Were the driving characteristics of the revolutionary Tatras 87 unpredictable? In an unusual move, Hagerty magazine put one to the test. Nevertheless, it is unique to do it for a vintage car.
The Tatra 87, which was made between 1938 and 1950, is one of the jewels of automotive history. The combination of an aerodynamic body and an air-cooled 8-cylinder engine behind the rear axle from the ingenious designer Hans Ledwinka was genuinely unique. It did not escape the German occupiers’ attention, who frequently used it across the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia.
This car was strong, quiet, comfortable and easy to drive, but you had to know how to use it – as proven by accidents suffered by the unskilled German drivers. Thus the Tatra 87 quickly earned the reputation of being a “Nazi killer”.
However, the story of the Tatra has also attracted the attention of Hagerty Media, an American classic car magazine from Hagerty insurance. They devised a series of road tests checking out such notorious cars as the first-generation Porsche 911 Turbo aka the “Widower” and the Reliant Robin tricycle, which is prone to falling over.
But first it was for the Tatra 87 to show whether its driving characteristics live up to its fame. Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, TN kindly loaned an example. Sam Smith got behind the wheel and tested the 87 on normal roads. Then it was driven on a test track in circumstances resembling the “elk test”.
What many now call sacrilige, the Tatra 87 was flipped over! This is how it happened: at the first go, the Tatra 87 almost tore off its tires due to uneven weight distribution, its suspension and narrow tires. So it was decided to switch to more modern Michelin X radial tires, designed for vintage cars, and increase tire pressure so that something similar does not happen again. But the exact opposite happened. Smith entered the evasive manoeuvre at a speed of only 20 miles per hour, approximately 32 km/h. While the Tatra easily did this manoeuvre during previous attempts, but with the new tires it flipped.
How is it possible? Smith has several explanations related to this.
The author of the test claims that controlling a car is a very complex matter. And Tatra has a combination that can sometimes “bite”. First and foremost, these tires do not have a good grip. Combined with the narrow track, the relatively high centre of gravity and the swinging half-axles, which push the outer wheel under the car in a curve, it couldn’t have turned out otherwise. Tatra, therefore, confirmed its reputation. It was enough to change one parameter and it has immediately went “on the roof”.
But Smith justifies Ledwinka. He is convinced that he knew about the risks, but Ledwinka did the maximum he could at the time and within budget. The question is, what is it good for us to know today. The Tatra 87 is a scarce vintage car. During thirteen years, In Koprivnice, they produced only 3023 of them. The vast majority of them were “eaten up” by rust.
Owners of preserved specimens, therefore, guard them in air-conditioned garages. But one of them has now been hit hard. As you can see, the beautiful aerodynamic body is destroyed on the left side. The fenders, roof, doors and rear hood will need reconstruction. Small consolation that it is a less rare post-war version with integrated lights.
Source: Hagerty by Sam Smith, Photos by Andrew Trahan