By on January 5, 2008

The dorsal fin is what put it over the top for me, literally. When I was a tyke of six in Austria, I ogled cars like a fifteen year old with X-ray vision at a cheerleading camp. But the most tataliscous bod my eyes could never get enough of was the Tatra down the street. Its radical aerodynamic form was already twenty years old, but with its dorsal fin, tear-drop shape, rear engine and uncompromising fluid lines, the Tatra positively screamed “futuristic” to me then. Hell, it’s still ahead of the times today.

The Tatra 77 of 1934 was as slippery as a politician; its cD (coefficient of drag) of .21 was well below the cD .26 of today’s aero-champ, the Prius. Austrian-born Hans Ledwinka, chief designer/engineer at the Czech firm created a sensation with the 77. Inspired by the automotive aerodynamic principles of Paul Jaray, the brilliant Ledwinka created a truly original vehicle the likes of which had never been seen, not to mention sold.

With its rear air-cooled OHC hemi-head V8 engine, back-bone chassis, all-independent suspension, a central driver’s position and a central headlight that swiveled with the front wheels, the 77 (and its successor 87), inspired awe as well as imitation. I’m looking at you, Mr. 1947 Tucker Torpedo. The Tucker flopped, but another Tatra mini-me went on to become the world’s most popular car: the VW Beetle.

Ferdinand Porsche’s design of the Beetle is a scaled-down version of the Tatra (minus the fin). So much so that after decades of legal battles, VW finally settled and paid 3 million Marks to Tatra in 1961. (Ledwinka’s four-cylinder Tatra 97 was so embarrassingly similar to the VW then under development that the Nazi regime halted its production after their invasion of Czechoslovakia.)

But not the glorious 87. After the Nazis took control of the Tatra factory, they kept the V8 streamliner in production. Thanks to its ability to cruise effortlessly at up to 90mph (with only 75hp), the 97 became the favorite car of high-ranking Nazi officers. It was dubbed the “Autobahnmobil.”

More ominously, the 97 was also 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 banned his top Luftwaffen officers from 97 seat time to forestall the recurring carnage.

After the war, the communist-era planned economy presented serious challenges to Tatra. The T-87 was made for a few years, but the post-war economy was too austere for V8’s. So the smaller T-97 was resurrected and updated. The resulting four-cylinder T-600 Tatraplan was exported to the west in modest numbers (including the object of my childhood obsession) during the early fifties.

But Tatra was not equipped for efficient mass production. After a few years, the communist big-wigs instructed tatra to build them a luxobarge. The dorsal fin gave way to (two) rear windows; the rest of the car was substantially updated. The automaker produced the T-603 from 1955 through 1975.

When my family emigrated to America, I thought I’d left Tatras behind forever. Little did I know that 603’s would develop a huge cult following. The only thing keeping it from being the official car of is the thus-far presumed lack of a pick-up version (“Tatramino”). But a closer inspection of the website reveals the existence of that long-sought Czech Holy Grail. Time to make it official Jalops!

Tatra 603’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 multi-talented 603 was also the star of a highly-camp communist-era promotional infomercial. The 603 shows its hooning prowess, eluding the police with lots of tail-out oversteers and a daring sideways roll down a steep meadow (Youtube: Tatra 603 Happy Journeys Part 1 & Part 2“).

The evergreen 603 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 T-613 successor sported sharp-edged styling by Vignale of Italy. But Ledwinka’s basic formula stayed intact, right through 1996. It was the upscale, high performance corollary to the similarly boxy VW 411. After the fall of Communism, once again, mostly futile efforts were made to sell the 613 in the west, as a BMW competitor.

Recent efforts to revive the boxy T-613 have failed. But with the new-found emphasis on efficiency and aerodynamics, it’s time to dust off those old body dies of the T-77. With a clean turbo-diesel under that dorsal fin, it could be just the ticket back to the future.

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23 Comments on “A Brief Illustrated History of Tatra...”

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I just wrote an email to RF about writing a ‘Blast From The Past’ every couple of weeks.

    Now that I’m reading your recent ditty all I can say is… never mind!

    Great work Paul. Keep up with this and I’ll have to find you an agent.

  • avatar

    Long live the Ass-engined Kafka car!

    Thanks Paul.

  • avatar

    This is the first I `ve heard of the lawsuit between Tatra and VW and I never put together the Tucker/Tatra body style thing. That was really interesting!

  • avatar

    I second that. I also found the Cd fascinating. This is wonderful stuff. the 619 is gorgeous. I first encountered Tatras in Czechoslovakia in 1966. The next time, at the Rockville (MD) annual car show 1993. There were four of them there that year, I think. And finally, at last year’s annual citroen rally in Saratoga Springs, NY. Tatra 603 happy journeys is a hoot.

  • avatar

    The Tatra T77 is my holy grail. I want one. I need one. Badly. There’s not enough cars equipped with tailfins today, that’s for sure. Batman, here I come.

  • avatar

    why have a nice quite clean diesel in a modern version? Hell no only a Porsche GT3 motor would be good enough. In fact if Porsche are doing a sedan, a modern version of this would go down very nicely

  • avatar

    The Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, TN has SEVERAL Tatras. We even got a ride in one similar to the silver one pictured in the article!

    NEAT cars…

    I’ll never be able to afford one so I’ll stick with my ’65 Beetle (Heinz-57 Edition), ’78 VW Westy (Corvair implanted), and dream of being able to own a Flxible Clipper coach… All in due time…

  • avatar

    I like to think that I know a fair amount of automotive history, but I had never heard of Tatra until today, so thanks for sharing! I watched the Happy Journey videos several times over today and sent the link to a friend of mine. I told him that maybe we should have plates made for the front of our cars that read “Happy Journey”. He said, “But no one would probably get the reference” and I said “That’s the whole point!” :P

    Thank you for continuing to share your thoughts and stories here with us. I look forward to each one and have yet to be disappointed.

  • avatar

    Great article Paul. Tatras are right up there in my automotive pantheon, with the Citroen DS and NSU RO 80. I remember first reading about them in Floyd Clymer’s “Treasury of Foreign Cars” as a small boy. Never got to see one in the States. I was in Prague last September and there was an oldtimers car event through town on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Lots of 50s Skodas (cute!) but no Tatras ;-(

  • avatar

    Be sure to use a image search engine like Google pictures to see what else Tatra has been making since the days of their rear-engined cars. They’ve been building railroad equipment I believe and HEAVY all-terrain trucks with independent suspension… That impresses me living in the USA where all the trucks have straight axles.

    If you follow the Dakar Rally you’ve seen a Tatra truck or two racing. No Rally this year according to the news last week. Serious security threats from group(s) related to Al-Queada and yes I mispelled it on purpose.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    Yes, Tatra has been making off-road trucks with all-independent suspension for ages, utilizing the same basic swing-axle technology they first used on the Tatra type 11 of 1923.

  • avatar

    A while back, there was an article about the air-cooled T87 Tatra. I was fascinated enough to start google-ing around and stumbled upon this website of a couple who drove their restored T87 to each of the three oceans that touch North America:

  • avatar

    These guys are crazy! (the ones who drove the Tatra all over the continent). Thanks for the link.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the link to the delightfully silly Happy Journeys. Imagine The Dukes of Hazzard made by East European communists.

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar

    I know I should respect the leather helmet generation, but I think those early pics are horrendous. Rather than marvel at the shape, I just want to go out in my garden and pour salt on slugs. Meh…

  • avatar

    My first sighting of a Tatra was at the Red Boiling Springs, TN Antique car show. It’s held in the fall and always promises alot of variety – customer and antique… We try to go each year.

    A large 6×6 flatbed truck arrived one year carrying an odd pair of cars (odd to me at the time). The first was a tiny French boat tail car from the teens or twenties. The 2nd car was a Tatra (the one I’d eventually ride in at the Lane Motor Museum). All were owned by the LMM.

    I was impressed with the rear engine and the fact that the HUGE truck and the Tatra car were both air cooled – the car was even a V-8! I have always been fascinated with the engineering required to make a good air cooled and/or rear engined car.

    So many topics have to be carefully approached… Porsche has prob made the most of the technology and contributed a good amount themselves.

    There is a book I once saw called “Aircooled Engines” by a Czech fellow. I can’t remember the fellow’s name. It is out of date I think. He reviews the air cooled engines of a long list of airplanes, cars and trucks. The book was written in the early 70’s I think. He discussed a myriad of considerations when designing a good air cooled engines. Lots of cutaway views of these engines.

    A few things an engineer must consider how to:

    -Maintain a stable operating temp (warm up, excess cooling-down during coasting)

    -How to get the most power from the engine in a variety of weather without overheating

    -How to cool multiple cylinders and the oil without heating up the adjoining cylinders

    -How to heat the cabin safely (do YOU want a gasoline powered blower furnace mounted right above the gas tank? Do you even want the gas tank to be mounted up front as found in a Beetle and Fiat and many other rear engined cars?)

    -Noise control with no water jackets to quiet the engine, fins resonating & making noise, aluminum construction vs iron which is quieter, different fit tolerances from water-cooled engines to deal with different expansion and contraction rates of the different engine materials (steel, aluminum, iron)

    -Exhaust systems which must be short because the engine is at the rear of the car, how to rob the exhaust of it’s heat to heat the cabin, how to build it so that it can survive the excessive heat from being so short and so close to the combustion chamber, and how to build it light so it does not contribute to a rear-engined car’s nature desire to over steer.

    -Later how engineers tried to cope with air pollution standards

    -How to style a body to fit around the engine and still look desirable.

    -Ways to have a good ride, safe handling and braking characteristics when so much of the vehicle’s weight is hanging out behind the rear axle.

    Whatever the compromises made I still find myself drawn to these kinds of vehicles. Has anyone heard anything about the small compacts that VW has been showing which have a small watercooled engine in the rear?

    Chris in Cookeville
    ’65 Beetle Heinz-57 Edition 2.0L
    ’78 VW Westfalia 2.7L (Corvair implanted)

  • avatar

    even though i’ve never seen one in the flesh, the tatra 603 is my all time favorite car. my wife gave me a beautiful tatra 603 book for my birthday last year. i grabbed some good photos from a nice example that was on ebay a couple of months back:

  • avatar
    Chopper man

    As I grew up in America I never had the privilege of meeting the Tatra. However I did get introduced to the Chrysler Airflow. Walking home from school, I’d pass an old 1934 Coupe that evoked in my young mind the wonder of the science of aeronautics. The car was semi-abandoned and I often imagined putting an early 331 cu in hemi in it and driving it to high school. I didn’t even know that it was an early unibody car. Unfortunately as America didn’t embrace the Airflow, it has disappeared from the automotive landscape. Thanks for rekindling this childhood memory.


  • avatar

    Of course, the T87 was not only aerodynamic but also quite sturdy. Two Czechoslovak journalists took one of those babies on a trip through Africa and South America – in the late 1940s, so you can imagine what conditions the “roads” were in. You can read about them on this site of the Austrian Broadcasting Service.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the insightful spotlight on the “unknown” Czech cars!

    In Texas, my good friend, albeit eccentric and a very hard-core motorhead, has kinky things for the odd cars. First was Citroën DS, following by numerous American cars from the 1950s, including Nash Statesman and Hudson Hornet (notice the pattern here…flowing bodies).

    After receiving the “ultimatum” from his mum (and perhaps the neighbours or city ordinance enforcement officers), he whitted down the number of cars in his stock and settled down on Hudson and Tatra cars. I wasn’t surprised that he had to sell off but was surprised that he acquired a Tatra. I had never heard of Tatra before. His T-603 is a modified four-eyed variety. He had reportedly acquired another T-603, this time a unmodified three-eyed version.

    Tatra T-603 was the first communist car I ever rode in and drove. Very fascinating car. You cannot just jump in and drive Tatra away for the first time without the specific instructions about using the gearbox. The shift pattern is reversed. The handling is supple for the heavy rear-biased car.

    When I visited Prague for the first time in 1992, I was hard-pressed to spot T-613 as well as other Tatras. Most had disappeared off the Czech streets. I saw some lumbering and thundering Tatra lorries.

    It is pity that Tatra no longer continues with car-manufacturing.

  • avatar

    Hello Oliver,
    Yep those were the days, when I played around with Citroens, Hudsons and Nashes. The two Nashes were the longer Ambassadors, not the short Statesman. The Ambassador had the 234 cubic in overhead valve straight six whereas the Statesman had the rather anemic flathead six of 185 cubic inches. I still have the red Hornet Coupe, sold the 4 headlight T603-2, but still have the unmolested Drei-lampen T603-1. You can add to the bag of oddball vehicles I have owned, I had this really nice Flxible Clipper motorhome conversion till Feb of last year. I happen to know Chris, aka “Joe Average” in TN as well too. Small planet we live on, no?
    Thanks for the nice writeup on Tatras, Herr Neidermeyer. Kenneth Ufheil in Tx (sometimes in Wasenweiler/ Freiburg, Baden- Wuerttemburg)

  • avatar

    Small planet indeed!!!

    Found that book I mentioned above –

    Julius Mackerle: Air-Cooled Automobile Engines, The Institute of Mechanical Engineers, London 1961-2

    Occasionally one appears on various book websites for cheap. Then there are the $500 copies always available. Good read. LOTS of detail. Perhaps they are more common on UK book reseller sites?

  • avatar

    In case you haven’t heard, a 1941 Tatra, still driven by its 55 year old owner in Los Angeles, won the New York Times 2010 Collectible Car of the Year Contest this past July. The winner and 30 finalists were chosen by readers of the online Automobiles pages.
    (I think that registration to the Times is required to read the article.)

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