The car that changed its shape… a lesson that could be learned?

Jemma Rochelle Hawtrey   

Tatra T97
Tatra T97

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!).   

Tatra T77A
Tatra T77A

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.

Keith Adams
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  1. I’ve long argued that the most efficient, greenest possible car would be a rebuilt, updated older one. My personal favourite would be to see the PSA 1.6HDi engine fitted to a BX, with the BX’s panels updated with lighter, stronger composite materials and some aerodynamic revisions – I reckon the result would be insanely quick for the engine size, incredibly efficient and comfortable for five adults.

    Of course, it would also fold like an origami box if hit by any modern car, even the tiniest ones…

  2. …or for the really suicidal motorist… find a good Renault 21 Turbo engine & strap a BX onto it… It would be fun to watch but I wouldnt want to drive it.

  3. They almost did that, it’s called the BX4TC and has a Douvrin 2.2 engine mounted longitudinally, with 4×4 running gear.

    BXs handle really well, and the 16v already had 160bhp – the same as the later 21 Turbo, and only a few horses short of the Quadra in a car that weighed considerably less. Not only are they fun to watch, loads of people wanted to drive them 🙂

  4. Thats the same engine as the safrane – but in a higher state of tune – by the sounds of it. I have never driven a BX although my friend at university had an estate version and that was a comfortable car… then there was the other friend who had a maestro… that would ‘run on’ long enough for you to get out, shut the door, unlock the front door of the house and go inside … think the Cadillac in ‘Uncle Buck’ but without the charisma

  5. Ah, I’m actually wrong about the 4TC engine – it’s a Simca 180 engine originally. Mistaking it for a Douvrin is common so I don’t feel like a total idiot, but it’s only shared with some Chryslers and Peugeot 505 Turbo.

  6. This subject has always interested me, updating cars with modern engines, etc.

    Out of curiosity, does anyone if today’s diesel engines are lighter then the petrol engines of 10-25 years ago?

  7. So i take my Classic Mini into a body shop for a repair and then i come back to find a BMW mini? mmmm not totally sold on the idea haha.

  8. Nah, more like you take your classic Mini in and find instead of an A-series and 4-speed box, you’ve got a K-series and 5/6 speeder, electronic ignition, fuel injection and front mounted radiator… and improved lights and wiring.

  9. kenny: I think it would depend on the engine and how old it is. I know for a fact that the Humber Sceptre engine was built to the sort of tolerances that were previously used on steam traction engines… so it would probably be about the same weight as a modern diesel of the same displacement…

    Another thing that makes me ponder is this… how come you can get an 1100cc engine in a car that just about manages 60hp without exploding – yet the same displacement in a motorcycle is good for 120hp without breaking a sweat… it strikes me that if motorcycle tuned engines were put into cars we would have better and more economical machines…

    Not to mention – a classic mini with a six speed straight cut transmision and 120hp on tap… lighter engine, better performance and very likely much better economy since you are barely taxing the engine at normal road speeds.. sounds tempting to me.

  10. @Jemma

    I seemed to recall from reading some motoring mags that there are few significant drawbacks on putting motorcycle engines into cars, though I’m not quite sure if it relates to gearboxes or refinement.

    When it comes to placing modern diesels into bangers / classics, I’m thinking something along the lines of putting the engine from the BMW 123d (201 BHP) into a BMW E30 (M3) or E36/5.

    Perhaps also see whether it is feasible to make use of powerful modern diesel engines in old school Hot Hatches / Coupes.

    Blasphemy I know, though I can honestly see something like that taking off, especially since if todays diesel engines do in fact prove to be lighter then the petrol engines they replaced, one may be able to have their cake and eat it.

    Fwiw – when it comes to petrols, I’d be very tempted to have a Daihatsu Charade GTti with the 105 bhp version of Fiat’s new Twinair engine. The Charade’s original 993cc 3 cylinder was said to produce 99 bhp and 28 MPG, in the modern and more heavier 500, the new 900cc 2 cylinder Twinair is said to produce 69 MPG in 85 bhp form.

  11. I know someone who got 200hp dyno from the 993cc Charade with a turbo and some fancy electronics remapping… now how long it would last.. is another matter.

    Its not a matter of weight with the diesels its low down torque that is their strong point – and I cant see any reason why you couldnt put the 2.3 litre diesel from the 1xx into an E30 – but I would make one suggestion if you do – pick a car that was diesel from the start and replace the motor – otherwise you are in for alot of harness splicing and such. You would also need to have the engine mountings made up by an engineering firm, and since the BMW is RWD – theres the ‘tranmission tunnel… meet 2lb lump hammer’ process to go through as well…

    Its also possible to use other manufacturers kit in cars – I’d be tempted to put a suitably chipped 1.9 HDi diesel into a 205… now *that* would fly – but you’d then have the problem of getting a transverse engine into a longditudinal setup for example…

    Re the motorbike engines – I would imagine since the motorcycle engine runs at high RPM’s you might have problems with the transmission – because the car transmission would be too low geared because the engines spinning much faster than a car motor – but the bike gearbox would be to high geared because of the extra weight it would have to lug about – or something like that. But then there is the option of a U8 – taking two o the same motorcycle engines and making a single U8 engine out of them – 2x 120hp makes 240hp out of 2.2 litres which is good output & even legal but would take alot of engineering work

    theres all sorts of ways to go

  12. Jemma :
    Another thing that makes me ponder is this… how come you can get an 1100cc engine in a car that just about manages 60hp without exploding – yet the same displacement in a motorcycle is good for 120hp without breaking a sweat… it strikes me that if motorcycle tuned engines were put into cars we would have better and more economical machines…

    Very short stroke, very high RPM, no torque. Much like the 1.3 swept volume Renesis/Wankel engines in Maxda RXs; ye cannae change the laws of physics (or more accurately thermodynamics). The bike engines in Lotus-7 clones work because those cars only weigh a couple of hundred KG more than a bike (likewise bike into Reliant/Bond or Mini); bike engine into a modern car would be awful to drive and very poor on fuel.

    The HDi engines are transverse in the PSA cars and if anyone were to have a go, the basic engine/gearbox from a 306 HDi would probably drop straight into a 205…

    I think, realistically, my favourite combinations would be:

    VW Polo Mk 2 with VW’s 1.4 TSi (be nice in a Mk 1 Golf, too)
    Citroen Visa or Peugeot 205 with the 1.6 HDi
    BX with the same
    Citroen XM with the 2.7V6 diesel
    Chevette with Renesis rotary engine (or better, an original MX5 with rotary – it’s been done).

    I mean, there’s lots of stuff that could work.

    The one I’d really like is impossible, though – a CX with a six-cylinder. The chassis/subframe was designed around a rotary engine, the prototype had a boxer engine; the finished production car never had the space for a V configuration.

  13. Mike C :
    @Richard Kilpatrick
    Would the Volvo I5 or even the I6 (as used in the Freelander fit?)

    I’m not sure – I’ve wondered about the I6 engine; the CX gearbox is big. It’d need a lot of work.

    Of course the proper engine to go into a CX would be a Mazda C20B triple-chamber rotary.

  14. @Ianto
    No it would dreadfull, as diesels in anything are. V8 on LPG is the way to go on a P6, ideally a pre jan 1st ’73 example

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