68 Years Ago

On March 5, 1934, “the world's first aerodynamically designed, air-cooled V-8-powered, rear-engine vehicle rolls off the assembly line at the Tatra automotive works in Koprivnice, Czechoslovakia. Dubbed the T77, it provides room for six passengers — all of whom sit low, between the axles with the driver occupying a central front-seat location. The streamlined monocoque bodywork, featuring a stabilizing “dorsal” fin in the back is made under a licensing agreement with the Budd Co. Although the rear weight bias and swing-axle rear suspension produce some handling quirks, the car is still light and aerodynamic enough that its 3L engine can propel it to a top speed of more than 88 mph (140 km/h). The “77”came into being under the guidance of Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka who worked for Tatra and its predecessor Nesselsdorfer Wagon Works off and on for more than 20 years. A year later the T77 is replaced by the T77a whose 3.4L V-8 and 0.21 coefficient of drag — despite less aerodynamic head lamps and the addition of a central lamp that can turn with the front wheels — allowed it a top speed of 94 mph (150 km/h).

Only about 255 of the T77 and T77a cars were sold between 1934 and 1936 when the T87 luxury model was introduced with a top speed of 100 mph (160 km/h) and sales reaching 3,056 through 1950.

Despite the technical success of the V-8 cars, Ledwinka wanted to build a lower-cost version for the mass market, an idea achieved with the T97 of 1937, a scaled down model of the T87 powered by a 1.8L 4-cyl. engine that could still hit a top speed of 81 mph (130 km/h).

In 1938, with the fall of Czechoslovakia, Tatra comes under German control, and output ceases.

The following year the company is forced to begin production of military vehicles for the German army, although it is allowed to resume limited output of the T87, dubbed the ”Autobahn car” by Germany's general inspector of the high-speed road network.

29 Years Ago

In March 1973 Volkswagen of America (VWA) reveals plans for U.S. sale of the Type 181 utility vehicle made by Volkswagen de Mexico beginning in May — the first vehicle to be imported from Mexico for sale in the U.S. VWA says it plans to annually sell about 10,000 of the vehicles, renamed Thing for the U.S. market. Based on a rear-engine platform, the 4-passenger vehicle has a folding soft top with removable side curtains and is powered by the air-cooled 4-cyl. “boxer” engine from VW's Transporter van. The carpetless interior is sparsely upholstered and designed to be ”hosed” out when needed. Many enthusiasts liken it to an updated ”Kubelwagen,” a light-duty go-anywhere vehicle developed for the German army during WWII and used in much the same manner as the Jeep by Allied soldiers. Despite a wave of early popularity, the Thing is dropped from the U.S. in a few years after its shortcomings, mainly a lack of power, begin to limit sales.

OTHER DATES IN HISTORY

1941Ford Motor Co. begins construction of a plant in Willow Run, MI, to assemble airplanes for the U.S. military.

1959Fuji Heavy Industries announces that it is readying production of a tiny car, the Subaru 360, for the U.S. market.

TRAVEL PLANNER

March 19-20

  • 2002 Hydrogen Financial Forum, Washington, D.C.

    March 29-April 7

  • 2002 New York Int'l. Auto Show (public days), Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, New York City.