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SNAPSHOT 62: Tatra ‘T87’ 1949

In the case of cars that sold in respectable numbers, there have always been examples that looked somewhat different from most of their contemporaries. Similar situations have occurred with cars of conventional appearance, which were mechanically unorthodox for the period in which they were created. The number that have differed in both respects at the same time are though comparatively few.

The 1950s Triumph Mayflower would serve as an example from the first category, and White steam cars (Snapshot 32) suffice in the second, whilst a make that sits comfortably in the doubly-different group are the early Arrol-Johnstons (Snapshot 57). Also in this third category was the Czechoslovakian make Tatra, that for around a thirty-year period from the early 1920s onwards set off on a path towards the latter category.

The initial step in that direction was the ‘T11’ model that was first marketed in 1923. Although not looking significantly different from many other light cars of the period, having a backbone chassis and independent rear-suspension, plus being powered by a front-mounted horizontally-opposed air-cooled engine, contributed to its mechanical unconventionality, which places it in the second group.

A decade or so later when Tatra introduced the ‘T77’ model, this had definitely moved into category three. Not only had the bodywork of this 6-seater saloon car become fully streamlined, but the 2.97-litre V8 air-cooled engine, along with the transmission, was installed at the rear. Developments towards aerodynamic bodywork on passenger cars had made steady progress since the end of the First World War (there had been several mostly ‘one-offs’ prior to it) and by the early 1930s several manufacturers in both America and Europe were becoming involved with this area of automobile development.

First to offer an aerodynamic saloon was Chrysler with its ‘Airflow’ model which was conventional under the skin, although the engine was mounted further forward in the chassis. These were initially advertised from January 1934 but production did not begin until April. The rounded-off shape of the vehicle, which firmly placed it in the first category – cars that looked different, was too radical for many potential buyers, and there were also mechanical problems, but even so over 11,000 were sold in their first year.

The Tatra ‘T77’, first seen at the 1934 Berlin Motor Show in March, was though sleeker in profile than the ‘Airflow’ and of course more radical in all other respects. Criticism of the handling of the ‘T77’ led to the development of the much improved ‘T87’ and these fascinating vehicles, of which over 3,000 were made, remained in production until 1950.


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