budget to greatly improved upon the concept of people’s car.

        The politically or religiously correct viewpoint of giving Ganz or Ludwinka the lions share for the final KdF Beetle falls flat, if you’ve ever turned a wrench on an air-cooled VW.

        Pick up some wrenches, and disassemble the Rheimspiess flat four. You’ll notice the placement of the valves necessitates only four cam lobes for four cylinders. The shroud design above the motor allows for the displacement of heat via an oil cooler. The oil pump is driven by the rear of the camshaft. Oil galleys are designed, to by-pass the oil cooler when the engine is cold. It is all very Porsche.

        My question: Is Schilperoord mechanically inclined enough to notice how differently two vehicles are bolted to together to ascertain what was accomplished by Porsche’s team?

        Below is an example of what Ganz developed – which is bolted together very differently than a Type 1 Beetle:

        Ganz’s rear suspension looks to be more from a Corvette than a VW. Also, Rabe’s team at VW abandoned the nasty 2 stroke approach for a cheapened 4 stroke. I say cheapened because, for a 4 stroke, it is very much a third world design.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s not a question of being politically correct, it’s a question of getting history right, particularly after, with apologies to Godwin, the Nazis tried to rewrite history. Ganz was not a minor figure in the German automotive scene and he was not the only Jewish automotive personage whom the Third Reich tried to make a non-person.

        In the case of Siegfried Marcus the Nazi regime actually rewrote history:

        Marcus was removed from German Encyclopedias as the inventor of the modern car, under a directive from the German Ministry for Propaganda during the Second World War. His name was replaced with the names of Daimler and Benz.

        Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda Geschäftszeichen. S 8100/ 1

        Berlin W8, den 4. Juli 1940 Wilhelmplatz 8-9

        An die Direktion der Daimler-Benz-A.G. Stuttgart-Untertürkheim

        Betrifft: Eigentlichen Erfinder des Automobils Auf Ihr Schreiben vom 30. Mai 1940 Dr.Wo/Fa.

        Das Bibliographische Institut und der Verlag F.A. Brockhaus sind darauf hingewiesen worden, dass in Meyers Konversations Lexikon und im Großen Brockhaus künftig nicht Siegfried Marcus, sondern die beiden deutschen Ingenieure Gottlieb Daimler und Carl Benz als Schöpfer des modernen Kraftwagens zu bezeichnen sind.

        In the case of Ganz, he was harassed, arrested by the Gestapo and even pursued after fleeing Germany.

        I’ll put it this way. Ganz deserves mention in the history of the VW Beetle more than some Italian designers who have taken credit for it deserve mention in the history of Lamborghini Miura.

        In most good histories of the Beetle, the subject of Tatra, Ledwinka and the Mercedes 130h come up in terms of how much they did or didn’t influence Ferd. Porsche’s final design. I think Ganz should be included in that discussion.

        I’m reading Paul Schilperoord’s book on Ganz now, and I’m interested to see if he overstates his case. So far he’s mentioned a number of other German small car designs that share some design or layout similarities with the Beetle, so it’s not like he’s saying that Ganz was the only one to advocate such a design. I should note, since you raised the issue of religion, that Schilperoord, who more than anyone else has championed Ganz’s cause, is not Jewish. He’s Dutch and currently lives in Italy.

        BTW, I almost always mention the Mini and Sir Alec when discussing the transverse FWD layout. There’s a ’63 Mini Cooper less than 100′ from where I sit.

      • 0 avatar

        The Issigonis Mini was an evolutionary dead end too in one key aspect: The transmission-in-sump design. The 1967 SIMCA 1100 was the true forerunner of today’s transverse-engine FWD cars, with transmission mounted inline to the crankshaft, and separate lubrication systems for engine/transmission. The Mini’s unit engine/transmission design (with shared lubrication) was more akin to that of a motorcycle, a design shared with the Lamborghini Miura.

    • 0 avatar

      I think a strong parallel could be drawn between the development of the VW and the NAZI occupation of Czechoslovakia.

      Anyway – nice to see such stunning cars discussed and remembered. Although they were made into the 80s (?).

    • 0 avatar

      My question: Is Schilperoord mechanically inclined enough to notice how differently two vehicles are bolted to together to ascertain what was accomplished by Porsche’s team?

      Paul’s a graduate engineer who has written extensively on cars and technology.

      BTW, Ganz was working as a consultant to Mercedes-Benz at the same time that they were developing the 120 and 130H. Ganz had also been in discussions with Zundapp before they developed their own rear engined small car. The rear engined M-Bs and Zundapp have both been mentioned as possible antecedents of the Beetle. If they deserve mention in the Volkswagen’s story, so too, does Ganz.

  • avatar

    As much as I applaud vehicle museums trying to get it all “right”, none ever will. There have been too many companies over the years that have either gotten it right or wrong, depending on the critic. As much as I hate to point this post out, by Sir Car Show, who apparently knows the worst 50 cars of all TIME, everyone has their own opinion, and not all are proven or legitimate. Therefore a TRUE car or truck museum can never happen, everyone has their opinions on what the best cars are, from all over the world, and they vary greatly.,28757,1658545,00.html

  • avatar

    I’ve long been a fan of Tatra’s. I was first exposed to a Tatraplan sitting in carport in Seattle in the 80’s. Later in the 90’s I went to Czechoslovakia (still one country) and had the opportunity to see quite a few but never take a ride. The motors were a work of art. If Alfa Romeo ever decided to design an rear-engine car, it would have been a Tatra.

  • avatar

    Darn, maybe it’s just me, but that split rear window on that Black Vdub is way cool.

    Yeppa bring it back or do away with it altogether with backup camera. Enough volken/folks tint for privacy so don’t tell me there wouldn’t be takers.

    My memory bias tends to frame Ferdinand for building tanks & big guns for
    – der debt juggernaut that had to invade and pillage for survival.

  • avatar

    Remember also who ended up occupying eastern Europe after WW2. The Soviets had no interest in “corrupt Capitalism” and its designs. The Russians also had a long-standing mutual disregard for the Czechs. I would imagine the vast majority of Tatra’s pre-war machines were scrapped and sent east for their raw materials.

    Preservation of anything beyond Mother Russia was far from the minds of Stalin’s men.

    • 0 avatar

      When the Soviets saw something they wanted, they tended to rip off either the design or some cases brought home the production line from the shop floor.

      Take for example the 1937 – 1940 Opel Kadett, which was General Motor’s first. uni-body. entry level car:

      • 0 avatar

        Incidentally, the Kadett development was led by Heinz Nordhoff, who ended up managing VW for nearly 20 years, from 1948 to 1967. He led the rise of the Beetle, though he never saw the need to change the formula, and VW was highly dependent on the by-then technically obsolete Beetle when he died in 1967.

    • 0 avatar

      Tatra was a big seller in the USSR, the heavy construction trucks, not the cars. Tatra trucks were best at handling harsh Siberian conditions.

      Tatra cars post war were never produced in large numbers. They were the large “luxury” sedan for government officials including party bosses and factory managers.

  • avatar

    The split back window of that beetle reminds me of Darth Vader’s eyes sockets… the black color of the car helped too.

    Funny that someone who works in a Volkswagen museum did not know (at all) about Tatras. Did the fact that Dr. Porsche used Tatra as an inspiration for his famous beetle not common knowledge among VW employees? Or is it hush-hush inside VW?

    Speaking of the museum, do they have a tiger tank?

  • avatar

    Tatra sued Porsche, who was amiable to a settlement. But the suit was `dropped` just after the nazi`s invaded czechoslovakia. Volkswagen reportedly settled in the late 1960`s for millions of marks.

  • avatar

    Hello there,

    I’d like to comment on the last “post”.

    In 1995 I visited Wolfgang Schmarbeck, the biographer of Hans Ledwinka. Although he was already in his 70’s he was a vivid, world citizin and we talked a lot about Tatra and his view on the history and the development of the “people’s car”. Wolfgang Schmarbeck owned a 1958 Tatra 603-1 which was stated in the museum “fur Aerodynamische Fahrzeuge” in Mogglingen im Schwabische Alp. Because of his eye-disease he wanted to sell his Tatra.

    I bought that car in 1996 and we had more conversations during the sales, also we wrote a few letters and his beautiful handwriting stroke me every time when I received a letter from him. One of the most special persons I ever met. And also his wife

    Back to the topic;

    In the biography of Hans Ledwinka (Schmarbeck was a close friend of Erich Ledwinka, his son) is stated that in 1965 (12th of august, Karlsruhe) 1 million DM was paid to Tatra (page 174) for the patents stole bij Hermann Goering in 1939 after annexing Sudeten Deutschland.

    When I asked him about this matter he was reluctant. After a few drinks he stated that he considered: Porsche was a clown, he much more admired Felix Wankel, Hans Glass oder Ettore Bugatti (and Andre Levebvre)as really orignal designers of car concepts. Schmarbeck didn’t only wrote about Tatra. He wrote about many other marks like Peugeot, Bugatti.

    Than he he said: “one of my best friends was also the lawyer of Volkswagen in lawsuit between Tatra and Volkswagen”. Wolfgang Schmarbeck was already writing the biography. He expected that this friend/lawyer would give him details about the content of this proces. But that friend refused. It was too political he said to Schmarbeck. Schmarbeck was dissapointed. He really had expected to learn more. But no additional information was not given.

    Maybe someone can figure out now what was trialed in these days?

    Of course front suspension is leading nowadays. And the engine is in the front. That’s not the point.

    It was VW who put Europe on wheels. But based on what technique?

    Still restoring my 603-1 owned by Wolgang Schmarbeck, step by step.

    Kind regards

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