Featured: If Porsche Never Peeked at Tatra's Secrets

If Porsche Never Peeked at Tatra’s Secrets

By Alan Franklin
May 16, 2013
9 comments

It’s an uncomfortable thought, but all the triumphs and successes of our lives are not only born of hard work and perseverance, but of equal parts chaotic randomness. The delicate balance of circumstance that led to each and every one of our births was once only a hypothetical whisper, a fragile possibility shrouded in not so much as a thin layer of eggshell for protection from the fickle whims of this massive and unintervening universe. Just imagine if the wind blew in a slightly different direction for one minute of a day in the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire, or indeed anywhere in the world in all preceding history prior to the moment of Hans Ledwinka’s conception—Porsche as we know it would never have existed. Volkswagen, the 356, fifty glorious years of the 911, 240 MPH Mulsanne assaults in candy-liveried 917s, the Beetle, the Golf GTI—all of it just a narrowly-missed opportunity.

Ledwinka was born in 1878, and as a young man worked at Nesselsdorfer-Wagenbau, where he was involved in the development of railcars and later the firm’s first automobiles. In the midst of WWI he left to work at Steyr for a time, only to return to Nesselsdorf, now Kopřivnice, for a company rechristened Tatra in the wake of Czechoslovakia’s newly-declared independence. From 1921 to 1937 Ledwinka was Tatra’s chief design engineer, during which time he pioneered some seriously radical technology, including frameless, central backbone chassis, fully independent swing axle suspensions, and rear-mounted, horizontally-opposed, air-cooled engines. When all these groundbreaking ideas were first combined under an aerodynamically-streamlined shape, the world, including Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche, took notice. It’s no coincidence that 1933’s V570 bore a striking resemblance to Porsche’s KdF Wagen (the car which ultimately became known as Volkswagen), in fact, it was the pattern after which it was molded.

In addition to being a ruthless psychopathic monster, Hitler was a keen car enthusiast (don’t beat yourself up about it—there are plenty of unsavory characters in this game, just think adolescent fans of stanced Hondas) and strong proponent of Ledwinka’s, having dined with him several times during political tours of Czechoslovakia. It’s after one of these meals that he reportedly told Porsche “this is the car for my roads”. Though at the time many European manufacturers were working on similar streamlined concepts, none were quite as close in execution to the V570 as Porsche’s Volkswagen was—it had grown two cylinders (though retained a flat, air-cooled engine configuration), gained torsion bar front suspension and replaced the Tatra’s backbone chassis with a pressed steel floor, but otherwise even looked nearly identical to Ledwinka’s revolutionary little hunchback of two years earlier.

None of this, of course, means that Porsche wasn’t one of the greatest automotive engineering minds that ever lived—he indisputably was, in his time creating a wide spectrum of designs far beyond the above-detailed formula for which his legacy has come to be known, including the world’s first-ever gasoline-electric hybrid in 1900, and the marvelous, utterly-dominant 16 cylinder Auto Union racers of the 1930s to name only a few. He just happened to, as he later put it “look over his (Ledwinka’s) shoulder” once or twice.

Just like how Nirvana cribbed the infectious bassline in “Come As You Are” from Killing Joke’s “Eighties”, some hits are rooted in the works of others—it doesn’t mean you can’t bob your head to ‘em.

Image Sources: kvh-pressburg.szm.com, heinkelscooter.blogspot.it, gearheads.org, logonoid.com, thegoldenbug.com, efficientautomobile.com, cartype.com, readtiger.com

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9 Comments on "If Porsche Never Peeked at Tatra’s Secrets"

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John Cochran
John Cochran

there are plenty of unsavory characters in this game, just think adolescent fans of stanced Hondas – I hope I am misinterpreting this note. One reason I love this website is for the completely unbiased love and appreciation for all that is automotive. It has really been a breath if fresh air, but comments that put down one group of automotive enthusiasts should not have a place here. I am, after all, a fan of stanced Hondas, and even when driving my 993, they will turn my head and steal my attention

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia

Very fair point. Indeed we at Petrolicious appreciate all kinds of genuine enthusiasm for autos as long as it’s tasteful, and there are plenty of tastefully stanced Hondas and other pocket rockets out there. Though I can’t speak for Alan, perhaps he was referring to a certain group often associated with stanced Japanese cars who goes overboard and adds the giant wing, coffee can exhaust tip, and type Type R stickers everywhere?

Andre L Hulstaert
Andre L Hulstaert
I was fortunate enough to own a 1937 Tatra Type 87 with only 32,000 Km (about 20,000 miles) in original condition with even period tires. These were indeed fabulous cars, being able to sustain 100 miles/hour (in 1937 for a street sedan). Thus I read up on the make. According to several reliable sources Porsche AG paid a sizable sum to Tatra Werke in the 50’s for patent infringement which goes a long way to prove that Porsche indeed peeked. It is also a known fact that Porsche and Ledwinka were not exactly friends although they met on several occasions.… Read more »
Amund Sjaavaag
Amund Sjaavaag

What about the Beetle of the jewish Josef Ganz?
He tried to build an affordable car, he made Beetles and made the name Volkswagen and wanted a 1000 marks car.
Hitler saw the car of Ganz at a show in 1933 before Hitler made his sketches for Ferdinand Porsche, and Hitler commanded Ferdinand to make a 1000 mark car, and Ganz was procecuted. Here the car of Ganz that Hitler saw at a show:comment image
Daimler Benz made a Beetle in 1931: http://caveviews.blogs.com/cave_news/2014/02/obscure-1931-mercedes-benz-with-beetle-like-body.html
I think Ganz made the car before Tatra, and it looks like Hitler tried to copy the consept from Ganz.

Andre L Hulstaert
Andre L Hulstaert

One thing I forgot to add: the reason of the rear “wing” was not stabilization, although it may have helped, but to offset the warping of the massive rear hood as a result of the heat of the engine.

Gary
Gary
The large fin was actually for stabilization in cross winds, just like an aircraft. Otherwise the lighter weight front end of the car would move more than the rear causing instability. The fin evened out the air pressure so the whole car would move the same amount sideways in a cross wind. I’ve been driving T87’s for over 20 years (I’m on my second, an early post war model). Here are some photos from one of the trips I’ve taken with my Tatra along with a friend with his T87. http://www.ghiweb.com/Tatra/index.htm We’ve also driven to the arctic with them, the… Read more »
WolfTrax
WolfTrax

If I remember correctly, only Porsche’s project which was done completely by him (without any “inspiration” from outside sources) was Tiger tank which was used in later stages or WW II.

Lilldraken
Lilldraken
Not exactly. The Tiger tank that was used by the Wehrmacht during World War II was a Henschel design. It competed against a Porsche project (Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger(P)), which although very innovative, proved too complex and required too many resources to be mass produced in wartime Germany. Its chassis was then used in the Ferdinand/Elefant tank destroyer, but that’s a story for another day. Porsche’s piece de resistance was to be the Maus, a 185-ton behemoth which never had a chance to prove itself on the battlefield. Dr Porsche was undoubtedly a genius, but I’d be inclined to say that… Read more »
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