Because of four decades of Communist domination in their countries, the cars that have emanated from Eastern Europe have the same dubious reputation as oysters harvested in months without "R's in them. Mention the name Zil, Tatra, Moscovich, Skoda or the like , and you'll most often draw nothing but derisive sneers or, at best, sly, knowing smiles.
In Tatra's case, at least, that impression is very unfair, because up until World War II, the Czechoslovakian company built some of the most advanced and imaginative automobiles of the era. All were inspired by the genius of one man, automotive engineer Hans Ledwinka, whose remarkable career extended from the horseless carriage days to the dawn of modern aerodynamics.
Tatra's history begins with a wagon maker named Ignaz Schustala, who set up shop in the Moravian town of Nesseldorf in 1850. Three decades later the company expanded into the production of railroad cars and eventually became the Nesseledorfer Wagenbau Fabriks Gesellschaft.
Into this phelgmatic concern walked a young engineer named Hans Ledwinka and, almost concurrently, the management of the company acquired a two-cylinder Benz automobile. This all took place in 1897, and, after the requisite study, the executives at Nesseldorfer decided they would build an automobile themselves.
Perhaps understandably, the contraption that emerged, powered by a two-cylinder six-horsepower engine, bore more than a passing resemblance to the Benz. Called the President, the model was exhibited in Vienna late in 1897 to mild acclaim, and Nesseldorfer built 10 more, but not before Ledwinka had redesigned the malfunctioning transmission.
Ipso facto, Ledwinka became the chief automotive engineer for the company, and, spurred by the Baron von Liebieg, a noted motoring enthusiast of the era, Ledwinka launched the Nesseldorfer marque into racing. The car he designed for this purpose, the Rennzweier, had a top speed of 53 miles per hour and met with moderate success before Nesseldorfer management pulled the plug. By 1905 Ledwinka had returned to find Nesseldorfer's automotive operations in sad shape. He immediately designed and developed the Type S, an advanced car for its day that featured a 3.3-liter overhead cam four cylinder engine. It and the subsequent Type T and Type U models were relatively successful. The latter two remained in production after Ledwinka got in a squabble with new management and left for Steyr.
He didn't return to the company until 1921 and by that time, the cars built by Nesseldorfer had a new name -- Tatra -- for their ability to negotiate the high peaks of the Tatra mountains. Ledwinka's first design for the new Tatra marque was the T11, one of the most technically advanced cars of its day. While other cars of the era used solid front and rear axles, the T11 had an independent (swing axle) rear suspension and a unique "backbone" chassis construction.
Powered by a tiny 1.06-liter air-cooled two-cylinder engine, the lightweight (1,500-pound) T11 could attain a top speed of 55 miles per hour. Its oddly attractive body was bolted to a central tube chassis through which ran the driveshaft. Later in the Twenties Ledwinka designed a larger, luxury model dubbed the T30. It featured front and rear independent suspension via swing axles, and its water-cooled engine delivered 35 horsepower.
Through the late Twenties and into the early Thirties Ledwinka designed a surprising number of models that were essentially variations and improvements on the themes of the T11 and T30. None were built in large numbers, but all served to set the scene for the Tatra 77.
In 1931, Ledwinka and Fellow engineer Erich Uberlacker became intrigued with the idea of rear-mounted engines According to their thinking, placing the engine at the rear of the car would aid aerodynamics, cut power losses in the drivetrain, position the weight over the driving wheels and create a roomier passenger cabin. With these potential benefits in mind, they built two rear-engined prototypes, the second of which, the V570, looks remarkably like a Volkswagen Beetle. The bug-eyed V570 was a four-passenger car powered by a 854 cubic centimeter horizontally opposed air-cooled two-cylinder engine.
The V570 performed successfully, but Ledwinka decided he wanted to take the concept even farther in his upcoming Tatra 77. With Uberlacker doing most of the actual engineering, what Ledwinka devised was a large, six-passenger luxury sedan that was powered by a rear-mounted air-cooled V-8 engine. The car used the same backbone chassis as other Tatra designs and, of course, Tatra's independent front and rear suspension technology.
One marked difference between the 77 and other Tatra models was in its bodywork. Obviously a forward-thinker, Ledwinka had been following the aerodynamic work of Hungarian Paul Jaray, who had designed some rather awkward but aero-slick prototypes between 1928 and 1933. Jaray also postulated that rear engines were the wave of the future because that configuration easily accommodated the long tail he believed was best aerodynamically.