The Tatra T87 Is the Most Interesting Car You’ve Never Heard Of
For every icon like the Beetle, there are many more classic vehicles that languish in obscurity. Some nameplates, such as Ariel, Soriano, and even (at one point) Bugatti and Indian, manage to return. Tatra, though, is not one of them—at least not in the US. Which is a shame, because the 1930s Tatra T87 is just as, if not more forward-thinking than the Citroen DS.
A Czechoslovakian company, Tatra’s history technically begins in 1897, Retromobile explains. Which makes it, Road & Track reports, the 2nd-oldest continually-operating motor company in the world.
Today, Tatra only makes trucks—some of which are multiple-time Paris-Dakar winners. But back in the early 20th-century, the brand was known for its reliable and high-quality cars. Cars that were fairly innovative and influential.
For example, Tatra had a car with independent suspension all the way back in 1926, RM Sotheby’s reports. And the brand helped introduce the backbone chassis, an improvement on the then-typical body-on-frame design. The first backbone Tatra came out in 1923. And the technology was still useful in 1981 when the DeLorean used a backbone chassis. Basically, Tatra was like the Czechoslovakian Lancia.
Then there was the 1932 Tatra V570. Mirroring Saab’s history, it was designed jointly by the brand’s chief engineer, Hans Ledwinka, together with former Zeppelin engineer Paul Jaray. With a rear-mounted 18-hp 854cc air-cooled two-cylinder engine, it wasn’t exactly fast, Hagerty reports. But its sleek body and rear-mounted engine made an impression on one Ferdinand Porsche. The same Porsche who would later design the Volkswagen Beetle.
However, the V570 wasn’t the only Tatra that influenced Porsche, Bonhams reports. That would be the later Tatra T87.
The Tatra T87: the innovative ‘Nazi killer’
Technically, the Tatra T87 is a refined version of the earlier T77, The Drive reports. Regardless, at its 1936 debut, it was an extremely advanced car for the time, Silodrome reports. And the Beetle copied so many of its features, Tatra sued Volkswagen for 11 separate patent infringements.
In addition to independent suspension, a unibody design, and hydraulic brakes, the Tatra T87 has a rear-mounted 2.9-liter V8. And to reduce weight, it’s air-cooled and made of magnesium alloy.
True, it only makes about 85-90 hp and comes with a 4-speed manual. However, the Tatra T87 has a better drag coefficient than the Ferrari F50. As a result, it tops out at 100 mph, and 20 mpg isn’t out of the question. All this in a 1936 vehicle that can seat 5 people, when 6-9 mpg was the norm.
Plus, it has a fold-down rear seat, rear-hinged rear doors, a sunroof, a dedicated oil cooler, and a pair of spare tires. It was also was reliable enough for 2 Czech students, Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund, to circumnavigate the world in one, Hagerty reports. And in many ways, Jay Leno and Jalopnik report, the T87 drives like a significantly more-modern car.
However, besides its drum brakes, the Tatra T87 does have one flaw. The rear-mounted engine, combined with the contemporary suspension design, means it’s easy to induce snap-oversteer. As with a vintage Porsche 911, if you lift your foot off the throttle in a corner too quickly, the T87 rotates and skids.
Legend has it, the T87 was popular with Nazi officers during the WWII occupation. The officers weren’t prepared for its handling foibles and subsequently perished. Hence the Tatra T87’s reputation as ‘the Nazi killer.’
Getting one of your own
Although Tatra T87 production stretched from 1936-1950, it wasn’t a particularly popular car. Tatra produced less than 3100 T87s, Hemmings reports. And the Tampa Bay Automotive Museum estimates fewer than 250 still exist.
As a result, these vintage cars aren’t cheap. A restored 1950 example sold on Bring a Trailer in 2018 for $134,000. A 1941 model went for $280,000 at a 2012 Bonhams auction. RM Sotheby’s has sold two for over $130,000. And a 1948 T87 will cross RM Sotheby’s block again in October 2020, for a projected $300,000-$400,000.
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