The Tatra T-87 emerged in 1937 as the first true streamlined production motor car. Its pioneering design was developed by Austrian-born Hans Ledwinka and engineers at the Czech Tatra company. Tatra had built carriages and rail coaches since the mid 19th century before entering into motor-car production in 1897 (the year that Ledwinka joined the firm). Around 1930, Tatra engineers conceived a radical redesign of what had become the standard box-shaped automobile, mounting an air-cooled engine at the rear of a backbone chassis.
Several prototypes appeared in 1931 and 1933, before the launch in 1934 of the T-77, a six-seater luxury car powered by a V-8 engine. Its distinctive features were a central seat for the driver and a dorsal rear fin similar to those used in contemporary racing cars. Despite its advanced design, the car’s road holding was criticised and relatively few were produced before the T-87 appeared two years later.
The new model handled better, was lighter and more compact, delivered an even higher top speed of 160 kph and used less fuel. Many of these improvements followed from its monocque shell structure, which had first been used in aircraft and racing cars. Although the driver was now conventionally placed, the T-87 retained its predecessor’s central third headlight and what had now become Tatra’s trademark fin. Introduced for aerodynamic reasons, the fin emphasised the T-87’s striking streamlined form. This drew on studies in minimising air resistance and drag by the Swiss-based designer Paul Jaray and on bodywork patents licensed from the American Budd company (responsible for the Zephyr train). Other suggested influences on the overall design include the sculptor Constantin Brancusi and the architect Erich Mendelssohn.
When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Nazi authorities monitored closely the Tatra company’s output. The T-87 was permitted in limited numbers as an ‘autobahn’ car, while its successor, the intended mass-market T-97, was suppressed to make way for Porsche’s Volkswagen, the design of which may have been influenced by the Czech car.
Tatra T-87 saloon car
Hans Ledwinka (1878-1967)
Manufactured by Tatra Werke, Koprivnica
474 x 167 x 150 cm
© Die Neue Sammlung - State Museum of Applied Arts and Design, Munich/Rainer Viertlboeck
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