In for the Long Haul
Established in 1850 as Schustala and Company in the north eastern town of Kopřivnice, Tatra is one of the world’s oldest vehicle manufacturers. Initially a manufacturer of carriages and coaches, by 1891 the company had expanded into railway carriages and in 1897 designed the first motor car in central and eastern Europe and one of the world’s first cars designed for mass production; the Prasident. Only a year after the Prasident debuted, the company produced their first truck.
While the company did go through a few name changes before settling on Tatra in 1926, it remains in Kopřivnice to this day. That the Prasident car is the main feature of the city’s coat of arms speaks volumes for the long connection the town and company have shared.
Today, Tatra is recognized around the world for its various families of large trucks which see extensive use in heavy industry, emergency services and military applications. However, the company has accomplished a great deal between its entry into motor vehicle production in 1897 and the colossal machines which bear its company badge today. Let’s take a look at a few of those accomplishments:
Legends Building Legends
1921 saw the return of Austrian designer Hans Ledwinka to the company, he had left during the First World War and took work with the Austrian company, Steyr.
Ledwinka became a legend among auto designers and one of his best known design concepts is the backbone chassis, a feature which has been at the heart of many Tatra vehicles since the 1920s. This type of chassis is made up of a central load bearing tube on which a series of half axles are mounted; this chassis arrangement allows a vehicle to keep its wheels in better contact with the ground in off road situations. Additionally, the modular nature of the Backbone chassis lends itself well to the addition of extra half axles and wheels without the need to completely redesign it; a feature which has been paying dividends to Tatra for many years.
Ledwinka was also responsible for having a hand in designing the world’s first streamlined and aerodynamic production cars during his time at Tatra. It would not be any form of overstatement to say that Ledwinka and Tatra would likely not have become legends without each other.
Lines and Luxury
The name Prasident for the company’s first motor car would prove prophetic for Tatra as the brand became associated with luxury road cars through the 1920s to the late 1990s. Tatra cars were used to shuttle many dignitaries, both famous and infamous, around over the decades.
With Hans Ledwinka overseeing design work, Tatra introduced the model T77 in 1934. The T77 was the world’s first aerodynamically designed production road car and the beginning of a series of highly streamlined cars which incorporated some very modern features for their day such as rear mounted air cooled engines. This series of refined, aerodynamic and sophisticated cars included the models: V570 (1931 and 1933), T77 (1933-1938), T87 (1936-1950), T97 (1936-1939), T600 (1946-1952) and the T603 (1956-1975).
During the occupation of Czechoslovakia in the Second World War, the T87 gained high popularity among German officers who lauded it for its smooth handling and high speeds on the road; however, the car did not take corners well at high speeds and tended to spin when it was tried. As a result, many German officers lost their lives to the T87 until official orders were issued forbidding them from driving it. In many quarters the car was nicknamed the “Czech Secret Weapon” due to the high number of German officers who died while driving it.
The T97 was at the heart of a drawn out legal case when Hans Ledwinka accused Ferdinand Porsche of copying the T97 extensively when the latter was designing what would become the legendary Volkswagen Beetle. The similarity between the two cars was undeniable and Ledwinka began his legal actions against Porsche prior to Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Though German occupation temporarily put an end to the legal case, it was revived in the post war years and in the early 1960s the case was settled in Tatra’s favor with Volkswagen paying them three million Deutsche Marks in damages.
Tatra Gets Wings
In the midst of the huge range of land vehicles which make up the company’s history, less well known is Tatra’s brief foray into aviation in the mid to late 1930s. Taking on a team of talented aircraft designers and opening an aircraft division between 1934 and 1935, the company briefly built other companies’ aircraft before creating their own original machines.
Particular noteworthy from the company’s aircraft division was the T.101 two place touring aircraft. While only one example of the type was build and it only was flown for roughly a year, it was a year of great achievements.
The T.101 was used in a non stop flight from Prague to Khartoum, Sudan in 1938. It was a flight of 4,340 kilometres and an astounding feat for an aircraft of its class, two place touring aircraft with an engine capacity of 2 to 4 litres, in the time period.
In the same year, the T.101 was used to break the single and two seat altitude records for aircraft of its class.
While the German occupation of World War Two brought a permanent end to Tatra’s own aviation activities, the legacy of the T.101 has lived on in a manner of speaking. In the immediate post war years, the former head of the Tatra aircraft division found himself employed with the Zlín aircraft company and heading the team which would design that company’s legendary and long lived Tréner series of training and sport aircraft.
The genesis of the Tréner line of aircraft is found in the Tatra T.201 of 1937, a sports optimized variation on the T.101 design.
Nationalization and Diversification
In the immediate post war years, Tatra was taken under state control. The state decided that The T600, the follow on to the T97 would be given to the Škoda company to produce so that Tatra could produce heavier vehicles such a busses and trucks.
The early 1950s were a period of transition in more ways than one for the company as it was when trucks began to make up more of the company product line and also when the company made an attempt to break into Formula One auto racing with their model T607 of 1950 and T607-2 of 1953; these remain the only Czech designed cars to have ever been built to Formula One technical specifications.
While Tatra did keep a hand in car production through the 1950s and 1960s with evolving variations on the model T603, it was in the 1950s that their reputation as manufacturer of high quality, and nearly unstoppable, trucks became noticed by the world at large. It was not, however an entirely happy beginning.
The model T111 truck was designed by Hans Ledwinka for use by German forces during the Second World War and when Communist government came to power in Czechoslovakia, Ledwinka was imprisoned on charges of treason and collaboration. He was released in 1951 after five years and promptly left Czechoslovakia, vowing not to work further for Tatra.
In spite of its wartime origins, the T111 is best remembered as being instrumental in the rebuilding of post war eastern Europe. It was rugged, easy to maintain and could successfully traverse some of the harshest terrain; it was particularly highly prized and widely used in Siberia.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Tatra continued designing heavy trucks for civilian and military use which were used widely through eastern Europe and Warsaw Pact friendly nations.
In 1983, they introduced the model T815; a highly versatile and adaptable truck design which brought the company much wider international attention.
The T815 could certainly be considered one of the company’s greatest successes as it has retained popularity and remained enough in demand that variations of it are still produced today in spite of the company adding more modern trucks to its catalog in more recent years.
As with other Tatra trucks, the T815 has seen wide usage in both civilian and military circles; the T815 has also made a mark in motor sport for the company. Czech driver, Karel Loprais, drove to victory in the Paris Dakar Rally six times using a rally modified T815.
The Fall of Socialism and Tatra Today
The fall of socialism marked the end of Tatra’s car producing days. In an over saturated world automobile market and with western built cars finding favour in former Socialist markets, there really wasn’t a place for Tatra cars to get a toehold and the very last car came off the Tatra assembly lines in 1999.
Ceasing car production allowed Tatra to concentrate all of their efforts on heavy trucks and the post Socialist world’s doors were wide open to Tatra and their highly reputable products.
Today, Tatra is still making their trucks at home in Kopřivnice as well as having an assembly line in India.
While Tatra trucks are well known and used extensively around the world, the company’s cars are almost exclusively the territory of collectors and enthusiasts today.
The following links will give you much more information about Tatra, its history, products and activities:
Company website (Czech, English and Russian languages available):
Link to Tatra’s official website
Tatra Technical Museum in Kopřivnice:
Link to Tatra Technical Museum
This is a great site dedicated to Tatra’s streamlined car series:
Link to tatraplan.co.uk
To get a further insight into Tatra’s aviation activities, you’ll do well to visit this site:
Link to aviators.cz