Last revised: 26-1-2009

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Car of the Month - December 2004

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Tatra Type 87 - 4-door sedan body - manufactured in 1939

Cars started out as horse-less carriages, simply by replacing a team of horses by an engine. And for many years cars looked that way, upright, high on the wheels which were placed outside the bodywork and with separate mudguards protecting the body and the passengers from dirt. These were all very sensible design elements for horse drawn vehicles, travelling at low speeds on unpaved roads, but for cars, which became faster and faster while the roads improved, they soon stopped making sense. Still there was a remarkable reluctancy among constructors to give up on the classic carriage look. And although much of the research into modernizing the car as a vehicle in its own right was done in the early 20th century it took until the 1930s before radical changes were made in the appearance and construction of cars.
These changes were prompted by two modern aspects: the desire to improve road holding and the desire to travel comfortably at high speeds. As cars gradually became within reach of the general public they evolved into an alternative to travelling by train. This meant that a car had to be easy to operate by non-professional drivers and had to be able to reliably and rapidly cover distances without wearing its driver and its passengers out. At some point these demands couldn't longer be met within the confines of the classic carriage-like design and introducing radical innovations became necessary.
For some reason 1934 seemed to be the year for the most daring manufacturers to introduce their innovative non-carriage like models to the main public. In the US the ground braking 1934 Chrysler Airflow is regarded as the first "modern" car. Inspired by aircraft design it looked considerably different from what was available at the time. It had a flowing, streamlined shape with fenders and lights that were more incorporated into the bodywork and a roomy interior thanks to more practical engine and chassis arrangements. In Europe however the Tatra Type 77 which also came on the market in 1934 is generally regarded as the first modern car. And this model makes the Chrysler Airflow appear rather conservative.

The Tatra T77 was the work of Hans Ledwinka, a well respected engineer of Austrian origin who started working for Tatra (at the time named Nesselsdorf and located in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) in 1905. It incorporated practically all innovations which were topical at the time: streamlining, independent suspension, air-cooled engine at the rear etcetera. In those days the car seemed to be from another planet with its low teardrop shape (drag coefficient was an unmatched 0.22), closed and pointy rear end and central driving position. Unfortunately it suffered from poor handling and in 1936 it was replaced by the much improved T87. This was a luxurious and roomy 6-seater along the lines of the T77 but shorter and lighter.
The T87 became an icon and a monument for Ledwinka, whose achievements were unfortunately obscured by that of fellow Austrian Ferdinand Porsche who applied the principles introduced by Ledwinka in the T77 and T87 (amongst other models) in the new Volkswagen, which was presented as "KdF-Wagen" in 1938, became affectionately known as the "Beetle" after World War 2 and influenced car construction world wide. The T87 was an expensive car which sold only a mere fraction of the numbers reached by the Volkswagen, only 748 were made until 1940. But its basic design remained in production for practically as long as that of the Volkswagen; the last Tatra T700, a much updated incarnation of the T87, left the Czech factory in 1998. This has to say something about the importance and meaning of this car, which clearly marks a turning point in car construction and perception.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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