The Best Red Car
Communist-made Autos are dull dishes – but look what’s cooking
F. H. Baer (Auto Sport
Review [USA], October 1953)
people are pretty well aware that the Russian Revolution produced
no revolution in automotive design. Russian cars up to the present
have been only conventional, mostly copies of early capitalist
models. But few persons on the sunny side of the Iron Curtain are
aware that the Communists now are manufacturing one of the most
revolutionary cars in the world—a rear-engined, air-cooled,
frameless five-passenger sedan that is rugged, reliable and
The car, of course, is the Tatraplan, and there isn't much
doubt that it is the best car produced under Communist planning.
But its virtues and its revolutionary features can't be credited
to the Reds. Its design elements were worked out and put into
production literally decades ago, long before the Communists took
over in Czechoslovakia.
When Tatra started out to build the first automobiles of
Central Europe, Czechoslovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire. The factory at Kopřivnice was privately owned and
operated, and the automobile was just emerging from infancy.
Only 56 years later, the Tatra Works, now a big factory, is
operating in Czechoslovakia with a Communist government dictating
progress and production, with the state owning and operating the
enterprise. The Tatra automobile, in the meantime, has grown up,
after having passed the stages of poverty (technically) and of
luxury (high price) to become an economic necessity.
the first Tatra Sports car, a two-cylinder overhead-valve pancake
type which attained a record speed of 71 mph during the fall of
1899, the Tatra has not only kept up to date in technical
respects, but also has often achieved technical fame, as when
introducing independent wheel suspension, four-wheel brakes
(during 1914), its first OHV engines (during 1906). The
revolutionary central tubular "backbone" frame in 1923,
and the air-cooled engine during that same year. The first racing
success was achieved Internationally In 1925, when a Tatra car
with independent suspension of all wheels, backbone frame, and an
air-cooled engine won the 1925 Targa Florio race in Sicily,
regarded by many as Europe's toughest trial.
During 1934, the Tatra Works again surprised the automotive
world: a fully streamlined sedan was produced, with a V-8
air-cooled, overhead-camshaft engine powering the monobuilt body,
the first car whose body's final form was determined in the
wind-tunnel of a near-by airplane factory. It featured built-in
front lights, with a center light in the front hood for better
driving in mist and rain. The engine turned out 15 hp at 4000 rpm;
top speed was raised to 98 mph—for a serial passenger car. In
1934, mind you—and at
fuel consumption which permitted an average of 24 miles per U.S.
Tested in an Australian trip, the air-cooled engine proved
its reliability in that hot climate, and some time later two Czech
engineers, Hanzelka and Zikmund, completed a round-the-world trip
with such V-8 powered stock sedans.
in 1920 to 1933, the Tatra Works produced the little
"12" model, with a two-cylinder air-cooled engine of
1000 cc piston displacement, a power-plant laid out for a peak
production of 12 hp at 2500 rpm. The noisy engine soon earned the
nickname "Sewing Machine" for this model (many of these
models are still in daily operation, as are U.S.-built Model T and
A Fords). Produced by the Nesselsdorf plant of the Tatra concern,
these cars still look and perform well.
During World War II Tatras of the 57a series were built
under German supervision for use in the German Wehrmacht.
During 1948, the year the present Communist government took
over, the Tatra Works were nationalized. Plans were announced
concerning construction and production of a new type of the Tatra
rear-engine car. The Tatraplan.
Following the trend of the time, the Tatraplan engine was
only half the piston displacement of the former V-8 model, which
was produced from 1934 to
(or 14 years without major technical changes). This was to permit
the car's entering a more economical tax group (a very important
detail in Europe), and to make the engine consume less fuel (for
gasoline was then rationed, expensive, and of inferior quality)
without sacrifice of too much in top speed.
Mainly responsible for the construction of the Tatraplan,
as well as the former V-8 engine car and the series "12"
model of 1923 was Austrian engineer, Dr. Ledwinka of Vienna.
Gifted as a constructor of engines as well as an expert on car
bodies. Dr. Ledwinka never was well-known internationally as was
Dr. Porsche, a fact which does injustice to Ledwinka's noteworthy
new Tatraplan should be credited with a series "first"
and original developments. First of all: The engine is mounted in
the rear of the car. It is air-cooled, and it is of the horizontal
"pancake" [boxer] type. This arrangement is not, as many
might believe, a copy of the German Volkswagen or the later
Porsche or the Austrian Denzel Sports models. Rather it is a fact
that all these cars have copied the Tatra "77"
rear-engine design which was first built in 1934. The first
air-cooled system was built by Tatra in 1923, as was the pancake
type engine. Also to be remembered is the fact that Dr. Porsche
participated in the construction of the model "87" Tatra,
the improved V-8 model.
The second element is the body: The fact that Tatra built
its first "monobuilt" body 17 years ago (1937) and also
built the first aerodynamically influenced body 19 years ago
(1935) labels the Tatra engineers of these days as pioneers in
that field. Studying the form of a drop of water in free fall, the
engineers decided on the basic form of the body, leaving all
detail modeling to extensive tests in wind tunnels. Actually this
"water drop" method does not represent the most modern
conception of body construction. The principle has been altered in
actual construction to compromise with other factors (such as
engine location, steering diagram, location and size of fenders,
angle and size of windshield etc).
Tatra the rear engine is a tradition. The engineers there claim
that only a rear-mounted engine permits an ideal streamlining of
the body, an aerodynamically valid form to reduce air resistance
and increase top speed with simultaneous decrease in gasoline
consumption. The engine, together with clutch, transmission,
propeller shaft and differential, forms a solid unit, which is
easily serviceable, easily exchangeable. The fact that all these
aggregates are built in a solid unit permits a low mounting in the
frame, thus aiding stability at high speed and while cornering,
due to the low center of gravity.
No gasoline, oil or exhaust fumes trouble the driver and
the passengers. The noise of the rather loud engine (all
air-cooled engines are louder than water-cooled units) is not
detectable above a speed of 50 miles per hour.
The absence of a long propeller shaft eliminates mechanical
troubles in universal joints, otherwise caused by vibration after
moderate mileage. There is no propeller shaft tunnel along the
floor and thus more leg-room. The absence of a propeller shaft
also permits a lowered floor, thus lowering the center of gravity
for better stability. Also a flat-built floor streamlines the
bottom of the car.
Another plus for the rear-engine Tatraplan is the claim
that the air used both for the fuel-air mixture and for-the
cooling of the entire engine is forced by the car's forward
movement through, air ducts formed by the rear engine hood. This
high, dust free intake gives assurance that the air filters for
the carburetors do not get clogged so soon. (The consumption of
gasoline goes up steeply if the necessary amount of air is not
available, due to clogged air filters.) It also aids in keeping
the engine clean, avoiding dust particles covering the cooling
fins around the cylinders' surface, which would necessarily lower
the heat dissipation rate.
The intensity of the air-cooling unit—an axial blower
driven by a belt from the crankshaft pulley—is entirely
dependent on the rpm of the engine. Driving in low gear over a
high mountain (in the high rpm range) or at high speed over flat
stretches (in the upper rpm range, too), the engine gets a
precisely calculated amount of fresh air.
the heat range in a water-cooled engine extends from an average of
68 degrees Fahrenheit (outside air) to 212 degrees (boiling
point), the heat range in an air-cooled engine is much wider. It
varies from the local air temperature, (68 degrees) to the normal
operating temperature of an explosion engine, which is 356
degrees. While the water-cooled power-plant thus has a range of
144 degrees, the air-cooled engines have such a range of 288
degrees, or double the range of heat variations (within safe
This is especially important in hot climates, where the
outside air temperature may go up to 120 degrees, thus decreasing
the heat range in water-cooled units to 112 degrees and in
air-cooled power plants from 244 degrees.
The condition of the crankshaft and the connecting rod
bearings is kept at a good operating level by the oil, which is
air-cooled in a special radiator mounted in front of the car, a
system which combines correct setting of the cooling degree (by
shutters in front of the radiator), and the long oil lines
reaching from the rear-mounted engine to the front radiator and
back. The oil supply in this engine, though larger in volume than
in normal cars, has a longer life because of the constant cooling,
and also on account of an oil filter (which is of the mechanical
type), agitated by a linkage system every time the clutch pedal is
The construction of the pancake-type engine—now
successfully copied by the German Volkswagen, the Porsche, the
Austrian Denzel, and the Porsche Gloeckler—permitted a flat
engine compartment for better body construction. Also there was a
wider base for the engine mounts (to reduce engine vibration', and
a low level of mounting for better weight distribution and a low
center of gravity. This type also permits low mounting without
sacrificing the ground clearance of the oilpan.
Returning to the second argument for the Tatraplan, the
body construction: a car with a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 50.7
pounds per horsepower, in comparison to the USA's closest
engine-sized car. Kaiser's Henry J., which has a ratio of 34.7 Ibs
per hp, the Czech car certainly does not have an outstanding
But Tatra's engineers purposely kept the engine small (for
reasons of economy) and put most attention on the air-resisting
factors of the body. These people came up with such a streamlined
body that it makes up in lowered air-resistance what the Tatraplan
lacks in weight-horsepower ratio.
rear-engine construction shortens the front section of the body,
resulting in a relatively short hood which houses only the
gasoline tank, one spare tire and a small piece of luggage, while
permitting a very good vision to the front and the side of the
road ahead—definitely a big safety factor.
monobuilt body has been Tatra's ever since 1937. It has, however,
stuck to the earlier invention of the backbone layout, a center
rectangular beam with a fork for the engine mounting in the rear.
Welded to this tough beam are the crossmembers and the engine
floor. The front wheels are suspended from a center mount on the
beam's front end.
Welded to the flat floorplate is an all-steel outer body
shell, with steel girders inside of this shell. The inside shell
is welded to these girders, protecting the head-room and the roof
of the car giving triple strength in this—still
Compared with front-engine cars there is never any noise in
this Tatra model. Also avoided is the nuisance squeak of from 12
to 30 screws which either shake loose, break or rust in
conventional design cars.
In case of accidents, the Tatra is not—as often believed
of all rear-engine cars—more dangerous than cars having the
engine to "protect" driver and passengers. (With an
impact of the same magnitude the conventional car's front engine
does not so much take the first shock as transmit the shock.
Increasing the engine's bulk weight toward the passengers'
compartment. This is far more dangerous and disastrous than a
rear-engine adding to the momentum to a car in an accident). The
relatively strong central beam can be damaged much less than any
other frame system known.
The front suspension is on the conventional side. Owing to
the structure and shape of the central beam, the Tatra has a
center spring base, the dual (upper and lower) transverse leaf
springs being regulated in their action by long dual action
telescopic shock absorbers. The rear wheels, suspended by torsion
bars, are of the swing-axle type; the shock absorbers are
diagonally-mounted dual-action telescopic types.