The Tatra: Deco Streamlining for the People

Another wonderful automobile to which I can relate on an archaeological level is the Tatra T87, the bright blue car located in the Streamlining section of Rolling Sculpture.

1940 Tatra T87, Collection of Chris Ohrstrom; All photos © 2016 Peter Harholdt

The Tatra might not look quite as luxurious as the French autos in the exhibition, but to the archaeologist in me, it is just as fascinating. Perhaps even more so.

As an archaeologist, I am interested in the material culture of all classes of society, not just Pharaoh, the royal family, and the nobles, whose tombs were full of riches. While interesting, these spectacular discoveries represent the material culture of a very small portion of the population–the one percent, if you will. That’s the “sexy archaeology” (that’s actually what we call it, air quotes and all) you see on television shows. However, there is often much more to learn about a society when excavating workers’ villages or middle-class burials or by studying pot shards and bones, etc.

As a production car, the T87 falls in this more humble category, and that’s why I find it interesting.

One of the rather remarkable things about the Tatra Company is that they worked hard to offer a streamlined car that was more affordable for consumers. The Tatra T87, the production of which started in 1936, is the smaller, lighter, and even more streamlined version of the T77, which premiered two years earlier. All of this was made possible through very smart design and brilliant engineering. 

The streamlining concepts presented by famed aircraft and Zeppelin designer Paul Jarray–as seen in the smooth teardrop shape, graceful roofline, fastback tail with fin, full undertray (belly pan),  and integrated fenders–were combined with designer Hans Ledwinka’s remarkable engineering skills. Ledwinka lightened the vehicle weight by a whopping 24 percent by including a 2.97 liter, air-cooled SOHC V-8 engine made from a magnesium alloy. This resulted in excellent performance–the T87 was undoubtedly the fastest production car at this time, with a top speed of 100 mph–as well as fuel economy, the latter seldom a concern back in the 1930s. 

Turn indicator for the 1940 Tatra T87

While the T87 looks more utilitarian than the other cars in the exhibition, the company’s accomplishments should not be underestimated. You can learn a whole lot about engineering in the 1930s simply by looking at the original 1931 Tatra V570 prototype, from which evolved the T77, T87, and the T97, the even smaller and cheaper model introduced in 1937. (Archaeologists love looking at how things evolve over time!) During the art deco period, Tatra was all about streamlining for the people, and the accessible T87 was a very popular model (it was produced until the 1950s). Thus it should not be a surprise that Tatra is the only automaker represented in Rolling Sculpture (and likely the very first in the world) to successfully manufacture (and sell) streamlined series-production automobiles.

Note: Hans Ledwinka should not be confused with Joseph Ledwinka, a distant relative who designed the front wheel—drive Ruxton and worked on the design of the Chrysler Airflow, two automobiles in Rolling Sculpture!

I would like to thank Paul Markham, Ivan Margolius, and Peter Visser for generously sharing with me information about the Tatra Company and Tatra streamlined autos.

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