The Tatra T87 Was A Ground-Moving Zeppelin
Tatras are wondrous things. From 1934-1953 they were the most advanced and forward-thinking cars on earth, and it’d be a few years afterwards before the Citroen DS eclipsed them in ‘55. The T77 and T87 were as heavily influenced by contemporary art, fashion, and politics as they were aerodynamics, sophisticated metallurgy, and the highest mechanical engineering standards. One thing that held little sway in their development, however, was money, as Tatra never conceded that to make a profit would require limiting their car’s ambition and quality—right up until they ended production in 1999.
Tatra’s still around, building interesting commercial and military trucks in Kopřivnice, Czech Republic, the company’s headquarters since foundation more than 160 years ago. Starting with carriages, by 1897 they were building some of the world’s first cars. An engineer from these pioneer days named Hans Ledwinka would later be the man behind Tatra’s 1931 V570, arguably the single most influential design over Porsche and his Volkswagen—and his 356 and 911, too. Three years later, he’d apply the same design principles to a little less civic-minded magnesium V8-powered luxury car, the T77, a machine which going on eight decades later still holds the record for lowest drag coefficient production model.
The type 77’s replacement came in 1936. Building upon the 77’s central backbone chassis, swing axles, and rear-mounted, air-cooled V8, the T87 was also shaped under the fundamentals of its predecessor’s “streamliner”, Paul Jaray. Former designer of the Graf Zeppelin, you could argue that Jaray was one of automotive history’s earliest aerodynamicists.
Its engine retained a magnesium alloy block, but with one overhead cam per cylinder bank rather than the single, central valve-bumper of the earlier car, while hemi heads and a dry sump were other carryovers. Displacing 2969 CCs, this magic little motor made 85 HP and pushed the T87 on to just a hair under 100 MPH, making them one of the very fastest ways to travel at groundspeed. A rumored nick-name was “Czech’s revenge” for all the SS officers it killed through injudicious throttle use—ever driven an early 911?
Ernst Heinkel, Felix Wankel, and John Steinbeck all owned T87s. In 1947, two Czech explorers named Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka set out on a 38,000 mile, three-and-a-half year adventure in which they drove their T87 from Prague, south through Europe and Africa in its entirety, before being shipped to Argentina. After arriving in Buenos Aires they drove north to the United States before looping back down to the Eastern side of South America for a bit, and then returned home famous and exhausted. The two went on to publish ten volumes about their epic journey, were the subject of several films, and to this day remain popular Czech folk heroes.
Tatra would go on to replace the 87 in 1956, with the T603. Though its older brother’s magnificent and functional dorsal fin became a mere vestigial split rear window and panel crease, it continued Tatras legacy of cutting edge design. Superseded by the Vignale-styled T613 in 1974, the 603 would be Tatra’s last streamlined car, the seventy’s tastes for angles no match for tradition or science.
Though by no means a disappointing car, the 613’s sales potentials were limited by a captive market, and later even more by Soviet government officials’ diminishing appetite for expensive privileges, as brought about by Glasnost in the ‘80s. By 1991’s collapse of the Iron Curtain, the 613 was hopelessly outdated by western standards—character and hand-made quality were its only remaining attributes, which helped the struggling firm sell a few dozen to strange westerners before one last desperate re-design in 1996. The T700, essentially a heavily facelifted T613, would trickle out of the factory for a few months afterwards before Kopřivnice pulled the plug on all further development, production, and sales of cars, exactly a century after their founding. Imagine what could’ve been had things gone a bit differently in early days of post WWII world politics.