Tatras are generally infused with an innovative streak bordering on lunacy. Case in point: a V8-powered combat snowmobile designed to fight in the Russian winter.
In the late autumn of 2007, I had the wonderful privilege to go on a private tour of the Tatra factory. Nestled amongst the chilly mountains of Moravia in the town of Kopřivnice, the factory is a shadow of its former self, with less than a quarter of its original workforce. The old Czech hands who remain, however, are still going at it hard: you pass lockers decorated with big-haired 70s women and big Tatra race trucks to wander among massive air-cooled dry-sumped V8 truck engines made on site, which will be fitted to Tatra’s unique central backbone tube frames.
In Kopřivnice proper there is a museum dedicated to all things Tatra, a wildly imaginative and furiously creative collection of weird cars. You see streamlined, futuristic T77’s from 1937, 22-liter W18 tank engines, racing monopostos, a one-off white roadster made for Joseph Stalin’s birthday. Then, head buzzing, you enter a room and face what is probably the weirdest automobile ass ever manufactured:
It’s called the V855 and it’s a snowmobile prototyped under German occupation in 1942. A thousand miles east, the Wehrmacht was engaged in expeditionary warfare against the Soviet Union, an adversary with no shortage of winter conditions. The Germans needed everything they could throw at the rising tide of the Red Army, preferably things that could handle lots and lots of snow.
The base for the V855 was Tatra’s T87 sedan, a barely disguised spaceship designed by the brilliant Hans Ledwinka—who got the Rosalind Franklin treatment from Ferdinand Porsche when the latter stole his ideas to create the Volkswagen Beetle—and the Hungarian engineer Pál Járay. That the shape of the T87 is reminiscent of a certain airship that went down in flames at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey is no accident: all the big Zeppelins, including the Hindenburg, were based on Járay designs from his years at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH.
Lacking rear wheels, the 75 HP produced by the V855’s rear-mounted air-cooled 2.9-liter V8 is directed to a giant propeller mounted above the engine and a trailing drum which also acts as a brake. Steering is by the two pairs of skis.
Here’s how Tatra describes the arrangement on a plaque in the museum:
This snowmobile was steered by two pairs of skis using the bigger steering wheel. Propulsion was by pusher propeller and mechanical drum with cardan drive shaft. The drum was also used as a brake. Hand brakes acted on the rear skis.
The V855 never saw production: the project was cancelled after two prototypes.
Meanwhile, things were anything but quiet on the Eastern front. It would be hard to argue that snowmobiles instead of tens of thousands of T-34’s, a cold disregard for millions of casualties and a spirit of patriotism were what won the war for the Soviet Union, but one thing is for certain: German troops in their incresingly doomed quest for a more spacious Lebensraum were coming face to face with Soviet combat snowmobiles.
Like this armored NKL-26, equipped with a 7.62 mm Degtyaryov machine gun: