Tatra: The Czech Family Silver That Has No Problem Getting Dirty

The second oldest car manufacturer, Czech company Tatra, has a long history of making cars, trucks, and even railway wagons. They were also crazy enough to try this crazy idea: an aerodynamic car!

to the First International Trade Fair at Brno, admire a Czech-made "Tatra -603" car on show in one of the three large engineering exhibitions.
Visitors to the First International Trade Fair at Brno, admire a Czech-made "Tatra -603" on show in one of the three large engineering exhibitions. Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Tatra is the oldest car company in Central Europe and the second oldest in the World. It has been in continuous operation since 1851 when it started in the Czech city of Kopřivnice. Even though the company hasn’t always been called Tatra (the company changed its name multiple times), the dedication to manufacturing high-quality cars has always been the same.

The company initially had a broad portfolio of operations. They experimented with wheels long before creating their first automobile, manufacturing horse carriages and bikes, then slowly moving towards railway wagons. Then, the crazy idea came. Let’s make an automobile. The fate of Tatra was sealed.

Nomen Omen: the name speaks for itself

Tatra started experimenting with new trucks and cars in the mid-1910s. At the time, the company was still called NW. At the beginning of 1919, a team of engineers and constructors left for driving tests of the new NW Type U car in the High Tatras Mountains. The car was a revelation in the snowy mountains. In terrain where no automobile had appeared before at that time of the year, the Tatra car performed excellently, supposedly better than the horses and sleds specialized for local transport.

The highlight was the stage from Štrba to Tatranská Lomnica. One of the engineers later recalled this moment: “Imagine the astonishment and amazement of the people in the snow-covered Tatranská Lomnica. Nobody wanted to believe that we got up in a car! And then it happened: one of the mountain men present said with a sigh – “That would be a car for the Tatras!”

Later that evening, the brilliant idea came when everyone sat in the pub having dinner, hot tea, and beer. After some thinking, it was clear what the new name from then on for Kopřivnice cars would be: Tatra.

Sliding through the air like a knife through butter

In the 1930s, designers from Kopřivnice Tatra began to explore an extraordinary field called aerodynamics. Their efforts resulted in the Tatra 77. Not only was its design radical, but also its construction and engine. This strange-looking car was provocative not only because of its appearance but also its speed. At the time, it could travel at an astonishing 145 kilometers per hour.

Not long after the new car was unveiled, journalists officially rechristened it the “road aeroplane.” When the T77 first debuted internationally at the Berlin Motor Show, it gained many admirers from all over the World. “This is the car for my motorways,” declared car enthusiast and German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

Adolf Hitler loved Tatra cars and used them during his political trips in Czechoslovakia. Their innovativeness greatly influenced him and the German car designer Ferdinand Porsche. When Hitler approached Porsche in 1935 with a commission for a new people’s car, the eyes of both were on the Tatra. 

The legacy that lives on

Throughout the years, the company slowly shifted its focus from personal cars to trucks. From World War II to the present day, the company solely specializes in heavy-duty and military trucks.

The economic turmoil caused by the political transformation of the socialist countries caused financial difficulties for the company. Tatra was looking for strategic partners, and in 2003, the American company Terex Corporation bought a majority stake in Kopřivnice. These days, the company is back in Czech hands.

Tatra Kopřivnice is still a vital part of the Czech economy. Its trucks are the backbone of the Czech construction industry, carrying thousands of tons throughout Czechia daily. Every firefighter unit uses Tatras, as well as the Czech Army. Tatras served during Czech Missions in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Mali. And what’s more, if you look closely nowadays, you will spot Tatras fighting for freedom in Ukraine.

Marek Koten

A Ph.D. student in economics, specializing in nuclear energy from the Czech Republic, he also serves as a political consultant to the Czech government and the U.S. Republican Party.

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