Tatra V8 Streamliners: futuristic, fast and flawed
Czechoslovakian marque Tatra was arguably the first manufacturer to create a commercially successful automobile that embraced aerodynamics as the major influence in its design. These extraordinary streamlined models, born in the 1930s under chief engineer Hans Ledwinka, are renowned as much for their cutting-edge design as their infamous high-speed handling flaws.
Tatra, named after the picturesque Tatra Mountains on the country's eastern border, was established in 1853 (under a different name) building horse-drawn carts, stage coaches and later railroad carriages before expanding into automobile production.
The 1920s was a significant era for the company and its Austrian chief engineer Ledwinka, when his engineering hallmarks of radical simplicity and efficiency were showcased. His Type 12 (T12) of 1926 with a tubular backbone frame was advanced for its time, incorporating other concepts which challenged the orthodoxy of automotive design.
More outstanding vehicles followed including the largest and most powerful Tatra car ever made. The T80 released in 1930 was an elegant and luxurious two-door grand tourer, powered by an exquisite water-cooled 6.0 litre V12 with a 90mph top speed and fully independent suspension.
However, given Ledwinka’s obsession with efficiency, he envisioned a car that combined superior cabin space and luggage capacity with a streamlined body that could cleave the air as effectively as an aeroplane, to allow an engine half the size of the T80’s to attain the same top speed.
Others had already ventured down this path in the 1920s, including fellow Austrian Edmund Rumpler who created a teardrop-shaped rear-engine car called the Tropfenwagen (teardrop car) with a staggering co-efficient of drag (Cd) of only 0.28. British airship designer Dennis Burney also created a radical rear-engine sedan under the Streamline Cars banner, but neither had succeeded in series production.
At this time the international Art Deco movement, a look of sleekness and modernity inspired by many things including aircraft, was having a profound effect on industrial and architectural design. And Rumpler, Ferdinand Porsche, Josef Ganz and many other peers were championing rear-mounted engines as the future of automotive design, due to less power losses and lighter weight (no long tail-shaft or exhaust system), less engine noise (being behind rather than in front of the cabin), improved traction and less rear brake lock-up (more static weight over the rear wheels) and smaller frontal area for better wind penetration.
And aerodynamicist Paul Jaray, who had gained vast experience in the design of German airships while working for Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, was specialising in streamlined automotive bodies commercially available under license to car manufacturers.
From this European melting pot of ideas emerged the first of a series of streamlined Tatras in 1931; a prototype of a simple and affordable people’s car (internal code V570) loosely similar in profile to sketches by Hungarian engineer Bela Barenyi in the 1920s.
It was designed to deliver good fuel economy and be affordable to own, establishing the key design and engineering principles that would be seen in its larger successors including air-cooled rear engines.
Although the V570 is widely claimed to be the antecedent of the VW Beetle, to be fair there were numerous designers playing with similar teardrop-inspired concepts at the time who were broadly reaching the same design conclusions.
However, Tatra already had a strong-selling small car in the T57. The company decided that such a radical departure from automotive convention could only make commercial sense as a large, fast and luxurious offering aimed at the premium end of the market.
Tatra 77 (1934-1938)
As requested, the T77 was a majestic vehicle with an expansive 124-inch (3150mm) wheelbase and overall length of more than 5.0 metres. Even with extensive use of lightweight magnesium alloy in the engine and transmission castings, it had a 1700kg kerb weight.
Designed by Hans Ledwinka, his engineer son Erik (who joined Tatra in 1930) and German engineer Erich Ubelacker, with considerable Jaray aero influence, the T77 introduced an advanced 'hemi' V8 engine and other innovations, yet several of the key design principles established in the smaller V570 prototype were either applied or improved on.
With the major emphasis on aerodynamic efficiency, a 1:5 scale model tested in Zeppelin’s wind tunnel at the time was claimed to produce a staggering Cd of just 0.21. This at a time when most cars had vertical windscreens and front radiators, pedestal headlights, fenders, running boards and spare wheels all hanging in the breeze creating enormous drag.
By comparison, the T77’s small frontal area (afforded by the rear engine), smooth sloping bonnet and fenders, tapered headlight bodies, concealed door hinges and a reclined windscreen angle showed strong V570 wind-cheating influence.
New streamlining measures included a three-piece windscreen with angled sides that swept back into the bodywork, bullet-head front hubcaps, recessed door handles, no running boards, full rear wheel covers and, like an aeroplane, a smooth under-belly free of protrusions that could disrupt airflow.
Engine cooling was via lateral scoops at the rear of the sloping roof which formed the leading edge of a front-hinged engine cover, split by a long dorsal fin that disciplined airflow over its long tapered tail. This cover also had a series of narrow slots which allowed engine ventilation, very limited rear vision for the driver and, when raised, 180-degree access to the engine compartment.
The body featured a wooden frame mounted on a relatively light but rigid platform chassis with low seating height and centre of gravity, strengthened by a box-section central spine which neatly housed linkages to the engine, clutch, gearbox and rear brakes.
Independent front and rear suspensions used swing-axles with transverse leaf springs, to create a supple ride and 9.0 inches of ground clearance considered ideal for touring the difficult roads of central and eastern Europe. Steering was precise rack and pinion, brakes were four-wheel drums.
The rear of the central spine diverged into a Y-shape with outriggers on each side supporting the drivetrain unit which comprised a four-speed gearbox and final drive ahead of the rear axle line, with the clutch/bellhousing and engine behind it.
Another advanced feature was the one-shot chassis lubrication system which at scheduled intervals (every 100 miles) required one pump of a pedal to lubricate all of the car’s suspension pivots from a grease reservoir mounted in the storage compartment under the front bonnet.
The fuel tank, battery, two spare wheels and tools also resided there, which in addition to the weight of six occupants and luggage (which was the optimum loading Ledwinka designed it for) provided the best weight distribution, but it was fundamentally a very tail-heavy car.
Ledwinka’s air-cooled 3.0 litre (181cid) V8 with 60bhp (45kW) at 3500rpm was advanced for its time, cast from lightweight magnesium alloy with overhead valves operated by long rockers from a central camshaft mounted high between the cylinder heads (no pushrods), hemispherical combustion chambers and dry-sump lubrication. Like aeroplane designers, he favoured air-cooled engines as they were lighter, simpler and superior to water-cooling in freezing European winters.
The finned cylinders were enclosed on each side by sealed housings which allowed cooling air from the roof intakes to enter at the front and exit at the rear through sizeable extraction fans, driven at engine speed by belts attached to crankshaft pulleys. Air heated by the engine could also be routed forward to warm the cabin.
At the official press launch of the T77 in early 1934, it achieved 90mph (145km/h) on road tests and impressed journalists with its agility, quietness and comfortable ride. And how easily such a large car maintained its top speed with only 60bhp to push it along. Here was the power of aerodynamics at work.
The UK’s Motor concluded that “the ideological principle of the new Tatra is an understanding that the car is moving along the dividing line between the ground and the air…the car maintained 145km/h, it has astonishing handling, it drives through curves with speeds that are both mad and safe, and it seems just to float on any kind of road…it is a car which opens new perspectives to car construction and automotive practice.”
The rear engine not only made it very quiet at cruising speeds but also afforded a remarkably ratio of cabin and luggage space relative to the car’s wheelbase. The UK’s Autocar “was immediately struck by the extreme width of the front and rear seats; the rear seat will genuinely accommodate three adults, the front also is sufficiently wide to take three.” The publication also noted that the “rear leg room is exceptionally good.”
A large luggage compartment was located directly behind the rear seat backrest and a removable partition and the front seat backrests could be folded flat to form a comfortable bed. Autocar praised the quality of the leather upholstery, the fine cabin detailing and the large glass areas that added to its spacious and airy feel. The poor rear vision was not a big issue apparently.
During its road test the journal also noted that the T77 displayed “a good turn of speed and was not unduly sensitive to changes in gradient” and with its ample ground clearance and rear-wheel traction was astounded by its ability to iron out eastern Europe’s roughest roads, of which there were plenty in the 1930s.
Interestingly, those early road testers made no mention of the T77’s tendency for the tail to snap sideways during high-speed cornering, caused by the pendulum effect of centrifugal force acting on its V8 engine mounted well behind the rear axle. This fearful handling trait would become notorious in coming years. Indeed, famous US consumer advocate Ralph Nader would later describe the V8 Tatra streamliners as being the only cars more dangerous than the infamous Chevrolet Corvair!
A few early-production T77s had the steering wheel located in the centre, with front passengers seated on each side. All other T77s were RHD as Czechoslovakia, like numerous European countries, drove on the left before WW2.
It’s interesting to note that in the USA the streamlined Chrysler Airflow was also launched in 1934, but was a sales flop due to manufacturing defects and bull-nosed styling which did not appeal to Americans. The Cord 810 which followed suffered similar technical woes, unlike the flawless build quality evident in the Czech-built T77.
The following year Tatra released an upgraded version called the T77a, with a stronger but heavier all-steel body, a revised V8 with larger cylinder bores yielding 3.4 litres (207cid), an increase in power from 60bhp to 75bhp (56kW) and higher top speed of 95mph (152km/h). It also had a third headlight located in the centre of the nose, with conflicting claims by historians about its ability to turn with the front wheels.
However, the kerb weight had ballooned to 1800kg, which was moving further away from Ledwinka’s efficiency targets. With combined T77/T77a sales of only 255 units to an elite clientele, he ensured the next version was smaller, lighter, easier to build and more affordable.
Tatra 87 (1936-1950)
The new T87 featured lighter aircraft-style ‘monocoque’ construction and a 12-inch (305mm) reduction in wheelbase to 112 inches (2850mm), which along with a shorter body and other weight-saving measures resulted in a huge 400kg-plus drop in kerb weight to 1370kg.
There was a noticeable change in the engine’s air-cooling, now with smaller semi-elliptical scoops behind the rear side windows. According to Zeppelin wind tunnel tests conducted on a 1:5 scale model of the T87 at the time, there was a slight increase in drag to 0.24.
Even so, allowing for discrepancies between scale models and actual cars (a real T87 produced a Cd of 0.36 when tested in a VW wind-tunnel in 1979), those Cd figures were astonishing for their time given that most 1930s cars had Cds of 0.50 to 0.60. And let's not forget that it wasn't until five decades later that the third-gen Audi 100 sedan of 1982 made international headlines with its then-remarkable 0.30 Cd.
The T87’s shorter wheelbase made it more agile and responsive to steering input but also reduced its high-speed directional stability. And given that the engine was still located wholly behind the rear axle line, its propensity to swap ends during fast cornering was more pronounced.
The much lighter kerb weight allowed a return to the air-cooled V8’s original 3.0 litre displacement along with new cylinder heads incorporating chain-driven single overhead camshafts. Output matched the previous 3.4 litre unit’s 75bhp (56kW) with a then-thrifty 20mpg (11.8L/100km) fuel consumption at a steady 60mph (100km/h) and an unprecedented top speed of 100mph (160km/h).
Not in the Duesenberg class maybe, but deceptively fast given its relatively small displacement and the ease with which it achieved it. According to a VeloceToday review by former owner Karl Ludvigsen, the T87's German owner's manual of 1943 showed that Tatra was acutely aware of the car's disarming performance:
"With the Type 87, the Ringhoffer-Tatra-Werke AG is placing a car in your hands that can reach a speed of 150-160km/h. Not so many years ago this was a record speed for automobiles and in normal highway motoring for a touring car - for the non-professional driver - it is a very remarkable performance.
"Riding in the streamlined rear-engined Tatra is so secure and graceful, and thanks to its wind-cheating shape so smooth and quiet, that only a glance at the speedometer will show that you are travelling much faster than you thought. So even with the exceptional roadholding and first-class braking, don't forget to be constantly cognizant that you are driving a very fast car whose braking distance at 160km/h is two and a half times as long as at 100km/h. Therefore, drive carefully and with greatest alert at all times!"
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a renowned car enthusiast, was enthralled by the advanced T87 and its ability to quietly and effortlessly cruise at 90mph-plus with only 75bhp. He is famously quoted as saying “This is the car for my highways!” in reference to the vast network of high-speed autobahns he was building.
In fact, Hitler personally demanded that the streamlined sedan remain in production after Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and reassigned most of the Tatra factory to military truck production. His high-ranking officers were equally charmed by the T87, which earned the nickname ‘Autobahnmobil’.
Although it has been widely claimed that Hitler banned his senior officers from driving the T87, due to serious accidents caused by its sudden and violent oversteer, there is no documented proof that this order was actually issued.
Indeed, the T87 remained in production during and after the war, but the austerity of a shattered post-war Europe left little demand for such a large and luxurious V8 sedan. The communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948 presented even greater challenges to its survival, with manufacture ceasing in 1950 after more than 3000 units had been produced.
Tatra 97 (1936-1939)
Prior to Hitler’s invasion, when Czechoslovakia boasted one of Europe’s strongest economies and highest living standards during The Great Depression, Tatra identified growing demand for a smaller and more affordable streamliner to complement its grandiose T77 and T87.
Hence the downsized T97 was launched on a wheelbase 10 inches (254mm) shorter than the T87 at 102 inches (2600mm). It was almost half a metre shorter, slightly narrower and lower, with a substantial 220kg drop in kerb weight to 1150kg. It had a one-piece windscreen, two headlights, T87-style engine-cooling intakes and small windows replacing slots in the tail section.
The usual V8 was replaced by a rear-mounted 1.8 litre air-cooled flat-four displacing 1759cc and producing 40bhp (30kW) mated to a four-speed gearbox.
The T97 was capable of exceeding 80mph (130km/h) and like its larger siblings designed to cruise comfortably and economically. And arguably with greater safety, given the much lighter weight of the flat-four compared to the V8 and its notorious pendulum effect through corners.
However, given that Ledwinka’s T97 was launched in 1936 and Ferdinand Porsche’s KdF-Wagen (aka VW Beetle) was revealed soon after, at the behest of Hitler in creating an economical and affordable people’s car for Germany, Tatra smelled a rat. Or, more specifically, the Ringhoffer family which owned Tatra.
Like the T97, the German car had a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat four with a combination of air intakes and fan-forced cooling, but the Ringhoffers were adamant that Dr Porsche had infringed multiple times on patents protecting their very effective air-cooling designs.
Ledwinka and Porsche were claimed to be good friends, who often exchanged ideas and openly discussed each other’s projects. Even so, it’s impossible to know if Porsche arrived at his engine-cooling solution through his own process of experimentation or plagiarising Tatra’s patents.
Regardless, legal action against Dr Porsche was suspended indefinitely when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and with the bulk of Tatra production reassigned to manufacturing trucks for the German military, production of the superfluous T97 was cancelled when only about 500 had been sold.
After the war, Ledwinka and Porsche both served jail terms for collaboration with the Nazis and the Czech car maker resumed its legal action, which by then was the responsibility of Volkswagen lawyers. It took until the 1960s before VW finally settled the matter, with a payment of millions of DM for patent infringement.
Tatra 600 Tatraplan (1948-1952)
After the war, car production resumed at Tatra until 1948 when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia with Soviet backing seized control of the democratic government. To celebrate its new status as a satellite state of the USSR and its vision of shared prosperity for all under one-party rule (that went well, comrades) a new streamlined model called the Tatra 600 or Tatraplan (‘plan’ meaning aeroplane) was released.
Here was another streamlined six-seater Tatra with strong Ledwinka influence, featuring another new wheelbase of 106-inches (2700mm) which was about halfway between the T97 and T87. It was also slightly longer than the T97 and clearly its direct descendant.
The Tatraplan had a slippery Cd of just 0.32 achieved with a centrally-split windscreen with swept-back glass on each side, full integration of the front fenders in the bodywork and a return to the T77’s lateral engine-cooling scoops at the rear of the roof. There was more body ornamentation and its rear-mounted air-cooled flat-four was given a slight increase in displacement to 1952cc.
The Tatraplan entered series production in 1948 but in 1951 the socialist government saw greater efficiencies in car production being switched to Skoda, leaving truck assembly to Tatra is it had done under the Nazis in WW2. However, this change was not well received by workers in both plants and after 2100 of the total 6342 Tatraplans had been built, production ceased in 1952 with luxury cars to be imported from the USSR from then on.
However, it didn’t take long for the Czech government to become frustrated not only by the lengthy delays in delivery of Soviet-made cars but also their poor quality. As a result, it went back to the future by authorising development of a new streamlined luxury car from Tatra.
Tatra 603 (1956-1975)
The T603 emerged in 1956 with a more modern take on streamlining. Even though Hans Ledwinka had long since moved on, having retired to Munich in 1951 after his six-year jail term (he died in 1967 aged 89), the company adhered to many of the rear-engine design principles established by the Austrian engineer in the 1930s. It was also the last of the streamliners.
Yet another wheelbase was chosen, this time 108 inches (2748mm), with body length exceeding 5.0 metres and more generous width and height. Its light but strong unitary construction contributed to a reasonable 1400kg kerb weight. Front suspension was simple and rugged MacPherson struts with coil-spring swing axles under the tail and braking via four-wheel drums.
Its streamlined body had ample ground clearance (roads were still generally poor under communist rule) with a smooth underfloor, rounded nose with three headlights behind a single clear cover, curved one-piece windscreen and belatedly the largest split rear windows yet seen on a Tatra streamliner.
This body shape also resulted in an excellent drag co-efficient of 0.36 which made life easier for the 2.5 litre (2545cc) air-cooled hemi V8 in the tail, fed cooling air through prominent intakes mounted on each rear-quarter panel. This air then exited under fan power through a central outlet in the rear bumper bar. The T603's V8 was more efficient than previous iterations, producing a claimed 99bhp (74kW) and 112ft/lbs (152Nm) at 4800rpm with a top speed of 105mph (170km/h).
With its engine located behind the rear axle line and a full-synchro four-speed gearbox and final drive ahead of it like earlier V8 streamliners, the T603 had a 47/53 weight distribution when the cabin was fully occupied. Like its ancestors, the rear-engine location made it tail-happy through corners but also created ample interior space with seating for up to six. The gear-shift lever was now mounted on the steering column to clear floor space for the centre passenger.
Like earlier models, the front seats could be folded flat to create a large and comfortable bed. No romantic fireplace maybe, but at least the T603 was equipped with an independent petrol-burning heater located under the front seat - what could possibly go wrong!
During its two decades in production there were three versions of the T603, each with minor facelifts and running changes, including a switch to four-wheel disc brakes in 1968 and contactless ignition in 1973 before production finally ceased in 1975.
Typical of socialist recycling (rebirthing?) was that 'old' T603s were returned to the Tatra factory where they were disassembled, rebuilt with the latest styling and reborn as ‘new’ models. Therefore, most T603s feature the latest styling, regardless of their original build dates!
Private sales of T603s were usually not possible, as they were considered prestige cars that only high-ranking party officials and industrialists were worthy of being driven in (so much for shared prosperity). However, they were often used by Czech embassy staff west of the Iron Curtain and exported for sale in a number of countries. Their speed and ruggedness also shone through in long-distance rallies and endurance races in the 1960s, scoring several class wins.
Amazingly, given the huge amount of manual labour and production line inefficiencies, only 20,422 T603s were produced during the model’s 20-year production run (or just over 1000 annually), with most effectively being hand-built.
On reflection, Hans Ledwinka and his pre-war Tatra streamliners could be summed up as flawed genius. They were brilliant in some ways, particularly in achieving low-drag aerodynamics in volume production car design without compromise. Yet they were fundamentally flawed in others, like poor rear vision and adherence to rear engines, with infamous tail-heavy handling which laid a trap for the unwary.
Even so, they were at the cutting edge of global automotive design in the Art Deco 1930s and their legacy was still evident in Tatra design four decades later. Super Models? You bet.