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Tatra Cars
Country of car origin : Czechoslovakia
First Car : 1897
Brief History of Tatra 



You could be forgiven for associating this  marque with other more proletarian Czech marques like the humble SKODA's of the recent past, but you couldn't be further from the truth.

But for a quirk of fate which left the company stranded behind the Iron curtain they could have been a major player in the European car scene. Sadly they are not likely now to ever be a major manufacturer of cars again, but they have left us with a remarkable legacy of highly advanced trend setting vehicles.

The origins of the present Tatra a.s.company go way back to the year 1850. It was in that year  Ignác Sustala [1822 - 1891], founded a factory producing buggies and carriages in the small Moravian village of Koprivince, then called Nesseldorf.

During the first years of it's existence there was a large interest in the factory from all over Europe and overseas countries because of it's technical innovation and high quality of workmanship. After buying a whole range of patents Ignác Sustala was able to support the production of the carriages for many years.

In 1881 Sustala initiated production of rail car parts, intended for the developing rail transport system in Europe. A preliminary batch of 15 wagons was soon followed by numerous orders which increased the production to several hundred units of a range of designs by 1885. Because of this intensive growth of the factory the family enterprise was converted into a limited stock company. 1891 saw the death of the factory's founder, which meant the end of the first era of the company.

Like foreseeing the enormous marketing potential of early rail cars, the company foresaw the rise motor car.

In 1897 the first car rolled out of the Koprivnive factory, the "Präsident". This car was the first passenger car in Central Europe, and was built only a short time after Karl Benz introduced his petrol-driven engine car. The "Präsident" was equipped with one of Benz's two-cylinder 2.75 litre engines.

In 1905 Hans Ledwinka, started work on a new automobile. The design for this new car, the S4 and S6 models with four- and six-cylinder engines, was very modern and progressive with overhead valves , overhead camshaft  and a hemispherical combustion chamber.

As a result of the success of both S-types, NW introduced the even more successful type T and U models with respectively four- and six-cylinder engines in 1914.

Both models were based on the previous models, but the type U was now fitted with four-wheel brakes (probably the first production car in the world with four-wheel brakes).


In 1921 Hans Ledwinka directed the design of a new automobile for the masses. The new car would have to be adapted to the poor roads in Eastern-Europe, meet the needs of customers, be simple to operate and maintain and have a good fuel-economy. The new design used a front-mounted horizontally opposed air-cooled two-cylinder boxer engine of 1056 cc and 12 HP giving the car a top speed of 60-70 km/h. The car used a central tube chassis with rear swinging half axles. After thorough testing the new model, the TATRA T11, was introduced at the Prague Autosalon in 1923.

The concept of the TATRA T11 and T12 developed into a range of successful designs using four-cylinder engines, including the TATRA T30, T52, T54, T57 and T75. The engine used in the TATRA T30, a horizontally opposed flat four-cylinder air-cooled engine, is supposedly the first engine of such a design in the world.

TATRA was also working on more luxurious automobiles fitted with water-cooled six- and twelve-cylinders engines. These cars, the TATRA T70 and T80, were fitted with dual circuit hydraulic brakes, another first in the auto industry.


In the early 1930's Tatra engineers, led by director Hans Ledwinka (1878 - 1967) and design engineer E. Übelacker, started working on a small streamlined car with a rear-engine layout in a backbone frame. Patents of the scientifically established streamlining principles of Dr. Paul Jaray were used for the body design and flowing of the cooling air for the engine. The first prototype, which was completed in 1931, used a two-cylinder air-cooled engine placed in the rear.

In 1933 Tatra engineers presented the rear-engined Tatra V570 prototype. This car, although based on the 1931 prototype, was much more sophisticated then it's predecessor. Although the V570 never made it into production, it was used as a study object for the streamlining era which was to come at Tatra.

With the results of the 1931 and 1933 Tatra prototypes work, started at Tatra on an automobile design that would shock the motoring world. This car was first presented to the world in 1934 and was  the Tatra T77.


The 1933 V570 prototype was used by Tatra engineers as a study model for a new direction in automobile construction and styling. They aimed at keeping up a level with the contemporary progress in the fields of new technology, architecture and the visual arts. The new car should be established on a rear-engined air-cooled layout with an aerodynamically efficient body. These ideas were based on the studies and scientific papers of Dr Paul Jaray who designed and tested streamlined automobiles in the wind-tunnel of the German Zeppelin works.

The car required would have to be fast, silent, stable, economical and built to the most rigorous engineering standards and also reflect modern aerodynamic research. Ledwinka was very unstinting in his belief that an air-cooled rear-mounted engine would bring with it several big advantages like reducing efficiency loss in the drive shaft and noise and vibration caused by the drive shaft. No drive shaft also meant a more comfortable passenger compartment as there would be no central floor tunnel and the passengers would be able to sit fairly low and well forward of the rear axle. This meant a lower centre of gravity and a more favourable inter-axle weight distribution. Mounting the engine in the rear would mean shortening the front part of the body to make a longer tail possible, which was consistent with the laws of aerodynamics.

Tatra T77 prototype The first prototype of the new aerodynamic Tatra concept was constructed in 1933, named the type T77.

Although it was only a pre-production prototype Tatra did print a brochure for this car in 1933 with descriptions, pictures and technical specifications. The car was equipped with a rear-mounted air-cooled 90 degree V8 engine with a cylinder capacity of 2970 cc and a power output of 60 hp @ 3500 rpm. The engine transmitted its power to the driven rear wheels by means of a four-speed gearbox, bolted together with the engine and the axle drive as one  monoblock. This monoblock was enclosed by the forked welded box frame of the chassis, which also housed the gear-change rods, cables and fuel lines. The monoblock could be easily removed from the car for repairs .

Tatra T77

The T77 was introduced to the press on March 5th, 1934, in Prague. The T77 was a real sensation, overtaking the world's motor car industry by several decades. Shortly after its introduction in Prague the T77 was shown at the Berlin Motor Show in 1934 where it was hailed by the motoring press. The T77 was like nothing else available at that time. The body was based on an almost all-steel monocoque construction with timber infill. The wings and headlamps were integrated with the body, running boards were absent, door hinges and handles were set into the body and the underbody was made as smooth as possible. The large tailfin running over the rear end of the car was used to decrease the effects of side winds and increase the road holding, but also had a large contribution in the futuristic image!

On interesting feature  on a few of the T77 models was the steering wheel in the centre of the dashboard. The front seat passengers where seated on either side of the driver and the seats placed slightly back. All other T77's had the steering wheel on the right hand side as they drove on the left-hand side of the road in Czechoslovakia before W.W.II, like in various other European countries. The centre wheel predates the McLaren F1 by some 60 years

In 1935 the T77 was updated and improved in the form of  the T77a. The capacity of the V8 was increased to 3.4 litres.  This increased the output to 75hp and the maximum speed to 150kph. The front now had three headlamps of which the central unit was linked to the steering  making it possible to turn this lamp with the steering. . The smooth body of the T77a gave a coefficient of aerodynamic drag of 0.212. An incredibly low value in the 30's and even today only a few modern prototypes are able to achieve this figure.

Tatra T77

Ledwinka was not entirely satisfied with the T77's handling, caused by it's rather heavy rear weight bias. He started work on a successor to the T77, which was to be less heavy and with  improved weight distribution.

Tatra did just that and in 1936 they introduced the now famous Tatra T87.

The T87 was a radical change to the T77 design, incorporating a large number of improvements.

The aerodynamic body was now shortened into a  monocoque  The only disadvantage of the shortened body was a small loss in aerodynamic efficiency, increasing the coefficient of aerodynamic drag to a value of 0.251

One of the other most significant changes incorporated into the T87 was an improvement on the T77's rather heavy rear weight Bias. The T87 was equipped with a smaller light alloy OHC V8 engine of 2968 cc. In total a 330 kg weight reduction was gained compared to the T77. An engine bore x stroke of 75 x 84 mm and a compression ratio of 5.6:1 gave the engine a power output of 75 hp @ 3500 rpm.

The Tatra T87 was designed and constructed in a time when Czechoslovakia was at the cutting edge of technology, industrial design, architecture and art. Like the T77 the T87 was often associated with modernism and featured in press photographs in front of modern style houses and buildings. The T87 was a perfect example of Czech engineering excellence and industrial design.


During W.W.II the T87 was still being produced in small numbers. The reason that Tatra was able to produce passenger cars during the war was because Dr Fritz Todt, the German general inspector of the Autobahn network, proclaimed that the T87 was the Autobahn car. The German officers loved the T87, despite of the fact that lots of them lost there lives to a T87! Because the Germans drove them very fast lots of them flew out of corners because of the tail snapping out due to the weight of that V8 behind the rear axle. It is said that at one point the German officers were forbidden to drive T87’s under any conditions!

Tatra T87, top, front and rear view

In 1936 Tatra built a prototype of a small mid-sized aerodynamic car with an air-cooled engine in the rear. This car was a sort of a small version of the bigger T87, incorporating aerodynamic design with an air-cooled rear-mounted V8. The T97 however had a flat four-cylinder engine with a capacity of 1761 cc in it's tail.

The T97 was the work of Hans Ledwinka's son Erich, who had followed up Übelacker as chief Tatra car designer in 1936. Erich Ledwinka had already worked on the T87's engine design before starting work on the T97.

Tatra T97It is not difficult to spot the close resemblance between the Tatra T97 and the VW Beetle. For several years, ever since the 1933 Tatra V570 prototype, Ledwinka and Porsche regularly met each other to discuss their automotive work and designs. When the T97 was launched Porsche was working on the KdF-Wagen, the later VW Beetle, for Hitler's promotion purposes. Hitler considered the T97 to be too similar to his KdF-Wagen which was to be produced by the new Volkswagen factory, even though the T97 was listed at more than five and a half times the KdF-Wagen's target selling price. In 1939 the T97, along with the T57, were ordered to be removed from the Tatra stand at the 1939 Berlin Autosalon, because of their close resemblance to the KDF-Wagen. In the late 1930's it became clear VW had used several patents of the Tatra factory. Just before the war Tatra had ten legal claims against VW for infringement of patents. Although Ferdinand Porsche was about to make a settlement with Tatra, he was stopped by Hitler who said he would "solve his problem". Shortly after he invaded Czechoslovakia and gained control over Tatra, stopping the T97's production.

After W.W.II the VW Beetle went on to international stardom selling millions of cars, while Tatra found itself stranded behind the iron curtain producing what the communists ordered them to do. The case of the patents was re-opened after W.W.II and was dragged on for years ending in 1961 when Volkswagen eventually made a settlement paying Tatra DM3,000,000. Ferdinand Porsche later admitted that he occasionally "looked over the shoulder" of Ledwinka...

1897  The first Nesseldorf car the Präsident is built. 
1898 Präsident is driven to Vienna.
1899 First series of Nesseldorf cars is manufactured. First victories in motor racing.
1911 N.W.-Automobile marque is established.
1919 The N.W. marque is replaced by the Tatra emblem, and Nesseldorfer Wagenbau renamed to Koprivnická vozovka a.s.
1921 Ledwinka  designs the revolutionary T11.
1927 Koprivnická vozovka a.s. is renamed to Závody Tatra a.s.
1931 The first rear-engined Tatra prototype is built.
1933 The first aerodynamic rear-engined prototype is built. Hitler and Ledwinka discuss air-cooled rear-engined cars.
1934 On the 4th of March the world's first serially produced aerodynamic car is introduced, the Tatra T77.
1936 Baron Ringhoffer combines Tatra with his works in Prague-Smíchov and the company is renamed to Závody Ringhoffer-Tatra a.s. The T77 is updated to the T77a. The air-cooled rear-engined V8 Tatra T87 and flat-four T97 cars go into production.
1938 Sudetenland including the Tatra factory is occupied by Germany.
1939 The rest of Bohemia and Moravia is occupied by Germany, and W.W.II starts. The T97 is ordered out of production by Hitler as it is judged to be too similar to the KdF-Wagen, the later VW Beetle.
1940 Tatra continues production throughout the war, including the T87-models which are amongst the favourite cars of the German officers.
1944 Ledwinka receives an honorary doctorate from Vienna Technical College.
1945 W.W.II ends, and Ledwinka is accused of collaborating with the nazi's and imprisoned for six years.
1946 Julius Mackerle becomes the chief designer at Tatra. Tatra is nationalized by the new Communist government and renamed to Tatra, národní podnik. The first Tatraplan prototype the "Ambroz" is built.
1947 Zikmund & Hanzelka start their journey round the world in a Tatra T87. The Tatraplan goes into production.
1951 Ledwinka is released and leaves Czechoslovakia to live in Vienna and later in Munich. Although he is offered back his old job at Tatra he refuses. Production of the Tatraplan is moved to Skoda.
1952 Production of the Tatraplan is halted, and Tatra no longer produces passenger cars.
1955 Tatra is allowed to built a new luxury passenger car, and work is started on the new T603. First T603 prototypes built.
1956 The T603 goes into production.
1963 The T603 is updated to the T603-2.
1967 Ledwinka dies on the 2nd of March in Munich. Tatra celibrates 70 years of Tatra passenger cars. The T603-2 is updated to the T603-3. Because of the expensive homologation costs the T603-3 is renamed to the T603-2.
1968 The first Tatra T613 prototypes are built at Carrozzeria Vignale in Italy.
1973 The new luxury passenger car T613 goes into production.
1975 The T603 is taken out of production
1980 The T613 is updated to the T613-2.
1986 The T613-2 is updated to the T613-3.
1990 The T613-3 is updated to the T613-4.
1995 The T613-4 is updated to the T613-5. First Tatra T700 prototype is built.
1996 Tatra introduces the new luxury passenger car the T700. Production of the T700 starts at the Pribor factory for an order of 100 cars for the Czech government.
1998 The Tatra factory at Pribor is closed and production of the T700 is moved to Koprivnice.
The American company SDC International buys 43.5 % of the shares in Tatra.
Production of the T700 is halted entirely.