Photo: Kristen Lee

Our own Kristen Lee took a trip to Prague earlier this year, where she presumably danced around on cobblestone streets and said “woo woo look at me, I’m Kristen!” and slapped waiters with cold cuts or whatever the hell it is Kristen does to relax. She won’t tell me. But, she did show me some pictures she took at the Czech National Technical Museum, and one of those pictures featured a car that I find fascinating and a bit baffling. Now I want to show it to you, so we can try to figure out what the hell is going on with it.

The car is a 1900 Nesseldorfer Wagenbau (NW) Rennzweier, which basically means “NW Racing Twin.” NW eventually became Tatra, and then 20 year-old Hans Ledwinka, the man behind the famous rear-engined Tatras we all know and love, actually worked on this car.

I’m baffled by the car because of its very strange mechanical layout: it has a flat-twin boxer engine, a modified Benz engine. The engine is 4248cc and makes a ravenous 18 horsepower. It’s mounted in the middle, which makes sense for a race car, and transverse. One cylinder points the front and the other points to the back, which is strange in this context. Or any context, really. But that’s not exactly what’s baffling me.

What’s baffling me are the details of how the engine is installed and plumbed and the tanks and all that. Here, look at the car again, this time in a period drawing that shows how it was originally set up for racing, with a big cyclopean headlamp and a big cargo basket at the rear:

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What’s confusing to me has to do with the two tanks. The large one at the front is said to be a 42 liter fuel tank, and the rear one is a 15 liter coolant tank. I don’t think that’s right, and I became so entranced with the seeming wrongness of this labeling that I lost the better part of two days trying to set it right. I looked over every line and tube, consulted my coworkers, had a good scream inside my soundproofed screaming chamber, and still emerged confused.

The claim that the front tank is for gas doesn’t make sense because it appears to be plumbed right into that insanely massive, cube-like radiator, and you wouldn’t do that with fuel, would you? I wouldn’t.

Also, the small rear tank appears to be plumbed into the cylinder heads, roughly at the same place (the intake valve area?) where these two large cylinders can be seen on a diagram of the Benz engine itself:

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I’m guessing those canisters are some sort of carburetors? Early surface-type carburetors? (Early carbs typically evaporated gas rather than atomizing it.)

I really don’t think the front tank is the fuel tank, no matter what Wikipedia says. So, if the rear tank is, in fact, the fuel tank, that’s just about a four gallon tank—why so small? Weight reasons? And why so much coolant? That front tank is about eleven gallons. Was that the sort of volume of coolant these old engines demanded?

Also, what’s with these controls on the steering column to operate some valves on what I think is the coolant tank? Is that a sort of manual thermostat? Here’s my best guesses so far about how this thing is set up:

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This is a very strangely laid-out car, with its bi-level seating, mid-mounted transverse flat-twin, oddly proportioned and massive radiator, and those oddly-scaled tanks.

What do you gearheads make of these tanks, this plumbing, and all the complicated goings-on here? I can’t tell if this car is wildly complicated, or just seems so because you’re basically sitting right inside the engine compartment.

This is strange, right? I’ve been looking at it so long I can’t tell if it’s just me, now. Help.