For all of its present day fame – it’s credited with inspiring both the Tucker and the Volkswagen Beetle as well as acting as the Czech secret weapon during World War II – it’s easy to overlook the fact that Czechoslovakian manufacturer Tatra over the course of 12 years built only about 3,000 examples of the highly advanced T87, only a fraction of which exist today. So it’s not a common occurrence to see one offered at auction, as Bonhams will at its Quail Lodge sale next month.
Designed by Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka, the T87 was one of Tatra’s first forays into aerodynamic automobiles and was based on the philosophies and input of early aerodynamicists Edmund Rumpler and Paul Jaray. Its resulting drag coefficient of 0.36 may not seem all that impressive today (it’s the same as a late 1990s Ford Escort and no better than an AMC Pacer), but was astounding for 1936, the year Tatra introduced it. Beyond the aerodynamic shape of the car, it also featured a backbone chassis, fully independent suspension, and a rear-mounted magnesium-alloy air-cooled 85hp 2.9L overhead-camshaft V-8 that could propel the T87 to triple-digit speeds. During the German occupation of Chechoslovakia during World War II, many a Nazi senior officer appropriated T87s for their luxury status and high-speed potential, but legend has it that more than a few of those senior officers met their fates when they attempted high-speed turns in the T87 and found that it didn’t handle in the same manner as the front-engine cars they were used to. Nevertheless, Hitler himself is said to have appreciated Ledwinka’s design so much he had Ferdinand Porsche emulate it when designing the Volkswagen, a claim supported by Tatra’s successful 1961 lawsuit against Volkswagen.