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With their sculpted curves and scent of Italian futurism, Tatra cars first turned heads in the 1930s. They've been seducing designers ever since (well, up to the 1980s)

‘If today people stop and stare when I drive by in the Tatra, try to imagine the public impact in 1934, the year of its birth… the voluptuous steel body with its sculpted air intakes and striking dorsal fin is continually described as “futuristic” and I enjoy the affinities of this automobile with the artistic movement of Italian Futurism. For example, the figure by Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), looks as if it had been sculpted in the slipstream of a wind tunnel, and seems to anticipate the embodiment of speed in a new generation of automobiles, still two decades away from realisation.’

I think we are aware that this cannot be a piece of motoring journalism by Jeremy Clarkson. In fact, it turns out to be by Norman Foster. Yes, it seems he owns a Tatra – one of the legendary cars designed by the great automotive engineers Paul Jaray and Hans Ledwinka (1878-1967). To be exact, Foster owns a postwar T87, and is at pains to point out that this is not exactly the same as the slightly earlier but very similar T77 which did indeed debut in 1934. 

  • 1936 Tatra T77 at Josef Gocar's Villa Glucklich outside Prague, photographed in 2014.
    1936 Tatra T77 at Josef Gocar's Villa Glucklich outside Prague, photographed in 2014. · Credit: Pavel Kasik, Karel Ther, Dalibor Lupik

What else, then, does Foster have in his commodious garage? I’m delighted to read that he has a Citroen Traction Avant, another revolutionary car from 1934 (one of which I once expensively tried and failed to restore). In engineering terms the Citroen was the exact opposite of the Tatra – front engine, front-wheel drive as opposed to its Czech rival’s rear engine, rear-wheel drive. Foster also has an American streamliner of the same period, the Chrysler Airflow, and most famously of all, a functioning Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion which can turn round in its own length – though you don’t want to do that at any kind of speed.

There are more – a 1944 military-version Kdf-Wagen, earliest version of the VW Beetle, and a 1950 split-screen Porsche 356 Coupé. Both designed by the same man, Ferdinand Porsche. All of this information is divulged in Foster’s foreword to a fine book by Ivan Margolius and John G Henry, Tatra: the legacy of Hans Ledwinka. It’s a revised update of a book first published in 1990 when, I’d guess, Foster didn’t have so many of those classic cars. It has been sitting on my desk for months. Finally, in the dog days of August, I got a chance to read it. And what a fascinating account of a great marque it is. 

  • Norman Foster's 1948 Tatra T87, a real head-turner.
    Norman Foster's 1948 Tatra T87, a real head-turner. · Credit: Nigel Young
  • Boccioni – Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. Anticipates streamlining, thinks Norman Foster.
    Boccioni – Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. Anticipates streamlining, thinks Norman Foster. · Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Margolius owns this 1949 Tatra T600 Tatraplan, seen here with a de Havilland biplane.
    Margolius owns this 1949 Tatra T600 Tatraplan, seen here with a de Havilland biplane.
  • 1961 Tatra T603 – as seen in Lemony Snicket. Last of the curvy Tatras.
    1961 Tatra T603 – as seen in Lemony Snicket. Last of the curvy Tatras. · Credit: Ivan Margolius

Margolius is a Prague-born and trained architect who has previously worked for Foster and Partners among other practices including SOM and YRM. Foster himself knows his automotive history and cherishes the connections between these cars. For instance he relates that Jaray – who held patents dating from 1927 on the wind-tunnel-derived streamlining of cars and ran a New York studio to market them, something he was a world pioneer in – successfully sued Chrysler over its Airflow and won royalties from them. Nonetheless, none other than Wilbur Wright of Wright Brothers fame had also helped Chrysler. Tatra also successfully sued Porsche over his series of rear-engined cars, claiming again that he had infringed their patents, and eventually – in 1965 – won a million deutschmarks.

There were, says Foster, some remarkable other coincidences happening in motor manufacturing at the time – the sudden arrival of one-piece monocoque construction on both sides of the Atlantic in the hands of Chrysler and Citroen, for instance. Tatra’s contribution was not only streamlining but a lightweight central tubular chassis. Some collaborations were acknowledged, others were rather more covert. But Foster is clear on the appeal of Tatra, which continued to make distinctive cars right up to 1999. The glory years of bonkers radicalism, however, ran from the T77 in 1934 to the 1970 T2-603. I think it was one of the latter which was driven by actor Timothy Spall as Mr Poe in the film of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. A good choice, as everything about that film traded on oddness, and that was one of the more distinctive cars of the period.

That was, for me, the last great Tatra styling exercise. The two models that followed in the 1980s and 1990s lost their distinctive curves and the final few cars in the series were squared-off designs looking a bit like inflated Morris Marinas, though still with huge lumps of aircooled V8 engines in the back.

  • 1934 brochure artwork – though watch out for that V8 rear engine on slippery bends.
    1934 brochure artwork – though watch out for that V8 rear engine on slippery bends.
  • Plan and section – the evolution of the mighty rear-engined streamlined Tatras over 40 years.
    Plan and section – the evolution of the mighty rear-engined streamlined Tatras over 40 years.
  • Book cover using 1930s advertising artwork.
    Book cover using 1930s advertising artwork.

One wonders how things might have progressed were it not for the twin impacts of the Second World War and the postwar Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Margolius and Henry relate how Hans Ledwinka, the engineer who was the power behind Tatra’s glory years, was jailed for alleged Nazi collaboration by the regime, at the behest of its Soviet masters, and served three years. Although then invited to return and run the Tatra factory, he refused and returned to his native Austria. He was finally rehabilitated posthumously by the Czech Republic’s High Court, in 1992. But Tatra continued without him, producing the triumphantly successful T600 Tatraplan, the most streamlined yet though clearly in line of descent from its Ledwinka predecessors. Ivan Margolius has one of these and has offered me a ride in it one day. Ivan – I think I’m ready now.

Tatra – The Legacy of Hans Ledwinka by Ivan Margolius and John G Henry, with foreword by Lord Foster, Veloce Books limited edition £55.