The car that changed its shape… a lesson that could be learned?
Jemma Rochelle Hawtrey
Just before the Second World War, two very different designers were at work at two different car manufacturers. One of them was a German, by the name of Dr. Ing. Ferdinand Porsche. Yes, I thought you might have heard of him.
The other was a Czech called Hans Ledwinka.
Both were innovative and both held the view that the general populace should be able to own cars. Partly this was to do with the idea that car ownership improved the lot of the worker and society in general. Partly this was just sensible economics – the cheaper you sell something – the more you can sell of it.
Ledwinka’s first attempt was the T11 people’s car. This was a small vehicle using an arthritic air-cooled engine on a light chassis with a light body. A later development in the same vein was the T97 – which used aerodynamic styling similar to that of the Chrysler Airflow cars. It was fitted with a rear mounted air-cooled engine boxer engine of 1.8 litres…
Does this start to sound slightly familiar?
When you find out that Dr. Porsche spent most of the time the T97 was in development looking over Ledwinka’s shoulder it should be of no surprise that you would be barely able to tell the difference if you put the T97 and his Volkswagen Beetle next to each other. The similarity was so marked that Tatra successfully sued Volkswagen in 1967 for damages totalling DM3 million.
In 1938 the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and production of the T97 was promptly banned, although other models from Tatra such as the T77/77a and T87 were held in high regard by German officers and Czech resistance alike (in the latter case for the slightly gruesome reason that their rear engined layout made handling challenging – it was said that Tatra cars killed more German officers than the entire Czech resistance managed!).
Move on a few years to 1956 and the Tatra 603. A large aerodynamically-styled saloon with a rear-mounted air-cooled V8 of 2.5 litres the car was originally fitted with three headlamps under a glass cover. Later models had either four recessed headlamps or four headlamps flush with the front of the car. A notable special was the B5 racing version with dual quad downdraft carburettors producing 145bhp (impressive since the 1995 Renault 2.2i engine produces 140bhp).
But the most interesting thing about Tatra was their tendency to update cars as new features were introduced. This included interior features and more unusually sheet metal exterior features.
Tatra would take cars in for repair or servicing and, at this point, would update a given car to the current specification which worked out as much cheaper both in materials/labour and price to the consumer. It is very hard to find one of the 3 headlight cars because most of them were updated to the later specifications.
So the T1-603 – along with the T2 and the later and somewhat unofficial T3 really was the car that changed its shape.
Learning about this set me to thinking. There are a lot of older cars around British roads and in other countries that are getting mechanically worn out and tired but otherwise are good – or have poor bodywork and good mechanicals…
It would save a lot of resources – a lot of pollution – and a lot of money if large companies instigated programmes of taking in cars of a certain age and mechanically updating them for their owners – at a reasonable price. Given that many cars are updated over their lifetimes on the same basic platform and dimensions it should be more than possible.
An extreme example is the newly announced Fiat 0.9 litre TwinAir engine. This is a two-cylinder turbocharged unit that apparently puts out 85hp (yes, really). I seem to remember that that is the same output as the 1725cc Humber Sceptre engine. A few new parts and fittings and you have a car that not only helps the environment because of its age – but is clean running too.
There seems to be a mentality in this society that new is somehow best. That only brand new can be clean and efficient. This is not a mentality we can afford. A lot of cars that were perfectly roadworthy have been destroyed because of either scrappage or major problems where spares are unavailable or prohibitively expensive. However, if there was a system in place to produce the relevant fittings and kits to upgrade older cars with modern engines as the originals wear out, fewer resources would be needed to keep people on the road and vehicles would be less likely to have serious and dangerous problems.
Sadly, this approach seems to be an anathema to the car producers – in a lot of cases they are actually designing their vehicles and fittings in such a way as to make retrofitting engines and other parts as difficult as possible, using different mountings or connectors for example.
Personally, I think there should also be a part of the driving test that tests a person’s ability to find faults and do general maintenance on their vehicle – along with the ability to notice problems developing before they become serious. It is my personal opinion that it is important that a driver be able to recognise problems and know methods to alleviate or solve them before they become dangerous or life-threatening (and even an overheating engine can be life threatening on a busy motorway).
I’m not entirely sure that asking someone to identify road signs that they might see once or twice in a year results in improving road safety. The more driving experience a person has in all conditions, the safer they will be.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.
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