Jay’s 1938 Czech-made Tatra T87 pioneered ideas in streamlining, suspension and fuel efficiency.
By Jay Leno
Ever hear of the Tatra? I didn’t think so. An expensive Czech equivalent to a Cadillac, the streamlined Tatra T87 was very fast for its day, with a top speed of 166 km/h. But not many were sold outside Czechoslovakia. It’s hard to sell something before its time.
My Tatra T87 sedan was built in the small city of Koprivnice, in 1938. It’s powered by a rear-mounted, cast-magnesium, aircooled 2,9-litre overhead-cam Hemi-head V8 with a four-speed transaxle. The suspension is fully independent, with twin transverse leaf springs in front and a unique swing axle set-up at the back.
People go nuts for Tucker cars these days – they sell for over a million dollars – but the Tatra was developed a good 10 years before the Tucker, and it was much more advanced. It had a V8, not a flat six, and it didn’t use somebody else’s engine or transmission. The Tatra is really what the Tucker should have been – a truly aerodynamic car that got 11,5 litres/100 km at 100 km/h. In the ’30s, fuel consumption for most big six-passenger cars was 25 to 40 litres/100 km.
Founded in 1850 under a different company name that nobody here can pronounce, Tatra built carriages and wagons for decades. Then, in 1897, it became a carmaker, now the world’s third-oldest after Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot. Tatra built cars until 1999, then switched to manufacturing trucks, which it still does.
The company’s original engineers were two Austrians: Hans Ledwinka, who almost never built anything the way anyone else did, and designer Edmund Rumpler. In the 1930s – after a brief fling with a 12-cylinder, front-engined car – Ledwinka began working with his son Erich to build Tatra sedans with air-cooled, rear-mounted V8 engines.
In 1934, the company obtained a licence from Paul Jaray, the Hungarian designer of the Graf Zeppelin, to build the Type 77, a full-sized fastback. When the Tatra team tested a model in a wind tunnel, its coefficient of drag was 0,24. When they tested a prototype, the Cd was 0,36. The norm for most cars of that era: 0,54. Ledwinka’s 1936 Tatra T97 had a rearmounted air-cooled four-cylinder boxertype engine; a central-structural-tunnel floor pan; rear-wheel drive; four seats; and a luggage compartment located under the bonnet. Two years later, when the first Volkswagen Beetle was introduced, Ledwinka brought a lawsuit against the manufacturer and its designer, Ferdinand Porsche, over the similarities between the two vehicles. When the Germans annexed Czechoslovakia in 1938, the suit was dropped.
After the war ended, the Soviets trumped up charges that Ledwinka had collaborated with the Nazis and jailed him for six years. The lawsuit was revived, and Volkswagen had to pay Tatra about 3 million deutsche marks. Ledwinka never got a pfennig of the settlement – but he had the satisfaction of being the only person who ever sued Porsche and won.
When I first saw the T87, 20 years ago at a car show, I told the owner to call me if he ever wanted to sell it. After he passed away, I got the call. When I went to see the family, they told me exactly what they wanted for the car, and I paid exactly what they asked. I always say, you don’t pay too much, you just buy too soon.
We went through the motor, installed new rods and pistons and made some changes. Tatra kept the output at 55 kilowatts for reliability. I put a 2-bbl Weber on it, as opposed to the standard carburettor. I can always go back. But you get better economy – and about 63 kW – with the Weber, and it looks totally stock. That big fin helped high-speed stability, but you can’t see out of the rear very well, so we installed outside mirrors.
My T87 is mechanically different from any other automobile I own. It has a rigid tubular-backbone chassis. Instead of constant- velocity joints, the car has two crownwheel gears – one on each rear-axle shaft – that pivot around a pair of differential spur gears. The two spare tyres are in front, an attempt to equalise weight distribution, but since the engine and gearbox are at the rear, the T87 is still tail-heavy and has a tendency to spin at the slightest provocation. British automotive writer Gordon Wilkins said that driving a Tatra produces “the uneasy exhilaration which may be got from shampooing a lion”.
I drive it swiftly, but I’m aware of its handling characteristics, and I don’t lift off the throttle in a corner. It’s like driving an early Porsche 356, with that car’s tendency for the rear end to step out, but the Tatra is twice as long. When you go down the road, there’s a motorboat sort of feel to the T87, but not disconcertingly so. The steering is so light, you can steer with one finger. When you lift off the gas at 60 mph, you don’t get that braaaahhhh overrun. It doesn’t freewheel; it cuts aerodynamically through the wind so well, it barely slows down.
Here’s the best part: One day I got a call from a guy in the UK.
“We have a Tatra club,” he said. “There’s a newsletter and a spare-parts scheme. We’re trying to put this and that together.” “Oh,” I said, “I’d love to join.”
“We’d love to have you,” he replied. I said, “How many people do you have in the club?”
“With your membership now,” he said, “there’s four!”
Well, I thought, they won’t need a big room for the Christmas party.
Video: Take a look at Jay’s Tatra T87