"Show Me Your Tatras": An Argument For Automotive Preservation

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Readallover Readallover on Sep 18, 2011

    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.

    • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Sep 18, 2011

      The settlement took place in 1961 and was 3 million marks. I believe that it was mostly over engine designs. Porsche admitted "looking over the shoulder" of Ledwinka.

  • Pim Pim on Sep 23, 2011

    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 Pim

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  • Michael Gallagher I agree to a certain extent but I go back to the car SUV transition. People began to buy SUVs because they were supposedly safer because of their larger size when pitted against a regular car. As more SUVs crowded the road that safety advantage began to dwindle as it became more likely to hit an equally sized SUV. Now there is no safety advantage at all.
  • Probert The new EV9 is even bigger - a true monument of a personal transportation device. Not my thing, but credit where credit is due - impressive. The interior is bigger than my house and much nicer with 2 rows of lounge seats and 3rd for the plebes. 0-60 in 4.5 seconds, around 300miles of range, and an e-mpg of 80 (90 for the 2wd). What a world.
  • Ajla "Like showroom" is a lame description but he seems negotiable on the price and at least from what the two pictures show I've dealt with worse. But, I'm not interested in something with the Devil's configuration.
  • Tassos Jong-iL I really like the C-Class, it reminds me of some trips to Russia to visit Dear Friend VladdyPoo.