Aerodynamics

Brilliance cheated of its due

With the valuable support of Prof. Massimo Grandi’s depth of knowledge and illustrative talent

Photo credit: Some images are taken from the book Asi Service "Quando le disegnava il vento" by Massimo Grandi

As we see in this story, the turn of historical events in the last century meant that an extraordinary brand, which built innovative vehicles and boasted a remarkable understanding of the future of aerodynamics, never got the recognition it deserved. We are talking about the car maker Tatra. Founded during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this company grew during the First Czechoslovak Republic, but was then humiliatingly crushed by the German invasion and occupation, and the subsequent Soviet regime.

The company had a brilliant driving force in engineer, Hans Ledwinka, who, blessed with a nose for the avant-garde, found his perfect working partner in aerodynamics wizard Paul Jaray.

The 1933 VS 10 was the forerunner, both conceptually and esthetically, of the future Volkswagen Beetle. However, the rear-mounted, air-cooled engine installed in this first prototype was a two-cylinder unit

Since the Tatra story would deservedly fill an entire book, we have no choice but to limit ourselves to its most important parts. One of these has to be the role played by the little VS 10, a 1933 model that deserves a particular mention. It was a sedan, designed to encourage the spread of motoring even among the less wealthy sections of the population. This small vehicle featured a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine, mounted in the rear overhang in order to leave space for the occupants, and it was given a distinctive beetle-like shape in order to make it more streamlined.

This “streamlined” prototype Tatra, designed by Paul Jaray in 1932, also played a part in defining the VS 10

Reading back over these last two sentences, we can’t help but notice that they contain some rather familiar ideas. In fact, if we put together the concept of a car aimed at the less well off, i.e. the Volks (people), characterized by a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine, in other words an economical “wagen” suitable for any situation, with the distinctive scarab-like lines, we could easily be talking about the VW Beetle. It is the timing that is out: as we have said, the little Tatra was born in 1933, whereas Ferdinand Porsche’s Volkswagen Beetle did not come along until 1939. What’s more, in 1936, Ledwinka had already presented the T91, which was the definitive version of his compact car. This, too, had an air-cooled engine, but with four rather than two cylinders. 

Tatra lodged as many as 10 patent infringement claims against Volkswagen, but just as it was finally getting somewhere with these, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, effectively triggering the escalation of tensions that culminated in the outbreak of the Second World War. Strangely enough(!), the Tatra case was shelved. But it came to the fore again after the war, when the German manufacturer was forced pay the Czechoslovakian company a large amount in compensation. Or, a relatively large amount, let’s say, considering the profits made by VW from its large-scale production of the Beetle. Indeed, a total of 21,529,464 VW Beetles were built, whereas production of the little Tatra stopped at just 508 units!

Drawing on its experience with the T11 (a 1934 model), in 1936 Tatra presented, as an evolution of the VS 10, the T91. This had a rear mounted air-cooled Boxer-four engine. Following the unveiling of Volkswagen Beetle in 1939, Tatra lodged numerous claims for patent infringement and was eventually compensated