1938 Tatra T97. Collection of Lane Motor Museum. Photograph © 2013 Peter Harholdt

1938 Tatra T97
Collection of Lane Motor Museum, Nashville, TN

One of the most advanced designs of the pre-World War II era came from Czechoslovakia. Czech-based Koprivnicka vozovka evolved into Nesseldorfer Waggonfabrik and was renamed Tatra in 1927 after the country’s prominent mountain range. Tatra vehicles became known for innovative engineering and high quality. The engineer largely responsible was Hans Ledwinka, who had worked under automotive and aircraft pioneer Edmund Rumpler. Ledwinka was an early proponent of air-cooled engines, a rigid backbone chassis, and independent suspension.

The Tatra was a perfect platform for the new emphasis on streamlining being pioneered by aircraft and Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray. A short front end flowed to a curved roofline that gracefully sloped into a long fastback tail. When integrated fenders and a full undertray were added, wind resistance was dramatically reduced. A prominent rear dorsal fin ensured high-speed stability. 

Tatra was arguably the first production car to take advantage of effective streamlining. The T97 used a horizontally opposed, rear-mounted, four cylinder engine with a rigid backbone chassis, four-wheel independent suspension and hydraulic drum brakes. Four were built in 1937, followed by 237 in 1938, and 269 in 1939. Top speed was 80.78 mph, which was truly remarkable for a 40-hp car at the time.

According to automobile designer Raffi Minasian, “The Tatra T97 was one of the most interesting and well-developed engineering and design intersections of the Deco period.” It may have lacked the usual flamboyance of the traditional French coachbuilders of the period, but it manifested the expression of Art Deco design as a merger of science and industry where form was dictated by function.

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