The rich history of the car manufacturer that most people don’t know existed.
Tatra is a Czech vehicle manufacturer from Kopřivnice. It is owned by the TATRA TRUCKS a.s. company, and it is the third oldest company in the world producing cars with an unbroken history.
The company was founded in 1850 as Ignatz Schustala & Cie, in 1890 renamed in German Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft when it became a wagon and carriage manufacturer. In 1897, Tatra produced the first motor car in Central Europe, the Präsident automobile. In 1918, it changed its name to Kopřivnická vozovka a.s., and in 1919 it changed from the Nesselsdorfer marque to the Tatra badge, named after the nearby Tatra Mountains on the Czechoslovak-Polish border, now on the Polish-Slovak border.
In interwar period, Tatra came to international prominence with its line of affordable cars based on the backbone tube chassis and air-cooled engines, starting with Tatra 11 in 1923. The company also became the pioneer of automotive aerodynamics, starting with Tatra 77 in 1934. Following the 1938 German-Czechoslovak war and Munich Agreement, the town of Kopřivnice was occupied by Nazi Germany and Tatra’s production was directed towards military production. Trucks like Tatra 111 in 1942, became instrumental both for the German Nazi war effort as well as post-war reconstruction in Central Europe and Soviet Union.
Today, Tatra’s production focuses on heavy off-road trucks based on its century long development of backbone chassis, swinging half-axles and air-cooled engines. The core of its production are Tatra 817, intended primarily for military operators and Tatra Phoenix – Tatra chassis with DAF cabin and Paccar water-cooled engine – aimed primarily for civilian market. In 2023, the company plans to produce over 2,000 trucks.
Ignaz Schustala, (1822–1891) founder of the company “Ignatz Schustala & Comp” in Kopřivnice, started the production of horse-drawn vehicles in 1850. In 1891 it branched out into railroad car manufacture, the company was renamed “Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft”, and it employed Hugo Fischer von Röslerstamm as technical director in 1890. After the death of Schustala, von Röslerstamm took over running the company and in 1897 he bought a Benz automobile. Using this for inspiration, the company made its first car, the Präsident, under the direction of engineers Hans Ledwinka and Edmund Rumpler, which was exhibited in 1897 in Vienna. Orders were obtained for more cars, and until 1900, nine improved cars based on Präsident were made.
The first car to be totally designed by Ledwinka came in 1900 with the Type A, with rear-mounted 2714 cc engine and top speed of 40 kilometres per hour, (25 mph) 22 units were built. This was followed by the Type B with a central engine in 1902 but then Ledwinka left the company to concentrate on steam engine development. He returned in 1905 and designed a completely new car, the Type S with a 3308 cc 4-cylinder engine. Production was badly hit in 1912 with a 23-week strike and Hugo Fischer von Röslerstamm left the company.
In 1921 the company was renamed to “Kopřivnická vozovka”, and in 1919 the name Tatra was given to the car range. Leopold Pasching took over control and in 1921 Hans Ledwinka returned again to develop the Tatra 11. The new car, launched in 1923, featured a rigid backbone tube with swinging semi-axles at the rear giving independent suspension. The engine, front-mounted, was an air-cooled two-cylinder unit of 1056 cc. In 1924 the company was renamed to “Závody Tatra.”
The Tatra 11 was replaced in 1926 by the similar Tatra 12 which had four-wheel brakes. A further development was the 1926 Tatra 17 with a 1,930 cc water-cooled six-cylinder engine and fully independent suspension. In 1927 the company was renamed “Ringhoffer-Tatra.”
Both Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche were influenced by the Tatras. Hitler was a keen automotive enthusiast, and had ridden in Tatras during political tours of Czechoslovakia. He had also dined numerous times with Ledwinka.
After one of these dinners Hitler remarked to Porsche, “This is the car for my roads.” From 1933 onwards, Ledwinka and Porsche met regularly to discuss their designs, and Porsche admitted “Well, sometimes I looked over his shoulder and sometimes he looked over mine” while designing the Volkswagen.
There is no doubt that the Beetle bore a striking resemblance to the Tatras, particularly the Tatra V570. The Tatra 97 of 1936 had a rear-located, rear-wheel drive, air-cooled four-cylinder boxer engine accommodating four passengers and providing luggage storage under the front bonnet and behind the rear seat. Another similarity between this Tatra and the Beetle is the central structural tunnel.
Tatra launched a lawsuit against Volkswagen for patent infringement, but this was stopped when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. At the same time, Tatra was forced to stop producing the T97. The matter was re-opened after World War II and in 1965 Volkswagen paid the Ringhoffer family DM 1,000,000 in an out of court settlement.
Tatra and Volkswagen’s body design were preceded by similar designs of Hungarian automotive engineer Bela Barenyi, whose sketches resembling the Volkswagen Beetle date back to 1925.
The automotive industry is rich with innovators and engineers who have left a lasting legacy, and Czech engineer Hans Ledwinka is one of them. Ledwinka was the chief designer of Tatra.
Ledwinka was born in 1886 in Vienna and obtained a technical education from the University of Vienna. He first worked for Steyr, another Austrian car manufacturer, before joining Tatra.
It was here that his technical brilliance as an automotive designer was put to full use, as he developed a series of cars that incorporated some of the most revolutionary engineering concepts of the time.
Introduced in 1934, it was the world’s first mass-produced car with aerodynamic styling, a feature which is now commonplace in the automotive industry. Ledwinka also pioneered the use of lightweight materials for car construction, and the Tatra 77 was one of the first cars to be made primarily from aluminum and magnesium alloy.
This allowed Ledwinka to achieve a low drag coefficient, a measure of how aerodynamic the car’s body is, without sacrificing structural integrity. Ledwinka also developed a number of other advanced engineering concepts. He was one of the first designers to introduce the use of a backbone chassis, which provided an efficient and lightweight way to mount a car’s body to its frame.
He also developed an air-cooled flat-four engine, which was used in the Tatra 77 and later became popularized by Volkswagen in their Beetle. Ledwinka’s designs were so revolutionary that many of them have remained in use for decades, and his influence on the automotive industry is still felt to this day. His contributions to Tatra car design have been recognized by both Czech and international automotive organizations, and his legacy is sure to last for many generations to come.
The Tatra T87 was also featured on Jay Leno’s Garage, featuring the 1938 Tatra T87, which sports a rear-mounted V-8 and may have been the Czech resistance’s secret weapon during World War II.
Beneath the louvers of the T87’s streamlined bodywork sits a 2.9-liter air-cooled V-8 coupled to a 4-speed transmission. The engine featured a lightweight magnesium block and hemi heads decades before Chrysler popularized them. A luggage compartment and two firewalls separate the engine from the passenger compartment.
Like the Beetle, as well as the later Chevrolet Corvair, the T87 has swing-axle rear suspension. Decades before it was held up by consumer advocate Ralph Nader as an example of automakers ignoring safety, this primitive independent rear suspension design made the T87 a “Nazi killer.”
During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the luxurious T87 was a favorite of military officers and officials. But they were often unaware of the unusual characteristics of the swing-axle suspension, particularly for the rear wheels to “tuck under” during aggressive cornering. This led to many cars getting rolled by their Nazi drivers.
After World War II, Tatra returned to producing passenger cars, this time under Communist rule. The 1950’s Tatra 603 had a similarly futuristic look to the T87, but later cars had more restrained styling. The company stopped producing passenger cars in 1999, but still makes trucks.