Historic Car Brands
Nesselsdorf, the company that later became Tatra, made its first car, the Präsident, under the direction of engineers Hans Ledwinka and Edmund Rumpler. It was exhibited in 1897 in Vienna and in the next two years, nine improved cars based on Präsident were made.
1897 Prasident First Car – Kapitan T
The first car to be totally designed by Ledwinka came in 1900 with the Type A that had a rear-mounted 2.7-litre engine and a top speed of 40km/h. Around 22 units were built before the Type B with central engine arrived in 1902.
Ledwinka left the company to concentrate on steam engine development, but returned in 1905 with the design of a completely new car.
Nesselsdorf Type S – G Wafton
The Type S had a 3.3-litre, four-cylinder engine that was a progressive design, featuring an overhead camshaft and hemispherical combustion chambers. The water-cooled engine was mounted at three points and the engine block had large service access doors. The engine with the gearbox formed one monoglot unit.
The gearbox had two ring gears with teeth on their inside surfaces and different ratios were created by moving three internal gears radially. The rear axle was driven by a drive shaft in lieu of chains.
The S4 was joined in 1910 by an S6, six-cylinder model that was achieved by simply adding two cylinders. The S4 and S6 were able to reach maximum speeds of 80km/h and 100 km/h, which was rapid for the time.
The S4 18/24 and 16/20 models developed 20hp and the S4 20/30 had 30hp. The S6 40/50 produced 50hp. The total production of both models was 74 units.
Production was badly hit in 1912 with a 23-week strike.
In 1916, Ledwinka (above, right) was offered a directorship at Steyr, where he remained until 1921. When he returned to Nesseldorf the company became ‘Závody Tatra’ two years later and ‘Ringhoffer-Tatra’ in 1927.
1923 Tatra Chassis T11 – Kapitan T
After his return, Hans Ledwinka’s first product was the revolutionary Tatra 11. The new car, launched in 1923, featured a rigid backbone tube with swinging half-shaft-axles at the rear giving independent suspension. The engine, front-mounted, was an air-cooled, two-cylinder unit, displacing 1056cc.
1924 Tatra T11
The Tatra 11 was replaced in 1926 by the similar Tatra 12 which had four-wheel brakes and a four-cylinder engine. A further development was the 1926 Tatra 17 with a 1930cc, water-cooled, six-cylinder engine and fully independent suspension.
Ledwinka’s concept was to progress his small-car designs, but management wanted his ideas put into luxury cars of a technically advanced nature.
In the 1930s, with protection provided by high tariffs and the absence of foreign assemblers, Tatra began building advanced, streamlined cars, after obtaining licences from Paul Jaray, the car-streamlining pioneer.
Tatra 77 – KapitanT
In 1934 came the large Tatra 77, the world’s first production aerodynamic car. The average drag coefficient of a 1:5 model of the fastback Tatra 77 was recorded as 0.2455. As with almost all subsequent big Tatras, it featured a rear-mounted, air-cooled V8 engine.
The 60hp 3.0-litre air-cooled V8 engine was later increased in size to a 75hp 3.4-litre version and both had overhead valves, hemispherical combustion chambers and dry sumps.
The Tatra 77 had a platform chassis, with a pressed box-section and steel backbone, rather than Tatra’s trademark tubular chassis. It had fully independent suspension and extensive use of lightweight magnesium alloy for the engine, transmission, suspension and body.
Tatra 87 – Hilarmont
The Tatra 87 was further development of the 87’s three-litre, with overhead camshafts that helped lift output to 85hp. Because of its slippery shape the 87 could easily achieve 12.5L/100km fuel consumption, while able to reach nearly 160km/h.
Parallel with its streamlined large cars, Tatra produced smaller machines. The Tatra 30, 52, 54 and 75 models had front-mounted, air-cooled boxer-four engines and swing-axle, independent rear suspension.
1931 Tatra 54 – Auta-5P
The Tatra 97 of 1936 was an about-face of the previous small Tatra designs. It had an air-cooled, four-cylinder, 1.8-litre, boxer engine, but it was located in the rear.
As a result of the similarity between the 97 and Ferdinand Porsche’s ‘Beetle’, Tatra launched a lawsuit against VW, but this ended when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. At the same time, Tatra was forced to stop producing the T97.
Tatra T97 – Dave7
The matter was re-opened after World War II and in 1965 Volkswagen paid Tatra one million Deutschmarks in an out-of-court settlement.
However, Tatra’s precedent over Volkswagen was itself preceded by designs of Hungarian automotive engineer, Bela Barenyi, whose sketches resembling the Volkswagen date back to the 1920s.
After the 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany, Tatras were kept in production, largely because Germans liked the cars. Many German officers died in car accidents caused by driving the heavy, rear-engined Tatras faster around corners than they could handle.
At the time, as an anecdote, Tatra became known as the ‘Czech Secret Weapon’ for the scores of officers who died behind the wheel. At one point, official orders were issued, forbidding German officers from driving Tatras.
Tatra produced trucks and tank engines for the German World War II effort and, after the War, Hans Ledwinka was jailed for five years in Czechoslovakia, for perceived collaboration. After his release in 1951, he refused to work for Tatra, and retired to Munich, where he died in 1967.
Tatra T600 Tatraplan – Asterion
The factory was nationalised in 1945 and although production of pre-War models continued, a new model, the Tatra 600 Tatraplan was released in 1948. In 1951, the State planning department decided that the Tatraplan would be built at the Škoda plant in Mladá Boleslav, leaving Tatra free to concentrate on trucks, buses and railway equipment.
In 1953, amid much dissatisfaction among Communist party leaders with the poor-quality official cars imported from Russia, Tatra was again given permission to produce a luxury car, the Tatra 603.
Much like Tatra’s prewar cars, it was driven by a rear-mounted, air-cooled V8 and had the company’s trademark aerodynamic styling. The Tatra 603 initially featured three headlights and American-style, thick chrome-plated bumpers with ‘bullets’.
Tatra T603 – Asterion
Almost entirely hand-built, Tatras were reserved for the Communist Party elite and industrial officials or were exported to most other communist nations as official state cars. Notably, Cuban President Fidel Castro had a white Tatra 603, custom-fitted with air conditioning.
Tatra 603s were built until 1975, although not all vehicles built were actually new. In exchange for a newer model year car, the older vehicle was returned to the factory. There, it was upgraded to current model year specifications, refinished and sent out again as a putatively new vehicle to replace another older T603. This makes it difficult to trace the history of surviving vehicles.
1976 Tatra T613 – Dave 7
In 1968 came the Tatra 613 that was styled by Vignale with a more modern, less rounded shape, but it didn’t enter production until 1973. Although the layout remained the same, the body was all new and the 3.5-litre engine had been moved forward for less rear-axle weight bias. It had four overhead camshafts and an output of 165hp. Some 11,000 613 cars were built in five series, with several modifications, until production ceased in 1996.
The Tatra 700 was released in 1996 by Tatra and was essentially a heavily restyled version of the Tatra 613. The T700 was offered as a saloon or coupé, with either a 3.5-litre or 4.4-litre, air-cooled V8 petrol engine. However, only around 70 were produced.
The T700 was the last passenger car made by Tatra when production stopped in 1999. At this point, Tatra abandoned automobile manufacturing in order to concentrate on truck design and manufacture.