The Tatra name, derived from the High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia, was first used on an automobile in 1919 replacing the NW marque. Tatra engineers led by Hans Ledwinka and E. Ubelacker began experimenting with aerodynamics in the 1930s while crafting a small streamlined car with a rear-engine layout in a backbone frame. The prototype debuted in 1933 evolving into the production model T-77, which debuted on March 5, 1934. It was to be the first serially-produced aerodynamically-styled automobile powered by an air-cooled rear-mounted engine. It had an exceptionally low drag coefficient of 0.21, which was unheard of at the time.
Its successor, the T-87, followed in 1936 addressing many of the handling deficiencies of its predecessor. Drag coefficient was increased to 0.36, which was still remarkable in the era. The current owner's grandfather, Walter, purchased this car in Czechoslovakia in 1975, though it took four years for him to successfully export it to the United States.
The Tatra T87 was produced from 1936 through 1950 with a total of 3,056 examples produced. They were designed by Dr. Hans Ledwinka and were an improved version of the Tatra T77 model.
The Tatra marquee was responsible for some of the most technically sophisticated cars of their time and they have a history that dates back to 1850 when they were founded by Ignac Sustala as a wagon and carriage maker in Nesseldorf, Czechoslovakia. Their unusual approach and controversial designs are attributed to the Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka, who has spent his early career working with automobile and aircraft designer Edmund Rumpler.
His Tatra T11, created in the early 1920s, was designed as a 'people's car' and meant to cater to many people's needs and budgets. The T11 and T12, remaining in production until 1933, were built a reputation for their reliability, durability, and capability.
The Tatra models would feature many innovations such as a horizontally-opposed, air-cooled engine, a fully independent suspension, and a tubular 'backbone' chassis mounting the engine, transmission, and final drive at the rear as a single unit.
In 1930, Ledwinka and Erich Ubelacker began work on a new prototype that eventually evolved into the V570. This new prototype used swing axles and a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine and had low drag thanks, in part, to its streamlined bodywork. This aerodynamic body was created with the skill and knowledge of Paul Jaray.
The work of the V570 prototype project resulted in the Tatra T77 model introduced in March of 1934. It is regarded as the first production car designed using aerodynamic principles.
It was one of the most advanced and modern vehicles on the road, however, the time and expense required to create this coach-built vehicle made it too expensive for most customers.
In 1936, Tatra introduced the T87 model. This was meant as a replacement for the T77 and was simpler and relatively more affordable, built on a shorter wheelbase that measured 124-inches. The interior provided seating for six from the Bauhaus-style seating. The T78 incorporated full monocoque construction and was powered by an air-cooled, magnesium alloy V8 engine with hemispherical combustion chambers and a single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank. Top speed was in the neighborhood of 100 mph for this sporty vehicle.
Following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, T87 production continued, halted briefly in 1943 and 1944. After the war, production continued until 1950. During the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, Hans Ledwinka was imprisoned for six years. He was later sent back to his native Austria. Ferdinand Porsche's prewar KdF Wagon evolved into the Volkswagen Type 1. This later became known as the Beetle, which not only shared a resemblance to the Tatra T87 but also shared many of the same design philosophies.By Daniel Vaughan | Apr 2009