The Tatra is a Czech factory of lorries, enough known in the Western countries, but till the 1998 it produced also very refined cars. Differently from the other Eastern cars (and like the early Skoda models, another symbol of the outstanding Czech automotive tradition), the Tatra had original technical and stylistic features (instead, the Russian "cousins" ZIL -another brand of luxury cars- were simply copies of American models, with their V8 engines of big displacement). On this page, i will describe the main models of this brand. For more informations, i suggest the beautiful sites http://www.tatra.demon.nl , www.tatraworld.nl and www.autohistories.com/ (some pic is taken from these sites).
The beginnings, the early "streamlined" models, and...the ancestors of the VW Beetle!
The Tatra's automotive history starts in the 1897 (another sign of the great tradition of this brand), but the origins are even of the 1850, when the founder, Ignaz Schustala, builds a factory of train wagons, the NW ("Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau"), in the city of Nesselsdorf (during that time, the city was part of the Austrian empire). The first NW car was the "President" (first pic above), with a Benz twin-cylinder engine, 2700 cc (!), placed rear, with chain drive; max speed 35 km/h. The following realizations had self-made engines (not more from external suppliers), as on the "Type U" of the 1914 (second pic), with a very advanced six-cylinders unit, SOHC, liquid cooled. This car was probably also the first car in the history with brakes on all the four wheels! In the 1919, the Austrian empire falls; the Czechoslovakia was founded, and the Nesselsdorfer-Wagenbau finally becames Tatra (from the name of the local mounts). In the third pic above, the "T11", with a front twin-flat engine, air-cooled, essential and cheap. The car in the fourth pic above is of the 1925: the "T17", classic in line-six-cylinders (on this car, the supercharger and even air suspensions were experimented!). Many other models were produced, with an oustanding variety: with two, four or six cylinders engines, in line or "flat", placed front, centrally or rear!
After the excellent realizations of the years 20's, in the early '30s the Tatra launchs the "streamlined" style, with the "T-77" model (first pic above), very important because it was the first aerodynamic car builted in great series! The car, engineered by the genial Hans Ledwinka (that realized many other Tatra cars), introduced the typical Tatra layout, maintained till the end of the production (V8 rear engine, air cooled). The following version, called "T-77 A" (second pic above), had a 3400 cc engine, for a max speed of 150 km/h, an outstanding speed at that time. The steering wheel was placed centrally, in order to give a wide visual field, and the rear engine allowed to obtain a very small and aerodynamic front part: the Cx was 0, 21 (maybe not real, anyway not far from the reality), better than several newer cars! Moreover, the car had a third headlight, placed centrally, and capable of turning in the same direction of the steering wheel!
In the 1936, another beautiful car was launched: the "T-87" (three pics above), broadly improved in comparison with the previous model, with a weight reduced of 400 kg (thanks to the engine realized in aluminium), more powerful engine (3000 cc, but with the same power of the bigger "T-77" engine), improved balancing (a lack of the previous car). Because of the shorter coachwork, the aerodynamic was worser than the "T77" (Cx=0, 36), anyway it was always oustanding for that period. The max speed was 160 km/h. For my personal opinion, because of the advanced and "streamlined" coachwork, this car can be recognized as a car from the years '50s...instead, it's from the '30s!
Moreover, it seems that the Tatra influenced the realization of the famous VW "Beetle"! In the first pic above, there is the Tatra "T97" of the 1936, equipped with a rear flat-four engine, air-cooled...do you have already seen this technical layout? Unfortunately, after the invasion of the Czechoslovakia by the Nazist army, the remonstrances of the Tatra against the Volkswagen were repressed, and the production of the "T97" (whose engine was with SOHC, 1700 cc, 40 hp for 130 km/h) was personally stopped by Hitler. The prototype in the second and third pics, called "V570", realized some year before (1931-33), is even more surprising: the engine was always air-cooled with opposite pistons (although with only two cylinders, not four), and the resemblence with the Beetle is spine-chilling! It seems that the VW, in order to terminate the diatribe, paid 3.000.000 DM to the Tatra, in the 1961. The engineer Hans Ledwinka, instead, never was indemnified for the illegal use of the patents: on the contrary, he was even imprisoned by the Russians for 5 years, accused of collaboration with the Germans!! He died in relative obscurity in the 1967. This history is very similar to the creation of the telephone...Meucci was the real inventor, but Bell got the merit!
In the 1946, the Russians takes the control of the Tatra factory, and the brand was nationalized. In the 1948, the "T600" or "Tatraplan" (first, second and third pics) was launched. Partially derived from the "T97", it's equipped with a four-cylinders, 2000 cc, 50 hp, always placed on the rear. The balancing of the car become almost perfect (45% front, 55% rear), and the roadholding was improved: indeed, also a sport version with two doors, called "Tatraplan Montecarlo", was realized (fourth pic).
Moreover, from the "Tatraplan", also a very beautiful cabriolet version was obtained (three pics above), realized by the Sodomka body shop. The exemplar in the third pic was given to Stalin as birthday's gift: the best things to the worst men! A little curiosity: in the third pic, behind the car, there is a strange vehicle, with blue/white coachwork and...ski in the place of the wheels! It's the "Aeroluge" of the 1942, an "hybrid" between a car, a snowbike and an "hovercraft" (the vehicle is powered by an helix on the rear...it's better to beware of the rear part, there is the risk to be "affected"!), used by the German Wehrmacht for the transport on the snow.
The years '50-'60
After another stop of the production, imposed by the Czech government in order to increase the production of lorries, another beautiful and original car was launched in the 1957: the "T603" (first, second and third pics, and also in the opening pic), produced till the 1975, in a new plant located in the city of Pribor. It was equipped with a new eight-cylinders engine, air-cooled, 2500 cc, 105 hp. This car was awarded in the West Germany because of the refined and original design, characterized by the three headlights behind a glass screen. On the following versions, the front was redesigned, and four headlights were fitted. Still now, the car has an outstanding fashion: i have seen it even in a videoclip of the rock-band Placebo, where the car is "dismounted" with the computer, and even in a spot of a famous brand of chewing-gum!
In the 1964, a possible evolution of the "T603" was realized: the "T603 A" (first, second and third pics above, also an ambulance version). The engine was the same of the "T603", but the coachwork was totally new, similar to the Chevrolet "Corvair". Another evolution of the "T603" was realized in the 1967: the "T603 X" (fourth and fifth pics above), with a look similar to the NSU "RO 80", realized by the Italian "SI Design". However, these updating were rejected, and a totally new project was deliberated: the "T613".
Racing cars (and the Tatra F.1!)
The Tatra realized also some interesting racing car. From the "Tatraplan", the Tatra engineers obtained the car in the first, second and third pics above: the "T-602" or "Tatraplan Sport", realized for the GP of Czechoslovakia of the 1949, with an aluminium coachwork that covers the rear wheels, max speed 225 km/h. In the 1950, instead, even a F.1 car was realized (!), the "T-607" (fourth, fifth and sixth pics), with 200 hp. Both these cars were equipped with the pre-production engines of the sedan "T603" (V8, 2500 cc); indeed, they were also a way to test the new engines destined to the mass production.
In the two pics above, other two unknown cars. The car in the first pic above, called Tatra "Delfin", was realized in the 1963, and it had an in-line four-cylinder engine, obtained from the half of the V8 of the "T603". The second car, instead, called Tatra "T605", was realized some year before, in the 1956: it was equipped with a little 650 cc. twin-cylinder engine, the opposite of the big Czech eight-cylinders! I don't have other data: if you know more about these two cars, please contact me!
From the years '70s to the end of the automotive production
In the 1973, after 5 years of tests, the new "T613" was launched (in the first pic above, one of the early mock-up, and in the second, third and fourth pics, the definitive model). Designed by Vignale (differently from the previous models, all designed in Tatra), it had the classic V8 engine, increased to 3500 cc, DOHC, 166 hp and 200 km/h of max speed (differently from the "T603", the engine was placed over the rear axle, not behind). The car had a modern and elegant design, and, although the typical '70s shape, different from the soft design of the "streamlined" models, it was a pleasant model. Also a coupè version (fifth pic) was realized, but it never entered in production: a shame!
The roadholding was improved, because of new suspensions, and the quality remained high (the price of the limousine version was approximately like over 60.000 EU). The following versions (in the four pics above, with a cabrio version) received several improvements, as electronic injection, catalyzer, modifications to the front part, etc., but the base remained unchanged till the end of production. I have seen a "T613" during a travel in the 1998, in the center of Prague: the car was in a bad state, but the sound of engine was still incredible. Try to imagine a mid-way between the muttering of an American V8 engine and the sharp sound of a Porsche six-flat: for 30 seconds, i was bewitched!
In the 1993, the Czech "Metalex" tuner realized the car in the three pics above: the "MTX-01", sport interpretation of the classic Tatra engine. The V8 unit was fitted centrally, in two tuned versions: 3500 or 4000 cc (220 or 300 hp). It had a very good look..and the "sound", probably, was egually enthusiasting! Also this car was a proof of the validity of the Tatra engines.
In the '90s, with the post-communist crisis, the Tatra's automotive production enters in the final period of life. In the 1996, the last evolution of the "T613" was launched: the "T700", in the four pics above. It was strictly derived from the previous model, but with several improvements: the engine, with electronic injection, was boosted up to 200 hp, the coachwork was updated (in collaboration with an English design center), and all the interiors were changed. The equipment was outstanding: electric seats (Recaro-type or in leather), automatic climatization with differentiation between front and rear seats, and there was, in option, the choice of an integrated system for TV-VCR, fax, PC and telephone. The car was more pleasant than the "T613", with a front part that reminds the pre-'70s aerodynamic models. Although the dated project (but not more dated than a Jaguar XJ...), it was an elegant and rich car.
From the "T700", also a special racing coupè version (first, second and third pics above), realized by the "Ecorra" tuning factory, with aluminium coachwork, engine increased to 4500 cc, over 400 hp and 316 km/h!! The car, intended only for the competitions, never had an effect on the normal production: a shame, because the look was very aggressive! But the Tatra factory was already in a bad situation, with a number of production near to the 100 cars per year: too limited, even for a partially handicraft factory as the Tatra. Moreover, the "T700" was produced in only 69 exemplars in the 1996: an humiliation, in comparison with the over 22.000 "T603" produced between the 1957 and the 1975. After a ridicolous attempt with the "Beta" (fourth pic), a light truck with Hyundai 1.3 engine and Skoda gearbox (!), the factory located in Pribor was closed, and the automotive production was definitively stopped. Now, Tatra continues only the production of lorries.
Anyway, cars like the "Tatraplan" shown that "Eastern car" is not necessarily a definition of badly-assembled, cheap and rough car. On the contrary, for the Tatra it's synonym of elegant and exotic car, little known, but original and "different". I hope that this brand will resurrect in future, to compete with Mercedes and BMW: in comparison with these cars, the Tatra were fully worthy, maybe even more original and advanced than the German cars!
Some pic taken from http://www.tatra.demon.nl , www.tatraworld.nl , www.autohistories.com/