We go back roughly 80 years to the early 1930s. By now cars have evolved from motorised carriages to a league of their own. Becoming faster and more reliable with every new model. One thing hasn’t really changed; the layout of the motorcar. A sturdy chassis, engine in front of the gearbox and rear wheel drive. Brakes are still mechanical, front and rear axles leaf sprung and bodywork boxy to say the least.
In comes Czech car manufacturer Tatra. Being the third oldest car factory in the world they have been producing exceptional cars right from the start. However few have seen this one coming. Shaped like a drop of water cut lengthwise for superior aerodynamics, a light backbone chassis, an ultramodern air cooled V8 engine in the back, hydraulic brakes, room for six and a highway speed of 145 km/h. It’s the Tatra T77. Designer Hans Ledwinka’s true masterpiece.
The T77 really is the godfather of all mass produced streamlined cars. Secretly developed from the V570 concept, this unusual motorcar with its extreme aerodynamics was groundbreaking in many ways. A 70 hp V8 engine in the back, over five meters in length and almost two in width, ample seating for six and all still way under two tons is all very impressive. Still it compares in no manner to the incredibly low Cw-number of 0.22, which hasn’t been equaled by any mass produced car since. It clearly shook the automotive community:
“It is a sensation when it comes to its construction, to its appearance and to its performance. However, it isn’t a sensation that would just fall down from the skies, but a logical continuation of the road, which Hans Ledwinka took thirteen years ago. The ideological principle of the new Tatra is an understanding, that the car is moving at the dividing line between the ground and the air. … The car maintained 145km/h, it has astonishing handling, it drives through the curves with speeds that are both mad and safe, and it seems, that it is only floating on whatever road. … It is a car, which opens new perspectives to the car construction and automotive practice.”
Vilém Heinz, Motor Journal, 1934
The Tatra T77 was actually a proof of concept and a great marketing device, as it was soon snapped up by the European elite. Ledwinka and former Zeppelin aerodynamics specialist Paul Jaray had built a luxury car that wooed them all.
Tatra produced only 250 T77’s before replacing it with the slightly smaller, more rational T87 in 1936. A car so good its production continued until the early 1950s, even straight through the second world war. Its aerodynamic shape and three headlight layout showed true Tatra heritage. The smaller four cylinder boxer engined T97 model wasn’t that lucky. It was killed of in 1939.
Some say the obvious, well very obvious similarities in concept and design with the design of a certain Herr Porsche, former colleague of Ledwinka, for what later became the infamous Volkswagen, might have something to do with this.
Tatra never really returned to mass producing popular vehicles. Local politics decided they were to develop their truck division in favour of building motorcars, which they still do up to these days. Popular car making was shifted to Skoda, with Tatra only getting a second chance to build cars when the party decided they needed a large luxury limousine of their own. Hence a whole new generation of rear engined V8’s emerged. But that is a somewhat different story…
Words: Marc GF Zaan based on a story by Djordje Grujic
Photographs: Djordje Grujic
Passionate about classic cars and photography? Join our community!