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Tatra (named after the Tatra mountains) is a vehicle manufacturer in Kopřivnice, Czech Republic. The company was founded in 1850 as Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft, a wagon and carriage manufacturer, and produced the first motor car in central Europe in 1897, the Präsident. In 1919 it changed its name to Tatra. One source claims that Tatra is the "third oldest car maker in the world after Daimler Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot". Production of Tatra cars ceased in 1999 but the company still produces a successful range of primarily all-wheel-drive 4x4, 6x6, 8x8 10x10 and 12x12 trucks (see Tatra trucks).

Early years

Ignác Šustala (1822 - 1891), founder of the company in what was then Nesseldorf, Moravia, started the production of horse-drawn vehicles in 1850. In 1891 he branched out into railway wagon manufacture naming the company Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft and employed Hugo Fischer von Roslerstam as technical director in 1890. After the death of Šustala, von Roslerstam took over running the company and in 1897 he bought a Benz automobile. Using the Benz for inspiration the company made its first car, the Präsident which was exhibited in 1897 in Vienna. Orders were obtained for more cars and under the direction of a new young engineer called Hans Ledwinka (1878-1967) ten improved cars were made.

The first car to be totally designed by Ledwinka came in 1900 with the Type A with rear mounted 2714 cc engine and top speed of 40 km/h of which 22 were made. This was followed by the Type B with central engine in 1902 but then Ledwinka left the company to concentrate on steam engine development. He returned in 1905 and designed a completely new car, the Type S with 3308 cc 4 cylinder engine. Production was badly hit in 1912 with a 23 week strike and Hugo Fischer von Roslerstam left the company.

Tatra concept

At the end of World War I in 1918 a new country, Czechoslovakia was created incorporating Moravia and Nesseldorf became Kopřivnice. Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau was renamed Kopřivnice vozovka and in 1919 the name Tatra was given to the car range. Leopold Pasching took over control and Hans Ledwinka once more returned in 1921 to develop the revolutionary Tatra 11.

The new car, launched in 1923 featured a rigid backbone tube with swinging semi-axles at the rear giving independent suspension. The engine, front mounted, was an air cooled two cylinder unit of 1056 cc. It was replaced in 1926 by the similar T 12 which had four wheel brakes. A further development was the 1926 T 17 with 1930 cc water cooled six cylinder engine and fully independent suspension.

In 1927 the company was formally renamed as Tatra a.s..

Prewar streamliners

Tatra's specialty was luxury cars of a technically advanced nature. In the 1930s, under Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka and his son Erich, Tatra started building advanced, streamlined cars starting with the large Tatra T77 in 1934, the world's first production aerodynamic car. The fastback T77's drag coefficient of 0.212 is rarely bettered even by the sleekest modern cars. It featured, as did almost all subsequent big Tatras, a rear-mounted, air-cooled V8 engine, very technically sophisticated for the time.

Ledwinka discussed his ideas with Ferdinand Porsche who used many Tatra design features in the 1938 Kdf-Wagen, later known as the VW Beetle. This is particularly evident when compared with the smaller T97 model which had a rear-mounted, air-cooled, flat-4 engine and rounded body styling. Tatra immediately started legal action, but the matter was not resolved until 1961 when Volkswagen was ordered to pay 3,000,000 Deutsche Mark in damages.

War years

After the 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany, Tatras continued in production, largely because Germans liked the cars. Liked them too well, in fact; many German officers met their deaths when pushing heavy, rear-engined Tatras faster around corners than they could handle. In fact, the Tatra became known as the Czech Secret Weapon for the scores of officers who died behind the wheel; at one point, it seems, official orders had to be issued forbidding German officers from driving Tatras.

Postwar Communist control

The factory was nationalised in 1946 after the Communist Party was elected to power. Although production of prewar models continued, a new model, the Tatra T600 Tatraplan was designed -- the name celebrating the new Communist planned economy. It went into production in 1947. In 1951, the state planning department decided that the Tatraplan should henceforth be built at the Skoda plant in Mladá Boleslav, leaving Tatra free to concentrate on trucks, buses and railway equipment.

The Tatra T603

A mere three years later, amid much dissatisfaction among officialdom about the poor-quality official cars imported from Russia, Tatra was again given permission to produce a luxury car, the famous Tatra T603. A fair successor to the prewar cars, it was also driven by a rear-engined, air-cooled V8 and had the company's trademark aerodynamic styling. Uniquely, the Tatra T603 featured three headlights, and the first prototypes had a central rear stabilising fin, though this was lost for production. Fitted with almost American-style thick chrome bumpers with bullets (a.k.a. Dagmar bumpers), the Tatra T603 was an amazing looking car for 1955. Looks weren't all it had going for it; performance was spritely for a large, six-seater car, and the ride was smooth as glass. Almost entirely hand-built, Tatras were not for everybody; normal citizens could not buy them. They were reserved for Party elites, Communist officials, factory presidents and other notables, as well as being exported to most other Communist nations as official cars. Even Fidel Castro had a white Tatra T603, custom-fitted with air conditioning.

Tatra T603s were built until 1975, a twenty-year reign as Communism's finest car. Numerous improvements were made over this time, but not all the new cars built in this period were actually new. When a new Tatra replaced an old, the old vehicle was returned to the factory. There, it was upgraded to modern condition, refinished, dubbed new and sent out again as a putatively new vehicle to replace another older Tatra. This makes it hard to trace the history of surviving vehicles.

The T603 appeared in the 2005 movie Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events as the other car that looks odder than the Chrysler Imperial.

1970s makeover—the Tatra T613

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Tatra T613-4 Mi Long Model 1995

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Tatra T613 V8 petrol air cooled engine

In 1968 a replacement was developed; the Tatra T613. It was styled by the Italian styling house of Vignale and was a more modern, less rounded shape. It was not until 1973 that any were actually produced by the factory, and volume production did not begin until the following year. Although the layout remained the same, the body and engine were all new, the unit being equipped with 4 overhead camshafts, a greater volume (3495 cc) and delivering close to 165 bhp. In addition, it had been moved somewhat forward for improved balance. These cars were built in 5 series and several modifications until 1996. It is a tribute to Vignale's excellent styling that they did not look outdated until rather late in that time period. Over 11,000 cars were built, slowing to a trickle of but a few dozen a year towards the end as Tatras began to seem more and more outdated.

Final steps, and the end

With orders and production almost at a standstill after the fall of Communism, Tatra decided to stop building the Tatra T613 in 1996. An attempt was made to produce an updated version, the Tatra T700; it was largely based on the old car, with updated body panels and detail. Sales were poor, and in 1999 Tatra abandoned the manufacture of cars.

No such fate has met Tatra's truck production, which is quite successful.

The United States Terex Corporation acquired the majority ownership (71%) of Tatra in late 2003. However, as of 2006, the majority ownership lies in the hands of Blue River's owner, Ronald Adams of Fort Worth, Texas.


Passenger cars



Tatra T813


See Also

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Cars: T11 · T12 · T17 · T57 · T75 · V570 · T77 · T77a · T87 · T97 · T107 · T600 Tatraplan · T603 · T613 · T700

Trucks: T111 · T141 · T805 · T138 · T813 · T148 · T815 · Tatrapan · T163 Jamal · T816


V570 Prototype ·

Hans Ledwinka

Ignác Šustala Corporate website independent

External links