Tatra T87: The Nutty Czechoslovakian Streamliner That Inspired the Beetle
Tatras were some of the most unorthodox and some of the most technically sophisticated cars ever. They came from Czechoslovakia of all places, and though their T77, T87 and T97 came from the 1930s, their style, design and performance seemed like something from the future. To take the T87 as an example, it was among the first to be designed with aerodynamics in mind, had an air-cooled overhead cam magnesium alloy eight-cylinder engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, and featured full monocoque construction. PHOTOS: See More of the 1950 Volkswagen Beetle Underneath the T87's unique streamlined styling was also a spacious interior with seating for six, and the car's impressive aerodynamics allowed for a top speed of 100 miles per hour. It was unlike almost anything on the road at the time, but it doesn't take a student of automotive design to realize the similarities between the Tatra and another, much more famous car: the Volkswagen Beetle.
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Legend has it that when Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche agreed on Germany's new people's car, they were heavily influenced by Tatra. Hans Ledwinka, the T87's designer, was a contemporary of Porsche, and Porsche later admitted that "sometimes I looked over his shoulder and sometimes he looked over mine." The shape, the air-cooled rear-engine layout and other design features of the Volkswagen were close enough for Tatra to file a lawsuit, but other world events (namely the Germans invading their home country) forced Tatra to hold off. The case was eventually reopened and settled out of court in 1961.
PHOTOS: See More of the 1940 Tatra T87
Tatra was also forced to stop production during the war, and though Tatra continued to make cars after the war, its unfortunate location behind the Iron Curtain meant that most people in the West never got to know these fascinating automobiles. Just over 3,000 T87s were built, a tiny fraction of the millions and millions of Type 1 VWs out there, but it's hard to deny that the Volkswagen, a clever car in its own right, just wouldn't have been the same without the quirky Czech machine that came first.