Industrial espionage, Nazis and air-cooled engines: The tale of Tatra
According to Ex Cars Internet experts, I've got about 20 seconds to get your attention before you Where you place that little red x, over here somewhere.
So I'll keep it snappy.
This is not just a review of the 2015 model Volkswagen beetle sport.
This is a story, perhaps the biggest piece of industrial espionage the automotive world has ever seen.
So this is the latest version of the Volkswagen Beetle.
This model was launched in 2011.
This particular one is the 1.4 TSI Sport, oh, about 160 BHP And a few sporty extras.
Now it's a fairly fashionable car.
Now if I sound a bit underwhelmed, it's because I'm not a particularly fashionable [UNKNOWN].
This really got me thinking about, what is the Beetle?
Where does it come from?
And what's in its DNA.
What makes May seem special.
I was a bit surprised to learn that Volkswagen built 19 different models off of this same A5 platform.
Everything from the Skoda SE to the Audi TT and the Volkswagen Golf and everything else in between.
So what's unique about it, what's special?
Well if you look into Volkswagen's history, you'll discover that the Beetle isn't quite as unique as you might think.
Let's have this bit in black and white please.
So a little history lesson.
In a resurgent Germany in the 1930s, Adolph Hitler commissioned a young Ferdinand Porsche to build a car for the masses.
Back home, the Volkswagen Beetle.
It could be paid for by a special savings scheme whereby the masses could save up with their stamps and get a car, their very first car.
That was pretty innovative.
So that's the story of my nice new Beetle's ancestor.
But some people think that some of Porky's early Beetle design work wasn't all his own that he was, well perhaps looking over some bodies shoulder.
Tatra was a Czech company formed in the late 1800s.
They quickly developed a great reputation for building cars of technical excellence and superb quality.
They were very robust.
One of their engineers was a chap called Hans Ledwinka.
He was an early proponent of streamlining and air cord engines, and also shatter development.
However, if you park a Tatra next to a very early Beetle, you might be forgiven for thinking that one was a copy of the other.
They're remarkably similar.
Let's meet a chap that knows more than most about this murky story.
Ivan, I have a drawing to look at.
Because, to me, you are Mr. Tatra.
You're probably far too modest to admit that.
I have a bit of knowledge.
This is beautiful.
This is a drawing of the Type 2 Volkswagen Beetle, but what fascinates me here are the technical similarities now between the car that we're looking at, your beautiful car, and this Beetle.
There was an economic crisis in the 30s, as everyone knows, and
Most manufacturers were looking for smaller cars to make because they were easier to sell rather than the big, luxurious models.
A lot of manufacturers went into smaller car production as well as Tatra in those days which started in 1921 with little cars.
And so, in those days, we find similarities in design in most European manufacturers, because they were all close together.
What's fascinating for me, though, is to take this design.
And there are a number of quite striking similarities.
And obviously, this has been quite an interesting topic for these [INAUDIBLE] automotive historians.
But the obvious ones are obviously the shape.
and the fact that we've got an air cooled engine in the back.
This model here, this TC [UNKNOWN] has a two piece split screen as well, because obviously glass was quite expensive to manufacture in curved shapes back then.
What else do we have in here that's similar to the T600 that you have?
Well the streamlining was incredibly important because the fuel consumption had to be reduced, the car had to go faster.
But one of the main features, which was then a patent problem between the two companies, was the backbone chassis.
Which Volkswagen used as well, having the backbone along there which [UNKNOWN] had the innovation of splitting into a sort of fork end at the back to accept the right engine.
What was the key difference commercially though between, for example, Volkswagen at the time, and Tatra.
Because, Tatra as I understood it, particularly later models were quite luxurious.
They were quite fully developed cars, and they were driven by the sort of the communist hierarchy, because they were quite prestigious.
Prestigious mart, whereas the beetle is obviously famous for being cheap transport for everybody.
IT's the people's cars.
The early Tetras, were they pitched at the ordinary public or were they something special?
In beginning of the 30's, Tetra saw other people like Maybach starting manufacture large cars.
But because of the economic crisis that sort of slowed down and got about five years before they started again.
So they started making streamlined cars with V8 engines at the back and just before the war in 1936, 37, they started to develop a smaller model.
Which was the Model T 97 with a flat four cylinder engine.
That was a sort of similar size car to the Volkswagen which was being made at the same time or being designed at the same time.
And that was the model which then, on seeing it at the 1939, Motor show in Berlin.
Hitler and his officials decided together with Porsche to stop the manufacture of that motor.
By then Tatra Company, the factory was occupied by the Germans so it was easy for them to say this is too much of a competition for our Volkswagen.
After the war obviously Volkswagen became the major Ivan Hirst.
And the modern Beetle is a beautiful car, and Volkswagen's a global [UNKNOWN] today.
So for me it's quite remarkable that Tetra continued to build beautiful cars, I mean this is an absolutely beautiful machine, with lots of technical innovations in it.
After the war, they had their legal spat with Volkswagen that rumbled on in the background.
But also, to build such cars under Communism where materials were scarce and engineering resources were scarce I think you'd say it's quite an achievement.
I don't think many people will know, certainly not many of our XCAR viewers will know, the history of Tatra.
So I hope we're giving them a good taste.
One thing that I particularly love about Tatra is not so much the design, but the marketing because that was innovative too.
They produced a short film called Happy Journey which you can find on YouTube.
Now, of course, all manufacturers make short adverts is essentially what they are, but it showcases the robust design and the lively handling of the car.
But, they do that by taking a middle class couple and getting into a chase with a police And driving through rivers, and rolling down snowy banks.
It's quite crazy to think of a manufacturer showcasing their technology by essentially breaking the law, and enjoying it.
This another reason I love [UNKNOWN].
Yes, it's a very famous film, and fantastic to see.
So, well worth finding that.
I doubt it.
Well, this is yours.
If you just wanna tell me.
I mean, how long have you owned it?
I bought the car about 2000.
It was restored in the Czech Republic by a friend anyway.
And he was just a one man show.
He doesn't want to share his work with anyone.
So it took him a long time, about a Seven, eight years of hard labor, but it was worth the wait.
I think this is the point normally, where I jump in, whang around and show off and do skids and stuff, but this took seven years to restore.
There are two on the roads in the UK.
I think you better drive it.
I think it's sad that Tetra no longer make cars today and of course Volkswagen is a colossal global concern.
Minebea is a great car the whole thing is a success.
And deservedly so.
But it's well worth remembering what Ferdinand Porsche said about Ledwinka, sometimes he looked over my shoulder, sometimes I looked over his.
Or was it Ledwinka who said that about Porsche?
I'm not sure we will ever know.