If Porsche Never Peeked at Tatra’s Secrets
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.