Tatra Type 87
A great Czech car (called Cyclops)
Brian Sewell recalls one of central Europe's greatest cars and its creator, Hans Ledwinka
04 May 2004

Tatra Type 87

What, I pondered on the morrow of Europe's expansion into the ancient peripheral territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, should be nominated as the greatest Bohemian or Moravian classic car - and concluded that it would have to be a Tatra bodied by Sodomka.
What, I pondered on the morrow of Europe's expansion into the ancient peripheral territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, should be nominated as the greatest Bohemian or Moravian classic car - and concluded that it would have to be a Tatra bodied by Sodomka.
The incredulous must be reassured that there really was a Czech equivalent of Hooper, Mulliner and Gurney Nutting called Sodomka (perhaps Ford should now revive it for special bodies on their smallest model), and in 1949 it really did build coachwork on a Tatra chassis - one model only, later passed off as a 70th birthday present for Joe Stalin - but for the long-nosed, lofty and very much de haut en bas attitude at traffic lights, we must reach back between the wars and find Sodomka in bed with Bugatti and Rolls-Royce.
If, however, we stretch the meaning of classic to be absolutely characteristic, not of a marque, but of a wonderfully ingenious engineer, designer or philosopher, then the obvious candidate is the Tatra Type 87. Most of us have at some point come upon its tamed development, the Tatraplan, and thought it an appealing but uncomely oddball; but the original car was wondrously outrageous, futuristic, fantastic and only just the right side of absurdity and science fiction. It dates, they say (they being the experts - but this is in Ruritania), from 1936 and continued in production until 1950, but from all these years we must deduct the period 1940-45 when the factory was making armoured and other vehicles for the German forces; in all, only 3,056 were sold and very few were exported.
It was very much a creature of the forward-looking Thirties in central Europe, so remarkably aerodynamic that its drag co-efficient was only 0.36 - not bad now, but extraordinary in an age when straight lines, razor-edge angles and flat glass were the aristocratic fashion of the day and streamlining was still a shade de trop. Its designer was an Austrian engineer with one of the most logical minds in the industry, now much forgotten, Hans Ledwinka, who had begun to refine his ideas and theories in wind tunnels as early as 1932 and was a consultant to Ferdinand Porsche in the development of the VW Beetle.
The Tatra's big body, more than six feet wide, was built the full width of the wheelbase, its slab sides eliminating the conventional running-boards and enclosing the rear wheels with spats; only the rudimentary front wings remained distinct, with the headlamps fared into them. The two most obvious quirks of styling were a third headlamp fared into the centre of the short bonnet - which gave the car its nickname, Cyclops - and an early attempt at the wrap-round windscreen, achieved with flat glass by raking forward the centre of the screen, moving the A-pillars back, and mating the main screen with these by means of small upright windows at a 45-degree angle. No conventional classic car of its day could match its forward visibility.
From the front, the car's resemblance to Porsche's Beetle is unmistakable. From the rear, it resembles no contemporary or antecedent design, and not until Chevrolet introduced the split-window Sting Ray Corvette of 1963 was there an echo of Ledwinka's ingenuity. In effect the back of the car is a vast hatch with a line that swoops unbroken from roof to bumper, incorporating a central fin and, at window level, two huge air-intakes; neither hatch nor boot-lid, it encloses the engine slung low behind the rear wheels (rear visibility is appalling). Between front and rear, the car assumes a third character - that of a family saloon with six windows and four full-width doors hinged on the B-post, its three-abreast bench seats accommodating all six passengers between the axles; few cars of the period cosseted so many in such smooth-riding comfort or, when on the move, in such near-silence. The only old-fashioned thing about the car was having to tuck luggage behind the rear seats.
Did this big Tatra work, did it go and was it stable? The engine was an air-cooled, light-alloy 3 litre V8 developing only 75bhp (and if that seems ludicrously little, consider the Ford 3.5 litre V8 of the same year at only 10bhp more), but drag was so low that it could haul the 17 feet and 1.5 tons of car to 60mph in 14 seconds and eventually reach 100mph - remarkable in its day and not to be sniffed at now. It rolled a little, but not much, played no (early) VW dirty tricks on bends, and proved almost agile on the narrow twisting roads of the Tatra mountains that gave the marque its name. Anyone lucky enough to drive one now is more likely to think it a pregnant Porsche 356 than an overblown Beetle.
Someone should write a book or pamphlet on Ledwinka; come to think of it, someone should compile an encyclopedia of Ruritanian engineers and marques from Austro-Daimler to Z - and yes, there was in truth a Z, the Automobil Zbrojovka, building pretty and ingenious 1-litre cars with 2-cylinder engines under fraudulently long bonnets in Brno, between 1924 and 1936. It was in Ruritania that engineers experimented most with front-wheel drive, rear engines, air cooling, horizontally opposed cylinders, synchromesh, electromagnetic gear changes and, I hear it claimed, automatic transmission. Were the slush-matic American transmissions of the early Forties really not the first?