“Matching numbers” cars are rarely seen, as most were behind the
Iron Curtain and kept running by any means possible

{vsig}2009-6_2331{/vsig}

Tatra manufactured some of the most technically sophisticated cars of the 1930s, with a decidedly unusual approach to automotive design. That can be attributed to Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka, who spent his early years working under pioneering automobile and aircraft designer Edmund Rumpler.

Beginning with the T11, conceived in 1921 by Ledwinka as a “people’s car,” many design innovations found their way onto later Tatra models, including a horizontally-opposed, air-cooled engine, a fully independent suspension, and a rigid, tubular “backbone” chassis mounting the engine, transmission, and final drive at the rear as a single unit.

The T77 was introduced in March 1934 and is considered the first production car designed using aerodynamic principles. Its successor, the T87, was simpler and more affordable, with a shorter wheelbase. Somewhat sportier, it offered comfortable seating for six, with full monocoque construction. Meanwhile, the air-cooled, magnesium alloy V8 engine was upgraded with hemispherical combustion chambers and a single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank. The T87 was renowned for its high-speed cruising capabilities, as well as its top speed of 100 miles per hour.

Following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, T87 production continued, halted briefly in 1943 and 1944. Post-war, the cars continued in production until 1950. The Tatra T87 offered here is believed by marque experts to have been originally built in 1940 by virtue of its dash layout and lack of sunroof.

Acquired by an American G.I. who exported the car to the United States after V-E Day, it was purchased in running order from his daughter in New England in 2002. The Tatra T87 was carefully restored, and the engine was meticulously disassembled and rebuilt to original specifications. Upon completion, the T87 was displayed at the 2008 Milwaukee Masterpiece Concours d’Elegance, and the current owner reports that the car starts, runs, and drives very nicely, with delightfully light steering, thanks to its rear-mounted engine.

SCM Analysis

Detailing

Vehicle:1970 Tatra T87
Number Produced:3,056
Original List Price:$5,840 (1947)
Tune Up Cost:$125
Distributor Caps:$50
Chassis Number Location:Stamp on right side of engine timing chain cover; ID plate on inside rear quarter panel
Engine Number Location:On timing chain cove
Club Info:Tatra Register UK
Website:http://www.tatra-register.co.uk
Alternatives:1940 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Berlina, 1940 Mercedes-Benz 230 Sedan, 1938 Delage D8 Berline
Investment Grade:B

This 1940 Tatra T87 sold for $121,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s Automobiles of Amelia Island, Florida, sale on March 14, 2009.

Tatra is a make many enthusiasts know for its reputation as one of the most effective elements of the Czech underground in World War II. An oft told story holds that following the annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1938, so many German army officers were killed in one-car accidents while driving the rear-engine, swing-axle Tatras that Hitler forbade any member of the officer corps from using one as personal transport. No proof of this heroic action on the part of the T87 has been found, but it sets the car up as a serious driver’s car, not to be trifled with.

Now a darling of the design world

The Tatra T87 has also become a darling of the design world, featured at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery, in the permanent collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and as the only vehicle on permanent display at Die Neue Sammlung design museum in Munich, Germany. Of course, it also is in prominent auto collections as well, including that of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, which has six Tatras, including a T87. Jay Leno has one, too.

Hans Ledwinka’s design, inspired by Paul Jaray’s pioneering aerodynamic work in the Zeppelin company’s wind tunnel, gave a claimed 0.212 Cd. This, along with the complex and capable V8 engine gave the T87 genuine 100 mph speed from only 75 hp. T87 owner Leno demonstrated the effectiveness of its aero design in a video on his Jay Leno’s Garage web site. At 65 mph on the freeway, he lifted off the throttle and the Tatra continued with virtually no loss in speed. The airflow also allows the passengers to ride with windows lowered and sunroof open.

Jeff Lane has driven his T87 more than 15,000 miles in two editions of the cross-country Great Race. As for the risks of driving a rear-engine V8 with swing axles, Lane says the Tatra’s no trickier than any other rear-engine car, and it’s not really powerful enough to get you into trouble. He further echoes the opinion of another Tatra guru, Hampton Wayt, who praises the good brakes, responsive steering, and excellent road holding of the T87.

Parts availability not the nightmare you might think

Its unit body gives very good torsional strength and a smooth, quiet ride, with a much more modern feel than expected. The sophistication continues with the magnesium block, alloy crankshaft, and SOHC spec of the V8. It isn’t likely that Tatra made much, if any, money selling these cars, instead relying on its trucks and railcars as breadwinners. Tatra still exists today as a truck manufacturer, having ended auto construction in 1999. There has been talk of a “new” T87, but nothing has come to fruition. In any case, it’s unlikely to be in the league of these great cars. The post-WWII 603s were merely OHV.

In considering a T87, parts availability might be one of the first questions. The answer is that while not as simple as finding MG bits, most mechanical pieces can be found, though some trim pieces are unobtainium. Rarely are “matching numbers” cars seen, as most have been used continuously since new, and were kept running by any means possible. Few were tucked away, undriven, for decades awaiting a collector’s gentle touch.

There are three main series of T87s, which break down into four types. The first are the earliest, from 1937 to 1939. Only a few hundred were made and they are extremely rare-in fact, no 1937s are known to exist. These earliest cars are quickly distinguished by a completely different dashboard. The next series runs from 1940 through 1948, with small differences between those built during the war and those from the restart of production in 1945.

The final series includes some cars from 1947 and ’48 through to the end in 1950. These last cars can be clearly distinguished by a totally different front-end treatment, called “pot belly” by the Czechs, not as a term of endearment.

Beware of post-war cars renumbered to pass as more valuable pre-war models. Consult a Tatra expert and buy a car known to the U.K. Tatra Register. Under no circumstances should you go to Eastern Europe to “discover” one on your own: Your expedition will likely end in tears. There were a few imported new into Canada and a handful to the U.S., but they didn’t last long without mechanical support or technical information.

Our subject T87 was sold by an SCMer and started out as a mostly derelict, original car. It has been dated circa 1940 and retains many correct features. The restoration is not to the highest level and it should be redone, though that isn’t economically feasible at the price paid. The buyer will be best served by entering rallies and tours for now and restoring it when values increase. With the attention the marque is getting, that shouldn’t be long.

Comments are closed.