The Concours d’Elegance of Pebble Beach will pay tribute to Tatra – possibly the most innovative car brand in the Eastern Bloc. It took the research conducted by Ivan Margolius to make the automotive community become aware of the achievements of this carmaker. The Briton with Czech roots found out that countless innovations which had been attributed to other engineers and carmakers were actually developed by the Czech company. We had the opportunity to talk to the Tatra expert who is also a proud owner of a recently restored Tatraplan 600.
Q: The book you wrote with John G. Henry on Tatra and its engineer Hans Ledwinka is said to be a standard work for Europe’s automotive history. From your point of view: where is the place for Tatra in the history books?
Ivan Margolius: Our book was the first of its kind to be published in English. We researched it for two years, John travelled to the Czech Republic and Austria. This was before the Velvet Revolution, and because I had left the country without permission in 1966, I was not able to go with him, so I did all the writing. When I came to Britain I realized that lot of information was not available in the West and attempted to publish books to correct this. Tatra was part of that effort.
The book became very successful. Tatra clubs started on the score of people reading the book and then trying to source the cars mainly in the Czech Republic. Even Jay Leno bought his T87 after reading our book without even seeing the car. Tatra is the third-oldest manufacturer in continuous production after Benz and Peugeot from 1897. But because of its location and being cut off from the West after World War II, its products are little known. Ledwinka designed pioneering products: a central tubular chassis, swing axles, streamlined body cars. Many manufacturers had no courage to do this, so Tatra paved the way for further development. The significance of Tatra is up there with Porsche, Lancia, Ferrari, Voisin as a really innovative enterprise.
Q: The famous Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach has dedicated a special award category to the brand this year. Do you have an explanation as to why the classic car community seems to be increasingly appreciating Tatra cars.
Ivan Margolius: Interest in Tatra grows the more it is covered in the media. Pebble Beach decided to feature Tatra because a Los Angeles T87 was voted by the New York times readers as the collectible car of the year, beating locally made marques which made a great impact in 2010.
Q: It seems that Tatras have increasingly turned into collectables. I guess the times when you went to Prague and bought a Tatra T87 or a Tatraplan 600 on the cheap are definitely over? Prices have reached six digit figures for restored historic streamliner cars…
Ivan Margolius: Yes, the interest has a negative effect for collectors when prices continue to climb out of the reach of modestly endowed fans, especially by the Czech owners who now demand large sums for the wrecks they own. On the other hand, any Tatra restored is a great contribution to the history of motoring and design, and present owners are just custodians for the future generations.
Q: You are trained as an architect. It seems self-evident that it was the design of the Tatra streamliners that attracted your attention for Tatra at first?
Ivan Margolius: Yes, Tatra cars are great examples of forward-looking design, modern movement on wheels, as the Tatra T87 exhibited at the Modernism exhibition of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London proved a few years back.
Q: However, Tatra came up with some very special concepts and innovations under the hood as well. Which technical details were most significant?
Ivan Margolius: The lightweight air-cooled rear engines V8 and flat 4, swiveling headlights, swing axles, forced fan-assisted cooling and flat undersides. The ladder means 35 percent of air goes under the car. Compare this with the E-Type where all the guts are suspended carelessly under the body, for example.
Q: Rumor has it that you own a Tatraplan 600, which you had restored. What do you like most about this car?
Ivan Margolius: She was restored by one man in the Czech Republic for over 7 years. She has the ultimate all-enveloping, tear-shaped body without the fenders expressed as in previous models. And she has a light engine. There’s no need for the heavy V8 with such a well-designed body. She reaches the same speeds, yet still retains the rear fin as the last of such Tatra models.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced during the restoration?
Ivan Margolius: Waiting for her to be finished.
Q: How about the supply with spare parts?
Ivan Margolius: Spare parts can be found from other owners, and there are companies in the Czech Republic that make spare parts such as Ecorra.
Q: It seems that there is quite an active Tatra owners club in the UK. How important is that for you as an owner? Do you know about other Tatra clubs in the world?
Ivan Margolius: It’s useful to be in touch with other owners, exchanging advice, spare parts and information about maintenance
Q: Please allow an intellectual pastime at the end: Tatra has phased out producing cars in the late 1990s. What would a Tatra look like today?
Ivan Margolius: Tatra is struggling without Western ownership – unlike Škoda which was so successfully rescued by VW. It’s a shame that Tatra was not offered similar investment. There was a talk about starting production of retro models such as the Tatraplan or T87 because of increasing interest, but I think that would be a mistake, although something similar such as a Fiat 500 or a new VW Beetle might be possible, although the new Mini, for example, has not taken off, being a pseudo design which is a danger. Tatra still produces trucks, something they’re very good at and where there’s less competition globally.
Header Photo: Restored Tatra T77, ready for Concours – © Concours d’Elegance Pebble Beach