Tatra is claimed to be one of the oldest living automotive manufacturers even though they don’t make cars anymore, just trucks. The company that started the legacy, Ignatz Shustala and Company, was founded in 1850 to make horse-drawn carriages before branching out into railway wagons and carriages. In those days the Czech Republic didn’t exist – the area was inside the Austrian Empire – becoming the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Czechoslovakia and finally today the Czech Republic. Thankfully they didn’t use the national flag in their emblem!
Shustala employed a technical director who bought one of the first Benz cars and thought that he could do something similar, so during 1897 the company built the first car in eastern Europe called the Prasident. After showing it to the public they built ten examples following it up with the 6hp Meteor. The company then started designing a whole new model called the Type A (or Spitzbub) with a rear mounted three litre engine.
These cars came out in 1900 and were followed by the Type B (the Nesseldorf) fitted with a centrally mounted motor and then the Type S with a 3.3 litre. The Type S was in production until the outbreak of World War 1. After the war had finished the company adopted the Tatra name after the local mountain range, having also been known as Nesseldorf for a few years.
In 1923 the company released a new car: the Tatra 11. This was the foundation of the modern vehicles made by Tatra and used a tubular backbone that housed the prop shaft with the two cylinder one litre engine and gearbox combined into the same housing. The car was in production for four years before being replaced by the Tatra 12, an updated design that remained in production for a further nine years.
By 1927 the company had been renamed yet again as Zavody Ringhoffer Tatra. In 1931 Tatra started to produce the T57, a 1.1 litre four cylinder based car. Then they added in the T54 with a 1500cc motor, both based on the T11 like the T12. The T54 was discontinued along with the T12 whilst the T57 remained in production until after World War 2. The T57s looked very similar to 1930s Citroens.
During the early 1930s, Tatra developed one of the first streamlined production cars, the T77 with a range of V8s around three to 3.5 litres. This car was the basis of several cars even though it was in production for four years. The T77 spawned the T87 and the T97 – a smaller model that was fitted with an air cooled flat four instead of the V8. Ferdinand Porsche used the T97 engine design as the basis for his Peoples Car: the Volkswagen, only to be sued by Tatra for the copy! To counter the lawsuit, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and ordered Tatra to stop production. It probably wasn’t the only reason for the invasion but it certainly stopped the legal action! After the war, Tatra relaunched the action against VW and finally won in the early 1960s.
At the end of the Second World War, the T97 was replaced by the T600 Tatraplan that was an evolution of the pre-war cars with a two litre flat four. These cars looked very similar to early SAABs – who may have been influenced by Tatra. The T600 was in production until 1952 however in the early 1950s, the Czech Communist Government decreed that Tatra should concentrate on truck manufacturing and the T600 was transferred to a Skoda factory for assembly.
After a short period of no car manufacturing, Tatra released the T603 in 1956 with a 2.5 litre air cooled V8. The T603-1 had three headlights behind a glass panel before being replaced by the T603-2 that had a more conventional four headlight system (see the featured image). The car was in production until 1975 however only 20,000 or so were built. The T603 was replaced by the T613 in 1975 designed by Vignale in Italy. It was an updated and squared off version of the T603 with an air cooled V8 of 3.5 or 4.3 litres.
In 1996, the T613 was replaced by an updated version called the T700 which was to become the last model built by the company. By this stage, Vignale was no more, so the design was updated by British designer Geoff Wardle. It wasn’t successful and lasted just three years in limited production.
In 1991, the MTX Tatra V8 was launched. It was built by MTX, a Czech engineering company, although only four were every built, and it used a Tatra 3.9 litre V8 sourced from the Tatra T613 and enlarged. It was another attempt to build a high-end supercar and like many others was a very limited production run although this was not due to cost overruns, rather a fire that gutted the factory. They had planned to build 100.
Since 1999, Tatra has concentrated on truck manufacturing and has won the truck division of the Paris-Dakar Rally several times. In 2003, Tatra was sold by the Government to the Terex Corporation, a US based entity and they on-sold it to a consortium of British and US interests with a stake owned by a sole Czech operation. In 2011, DAF Trucks, owned by Paccar, bought 19% however only two years later, the company floundered and was sold to a local organisation, Truck Development Company who promptly renamed themselves Tatra Trucks.
They also have a factory in India as well which must be confusing with the local Tata brand!
First published: 26th April 2019. Last updated (links): 12th May 2019.