July 21, 2008 7:21 AM
Austrian born automotive legend Hans Ledwinka began his career at the age of 19, as a draftsman at the company where he would eventually make his name. Czech railway manufacturer Nesseldorfer Waggonbau was considering a go at the automobile business, and Ledwinka's designs resulted in the company's first production run. Nesseldorfer closed its automobile division during World War I, and Ledwinka moved on, only to return as chief designer after the war.
With the newly won freedom to pursue his revolutionary automobile concepts under Nesseldorfer's new Tatra label, Ledwinka introduced his T11 to the public in 1923. The car was built over a tubular backbone, featuring rear wheel drive and rear swinging half-axles, which remains Tatra's standard production design to this day. By the early 1930s, Ledwinka and his son Erich began designing a car with a streamlined, aerodynamic body, and rear-mounted, air-cooled engine. The T77 prototype was introduced in 1934, and with an amazing drag coefficient of 0.212, became the first scientifically designed, production aerodynamic car.
But Ledwinka wasn't satisfied, and was already at work on a lighter, more compact and graceful successor. Considered to be his crowning achievement, the T87 was also the car Hans Ledwinka personally drove for most of his life. Built when Czechoslovakia was on the cusp of technology, industrial design, and art, the T87 was considered an iconic symbol of the modern age. Heavily influenced by Graf Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray, the body featured a windowless, sloping rear fastback which formed the engine's cowling. A prominent rear spine divided air pressure for maximum air flow. The T87's technically advanced 2.9 liter air-cooled overhead cam V8 produced 85 hp, pulled about 20 mpg, and could top speeds of 100 mph, making it the ultimate vehicle for navigating the Autobahn. One of the fastest production cars of its time, the luxurious T87 was also capable of managing rough terrain, and unlike anything else on the market.
Sadly, at the zenith of his greatest success, Ledwinka's luck was about to head south and into obscurity. The T87 was regarded as the ideal car for the Nazi officer. So when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, they naturally took control of Tatra. This takeover served a dual purpose for Adolf Hitler, who had become aware of the car Tatra had in development. The T97 was the most advanced small car in the world, and a virtual prototype of the Volkswagen Beetle. At the time, Ledwinka had filed numerous patent claims against his sometime friend and competitor, Ferdinand Porsche, who has been developing his Volkswagen KdF-Wagen under enormous pressure from the Nazis. Ledwinka was forced to supervise engineering and production of military vehicles for the next six years, production on the T97 ceased, and the patent dispute was effectively resolved. To add insult to injury, after the war, Ledwinka and his son were sentenced to six years in prison for collaborating with the Nazis. Tatra's owners suffered an even worse fate, and the company was nationalized in 1946 as the Communists came to power.
Tatra lovers, take heart! The patent suit was legally settled in Tatra's favor in 1961, and Hans Ledwinka was fully vindicated by the Czechs in 1992. Meanwhile, devoted fan clubs in America and Europe have kept Ledwinka's fine automotive legacy alive and rolling.