Bouncing Czech

PETER ROBINSON’S Classic

PETER ROBINSON

EPIC TALES FROM OUR ARCHIVES

FIRST PUBLISHED AUGUST 1998

SHORTLY AFTER BOB HALL, FATHER OF THE ORIGINAL MAZDA MX-5, JOINED WHEELS IN 1994 WE DISCOVERED A SHARED FASCINATION IN TATRAS.

And why not: examples of the bizarre, Mercedes S-Class sized, air-cooled, rear-engine V8 sedan rarely escaped to the West – mostly as Czech diplomatic cars during the Iron Curtain era – and we’d not seen the recent facelift by Brit Jeff Wardle, then a lecturer at the European Art Centre of Design.

Production had declined from the heady heights of 249 cars in 1993 to just 22 in 1997. Which only added to our urgency. Even building cars purely for the government, how could Tatra possibly justify such tiny numbers?

Our plot to visit the Czech car maker took four years to happen. Finally in June 1998, I collected Bob from a Holden Astra launch in Austria and, after we picked up snapper Ian Dawson from Prague airport, we headed our Alfa 156 east towards Koprivnice, home to Tatra and, by happy coincidence, birthplace of Emil Zatopek, my hero, the great Czech long-distance runner.

Getting Tatra to agree to our visit, let alone to driving the T700, took months of persistent negotiation. We spent most of the first day being shown the truck production plant with a promise that we’d drive the T700 the following morning.

First, Tatra’s test driver efficiently demonstrated its abilities on the tiny test track within the huge truck facility. Even sitting in the spacious rear compartment, Hall and I reckoned you could feel the rearward bias of the car’s weight distribution. Tatra claimed a 45/55 percent distribution. When it came time for us to drive the T700 it felt as if it swivelled around the rear wheels. The handling was so scary and nervous, I asked the Tatra bloke to drive for the cornering photographs. I’d never done that before.

No wonder, during WW2, the Wehrmacht high command banned officers from driving any Tatras after so many were killed at the wheel. Hall described the handling as “er… memorable”.

The 147kW 3.5-litre V8 didn’t stand a chance when the T700 weighed 1840kg. Tatra claimed 0-100km/h in 10.8 seconds and a top speed of 190km/h. Not with me driving.

Production, if you could call the way the essentially handbuilt cars were created, ceased in July 1999. Tatra couldn’t bring themselves to show us the ‘production’ area, despite our pleading. We later learned just seven cars were produced in 1998 and a couple in 1999.

Realistically, for what it’s worth, I think Bob Hall and I were the last outsiders to ever test Tatra’s eccentric sedan.

“THE HANDLING WAS SO SCARY AND NERVOUS, I ASKED THE TATRA BLOKE TO DRIVE THE CAR FOR THE CORNERING PHOTOGRAPHS. I’D NEVER DONE THAT BEFORE.” – PETER ROBINSON, 1998

Truckin’ on

Few people were aware that Tatra, isolated from the West for four decades, also made a range of V8, V10 and V12 air-cooled diesel trucks with a tubular backbone chassis and fully independent suspension.

Mostly they went to the USSR.

The trucks are still in production; last year they built 1326. But Tatra also built cars. During the 30 years until the outbreak of WW2, engineer Hans Ledwinka was in charge of development. He created the concept of a backbone chassis with supporting central tube carrying the swing axle suspension and welded cross-members for the body.

Adolf Hitler extolled the virtues of the layout and was often seen on the Tatra stand at the Berlin motorshow. The resemblance between Ledwinka’s V570 rearengine small car and the VW Beetle was more than mere coincidence.

Later came the Type 77, a big aerodynamic sedan powered by a V8 developed by Leopold Jantschke, who could later claim responsibility for the basic layout of the Porsche 911’s air-cooled flat six. The Type 77 evolved over three decades to the T700.

ALSO IN WHEELS, August 1998

HSV GTS versus Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG; Robbo says the Volvo S80 has Audi and BMW running scared; the driving force that is Jim Richards; the reinvented Mazda 323 driven in Tokyo; Alfa 156 versus BMW 3 Series versus Mercedes C-Class; Lotus Elise up against Mazda MX-5; doing the sums on Peugeot 406 and Volvo C70; Glenn Butler goes bush in his Suburban; the ’49 Ford Single Spinner; the marathon madness of Le Mans

THE WAY IT WAS

A giant is born

The Google search engine is founded. Today it enjoys global dominance, handling more than 70 per cent of worldwide search requests.

The prez, the intern

US president Bill Clinton denies having had “sexual relations” with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, sparking a damaging scandal.

Golden beginnings

Ian Thorpe wins his first gold medal at a major meet, in the 400m freestyle at the world championships in Perth. He would end his career with five Olympic gold medals and 11 world championship golds.

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