In early car designs, it was common for some models to be ahead of their time in terms of features. A good example was the 1936 Tatra 87. Built by Tatra, the car could be considered the Czech equivalent of a Cadillac. Streamlined and sporty, the 87 was one of the fastest production cars of the time period. We’re looking into the history of the 87 to see how it was designed.
Tatra was run by Austrian engineers Hans Ledwinka and Edmund Ubelacker. In 1934, they acquired a licence from Paul Jaray, designer of the Graf Zeppelin, to build the Type 77 prototype. He designed an aerodynamic body that became the inspiration for the 87.
The unique bodywork had a rear fin that helped to divide air pressure on both sides of the car. The back segment could be opened in order to service the air-cooled engine. Suicide doors made up the front, while the rear doors opened in a traditional manner.
The 87’s V8 engine allowed the car to reach nearly 100 mph, making it extremely fast for the time. Rivals used engines with greater volume, but the 87’s aerodynamic shape worked in its favour. It consumed 12.5 litres per 100 km compared to other cars that consumed 20 litres.
Influence on other cars
When the first Volkswagen Beetle was introduced, Ledwinka sued Ferdinand Porsche for similarities between the two cars. The lawsuit was dropped in 1938 when Germany annexed Czechoslovakia. During the WW2, the 87 was praised by the German military for its speed and performance. Contrastingly, it was known as the ‘Czech secret weapon’ because it killed many Nazi officers, to the point that the Germany army banned officials from driving the car.
After WW2, the Russians accused Ledwinka of working with the Nazis and he was jailed for six years. This reignited the lawsuit and Volkswagen had to pay Tatra around 3 million deutsche marks. Although Ledwinka didn’t get any money from the settlement, he became the only person to sue Ferdinand Porsche and win.
The 87’s uniqueness makes it a popular classic car for enthusiasts. One is owned by Jay Leno, while several others can be seen in museums across the world. For example, a 87 is on display at the Riga Motor Museum in Latvia and another can be seen at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee.