Futuristic Shape and Radical Design in the 1930s-1950s
In our older article "Aerodynamic Marvels" we covered the most amazing examples of American aerodynamic prototypes from the 1930's and 1950's. However, streamlined cars were also quite the rage in Europe before WWII: Tatra T87 made in Czechoslovakia in the mid 1930's, is the best example.
With top speed approaching 100 mph, efficient aerodynamic characteristics, weird triple headlights and an air-cooled engine in the back, this car sported radical looks and even more radical engineering. The only American car approaching it in terms of innovation at the time would be Tucker 48, although "the Tucker story" merits its own article (the car did not go over too well with the American car industry back then, alas).
"European designers created numerous streamlined rear-engine automobiles throughout the 1930s. Between 1934 and 1938, Tatra was the only company to put rear-engine streamliners into serial production. After the Tatra T77 debuted in 1934, American automobile companies, including Ford, created prototype of rear engine automobiles, but never produced them." (source)
The internet is a big place, so there is already a site dedicated to old Tatra cars: International Streamlined Tatra Site. We strongly recommend checking it out for the various details of this car's exceptional history.
The Start of Tatra
The "Tatra" company was known since the mid 19th century as a manufacturer of carriages and rail coaches, but after Austrian-born engineer Hans Ledwinka joined the company, it switched to automobile production. Everything changed again in the 1930s, when Hans introduced pioneering air-cooled rear-engine design, drastically different from all other box-shaped cars at the time.
The Tatra Type 57 with aerodynamic body by Paul Jaray (1932):
(left: 3D reconstruction by James & Patrick Granger; images via)
T-77 model (improved and enlarged V570 prototypes from 1933). This is probably the most well-known Tatra shape, and the most futuristic:
Not only did they sported a headlight in the middle of a car, but some of the T77 models also had the steering wheel located in the center of the dashboard! The driver sat slightly ahead and between the front seat passengers, almost like a pilot in an airplane.
Here are some Tatras made shortly after WWII (1946):
....and further in the 1950s Tatra still looked very strange, but certainly rather elegant. Shortly after the war the original mastermind behind Tatra cars, engineer Hans Ledwinka, was imprisoned by Communists for suspected collaboration with the Nazis... and then rehabilitated. After which, he wisely emigrated back to Austria. So even though the post-war Tatras were pleasing to the eye, but were nowhere as radical as the old ones.
We wrote about VW Beetle early concepts influence on American car designers in our previous article. However, VW and Porsche took a few hints (sometimes more than just hints) from other European companies as well. Compare these shots of Tatra T97 (from 1936) and KdF (a Beetle prototype):
Paul Schilperoord writes: "In the late 1930s it became clear that VW had used several patents of the Tatra factory. It's likely Porsche used these patents because of the enormous presure from Hitler to develop the KdF-Wagen in a short time and on a tight budget. Just before the outbreak of WWII Tatra had ten legal claims against VW for infringement of patents. Although Porsche was about to make a settlement with Tatra, Hitler stopped him and told Porsche he would "solve this problem". Shortly after he invaded Czechoslovakia and gained control over the Tatra factory. Hitler immediately stopped the production of the T97 after only 508 cars were built. The T97's big brother, the V8-powered T87, did remain in production during the first years of the war. The T87 was considered by German highcommand as the ultimate car for the new German Autobahns and was a real favourite amongst German officers."
According to another source, after the war VW was required to pay Tatra an undisclosed sum of money for infringing on Tatra's design, which VW does not particularly like to discuss nowadays...
Other Streamlined Cars of the Era
Tatra was not the only company producing streamlined cars in Europe, and even not the only one in Czechoslovakia. Here is Wikov Type 35 car, having the similar airplane-fashion approach to its design.
Back in the US:
Teague Car: a curious three-headlight rear-engine sedan design proposal published in the 1930s:
Note the curved window panes: they were used here for the first time. Aerodynamically speaking, it was almost sensational: its coefficient of drag was only 0.28. The driver sat in the front-center, behind him was space for four passengers. Only 100 cars were built, mostly due to the weak 6-cylinder engine and the obvious absense of trunk space. (Trunks were attached to later models as an after-thought). This car became famous in another way: Fritz Lang used a number of them in his legendary "Metropolis" movie.
Some other patented ideas from the same company (this one dated 1919):
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