I'm sure you're seeing that '99' up there and are a little incredulous. How can an archaic, bizarre car like this possibly get almost a perfect score? Nothing's ever scored that high! The answer's easy: because I really want it to. The only reason I'm not giving it a 100 is because I don't own it.
I'm not even going to pretend it's rational. Here's how it'll work: I'm going to give as objective scores for each section as I can, and then I'm going to add in as many points as I need to get it to 99 because this car, this bizarre Czech Art Deco land-zepplin, is pretty much my dream car.
In fact, I remember talking with Matt, our esteemed Editor-in-Chief and my Pilates instructor, at my first Detroit Auto Show a few years back. We got to the "what car would you get if you could have any car, all rules of reality suspended" question, and I answered "Tatra T87." Sure, there's many, many other cars I love dearly, but that one fantasy car has always been this Tatra.
It's a little tricky to explain exactly why, but I'll try. It's technically innovative, sure, it's unorthodox — rear air-cooled V8, three headlights, dorsal fin — and you could argue it was the supercar of its era. But it's also pretty archaic, has some nontrivial handling issues, and is a product of an era when things were, frankly, quite primitive.
But here's the thing about the Tatra — it's like a refugee from an alternate timeline of a world that never happened. Being around a T87 makes you feel like you live in a world that split off from ours somewhere in the early 30s, and continued on to this utopia of gleaming, benevolent, elegant machines and avoided all of the horrors of the Depression and WWII and all that mess.
It's from a world of sleek skyscrapers with zeppelin moorings at their tops, a world where you travel by airship and hovercraft before putting on a nice tie and climbing aboard a silver rocket to the expansive Lunar base, where you dine on perfect vat-grown steaks and sip gin served to you by an atomic-powered robot. It's a misplaced relic of this wildly optimistic technological future that never quite happened, and it's thrilling just to be around this lost orphan of that world.
That's how I feel around a Tatra T87, and that's why I'm scoring it a 99, dammit.
This particular T87 is owned by Paul Greenstein, and is one of three other Tatras he owns. He also has a rougher pair of T600s and a T603. Paul also has an incredible collection of other fascinating cars, including this Mercedes-Benz 170H, which is really amazing to see.
Paul is also an ideal steward for the Tatra because he is incredibly skilled at making things. He's cast his own parts and hinges from brass when needed, and he even re-silkscreened the instruments on the Tatra's dash himself. He knows these cars inside and out, and his standards of originality and quality are incredibly high.
He got this T87 in rough shape, and worked with restorers in the Czech republic to get it to the pristine state it's in now. Even better, even though the car is perfect, he's not holing it up in some climate-controlled prison. He drives it, lets his dog ride in it, and, more importantly, let me drive it.
And for that, I really am grateful.
The look of the T87 was dictated by the still-new science of aerodynamics — its predecessor, the Tatra 77, was the first car to be seriously designed with drag coefficients in mind. Based on work by zeppelin designer Paul Jaray, Hans Ledwinka and Erich Überlacker designed the T87, and in that design you can find the seeds of the Volkswagen Beetle, the Porsche 356, and even cars like the Tucker Torpedo.
Sure, rear-engined, streamlined cars like the Rumpler Tropfen-auto were earlier, but the T87 is really the wellspring for so many iconic rear-engine cars.
It's got beautiful Art Deco detailing all over it, and I love the elongated yet oddly stubby proportions, with that amazing dorsal fin. The car reads large when you look at it, but in reality, it's pretty small, roughly the dimensions of a modern Honda Civic. With its three headlights, skirted rear wheel, multi-pane windshield, windowless-and-louvered rear it looks like nothing else on the road.
The front and rear doors are both hung from the B-pillar, with the front pair being suicide and the rear pair opening conventionally.
As I mentioned before, it looks like the tomorrow we were promised yesterday and never quite managed to find. In black, like Paul's is, the car takes on a stately feeling, and the brightwork really stands out. It's a car that people notice, though not exactly in the same way that other classics get attention. Nobody knows what the hell it is, but everyone feels that it's Something Special. They're right.
The big Tatras were cars for big shots, and it feels like it inside. Everything is finished with attention and care, and it's clear no expense was spared. There's no crappy rubber accordion boot on the bottom of the shifter, for example, there's just a lovely chrome ball-and-socket that looks like it's ready to be implanted in your Grandma's hip.
The dash is a dazzling array of deco instruments, ringed in chrome, with a heathly spattering of bewilderingly and tantalizingly unlabeled switches, and knobs, the function of which even Paul isn't exactly sure of. The instrument printing that Paul re-silkscreened uses three inks: white, red, and a special ink with ground glass, to be nice and reflective for nighttime reading.
The overall feeling in the cabin is an amazing combination of overstuffed leather chair from some important old man's study and bright airiness, two things I would't have thought possible to combine. The headliner is a 30s-opulent-looking beige mouse fuzz, the seats are rich leather overstuffed couches with chrome grab handles, the windshield is a panoramic bay window, and there's a large sliding sunroof above. I rode in the front and back and I can't think of a better place to sit on anything, anywhere.
There's plenty of quirkiness, too — the huge fuse box that looks like a left-hand glove box with a special handwritten guide that Paul labored obsessively to re-create, and, most notably, the bizarre luggage compartment.
The front trunk is too full of a pair of spare tires and an oil cooler to be really useful for stowing any cargo, so the Tatra has this odd closet behind the back seat. You get to it by sliding a pair of latches that look just like chrome versions of the things you find on house doors, and lift the window'd panel. Inside is a pretty good sized area for your probably monogrammed mongoose-leather suitcases.
Under the carpet is a wood floor that looks nicer than the ones in my house, and opens to allow access to the transmission below. But it's the windows that really get eyebrows aloft here. There's three — one on the outside of the luggage panel, one on the back, and one immediately behind that on the bulkhead to the engine bay. And then those louvers in the rear hood.
So, when you look backwards, you're looking through three panes of glass and a set of louvers. It's not great. But, as Paul points out, nothing had good rearward vision in the late '30s/early '40s.
By modern standards, the Tatra is by no means a fast car. At all. But you have to keep things in perspective. Back in the 30s/40s, this was one of the fastest production cars of the era, one of the few good-sized four-door luxury sedans to be able to make and hold 100 MPH. And that's all from a 2969cc overhead-cam air-cooled V8 making about 85 HP (I have seen it reported as low as 75 and as high as 94).
This was a seriously advanced engine for its time, and if you think about what similar engines were making then, it shows. For example, the same year as this Tatra was built also saw the Studebaker I reviewed a while back. That Studebaker had a similar sized engine (2.7L I6) but it only made 78HP. And that Studebaker wasn't going to make 100 MPH even with a big cartoon cloud blowing on it, which is a testimony to the Tatra's advanced aerodynamics.
Driving in modern traffic, the T87 did remarkably well. I had no problem keeping up with boring old Priuses at lights, though they may have been repelled by the megawatt-level awesomeness field the car produces. It never felt sluggish or heavy, and the engine was willing and actually peppy.
Again, if we compare the Tatra to that Studebaker (it's the only other 1941 car I've driven, so forgive all the comparisons) the Tatra comes out light years ahead. Both cars have drums all around, but I never had that gradually-increasing terror I felt when stopping the Studebaker.
It may be the light front end, but the brakes manage to stop the car effectively and without drama or much fade. For a car this old, it's hugely impressive, and makes the car much more usable in modern traffic, since nobody leaves even obviously vintage cars the stopping room they really need.
It's very apparent that the T87 was made for people of much higher societal value than myself, because my body had that 'they better not catch you in here' feeling as I rode in the car. Because it felt too damn nice.
Paul said something interesting about the car:
Tatra knew what it took to make a good car, but the technology didn't quite exist to exactly do it right.
If you look at the car's design, you can see what he means. For example, they knew that independent suspension was the way to go, for ride quality and handling, but there weren't all that many good options. As a result, the car ended up with a semi-independent system using fractional leaf springs and swing axles at the rear.
The result does manage to give a supple yet not mushy ride. Much of the comfort is likely due to the generously stuffed and sprung seats, but the fact is it's plenty comfortable, even over some really crappy LA roads.
Handling issues have long been seen as the T87's Achilles' Heel, and Paul has some very strong opinions about that. He thinks all those stories about the car being a Czech secret weapon because of how many SS officers managed to kill themselves in them are just not accurate. For one thing, many of those dead SS bastards were in T77s, and secondly, a lot of blame needs to go to the tires.
Paul pointed out that lots of the Tatras the British and other armies were evaluating were running on bald, worn-out tires, and those on the rear of a rear-biased car just means trouble.
In fact, Paul uses snow tires on the rear and keeps them inflated to very precise numbers — numbers they were not inflated to when I drove it, so consider this a big caveat.
I've been driving rear-biased cars most of my driving life, so it felt pretty natural to me. Granted, it is a good bit bigger and heavier than a Beetle, but I never actually felt unsafe. I did feel a certain oscillation of weight from the rear at speed, though Paul assured me that with the proper tire pressure that was much less pronounced.
The light front end makes parking and maneuvering easy in a way almost none of the Tatra's contemporaries could claim, too.
Still, the car does have a significant ass-heaviness, and if you don't respect it, you absolutely could end up facing the very wrong way. You don't want to lift in a turn, and you should be chanting 'slow in, fast out' on every corner you come to.
Okay, this one I had to grudgingly put below average because neither first nor second gear is synchronized. That means you have to be at a dead stop to put it in 1st, and you have to learn Black Magic Shifting to keep from grinding going into second. Sometimes you can blip the throttle just right and pop it in with a satisfying snick but for me it was usually a sheepish grin and some grinding.
Other than that, the clutch pressure was vintage but satisfying, and the action of the shift lever felt really satisfying and mechanical. Oh, and reverse is down by second, and is labeled with a "Z" for zpět, which I'm told is Czech for "backwards."
I was surprised just how easy it was to drive the Tatra around town. I think you certainly could use a Tatra T87 as a daily driver — it's comfortable, roomy, easy to park, decent on gas, reasonable luggage room (if a bit tricky to get to), and, most importantly, it would make the most depressing late-night trip to the drugstore for more emergency anti-dihorreal medicine and lice combs into an absolute parade.
It even feels comfortable on highway trips, which sure as hell isn't something you can say about many otherwise-usable vintage cars. Don't give me that look, Subaru 360. You know I'm right.
Sure, the rearward vision isn't great and it's so rare that any little mishap in the parking lot could mean weeks and weeks trolling Prague Craigslist, but I still would daily a T87 in a heartbeat.
What? I'm already going to be adding a crapload of points to this review, so who cares about an extra one here? Besides, the Tatra has totally earned it. You saw me almost get all teary-eyed with joy in those first few paragraphs — this car has a real effect on people. You don't stand near it — you're in its presence.
Plus, it's crammed full of fantastic little details: spark-plug holders in the engine bay, semaphore indicators (I don't think anyone actually realized they were indicators while driving, but I love those little arms), period-correct map book for the nav system, an integrated, foot-operated chassis oiler system, a starting crank hole, old-west bookkeeper green sun visors, and that third headlight which has a special lever to point it down for parking assistance.
I freaking love this car.
After years of obscurity, the Tatra is finally getting the respect it deserves. Hell, this very car, the one Paul owns, was voted the New York Times Collectible Car of the Year in 2010. Publicity from famous owners like Jay Leno have made the cars more known than ever before, and that's brought prices up, with some selling for around $120,000 or even much more. Even total basket cases have gone for around $30 grand.
They're rare, exotic, and a couple other synonyms for "rare." These are extremely collectible.
Engine: 2.9-liter OHC air-cooled V8
Power: 85 HP @ 3,500 rpm / ~88 LB-FT @ 3,000 rpm (est)
Transmission: 4-speed manual, synchronized on 3rd and 4th
0-60 Time: oh, maybe 18 seconds? Maybe? Really though, who cares?
Top Speed: ~100 mph
Drivetrain: Rear wheel drive
Curb Weight: ~2,900 pounds
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 19 mpg city/21 mpg highway (U.S.)
MSRP: Approximately 25,000 Swiss Francs in 1940