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Tatra to celebrate centennial of the company’s mountain-derived name

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Photo by Marcin Szala.

In late March 1919, 10 vehicles rolled off the assembly line in the newly renamed town of Kopřivnice in the newly established country of Czechoslovakia bearing the newly coined automotive brand name Tatra. And even though none of the 10 vehicles were exactly new (nor were they the cars that had a hand in inspiring the name), the company itself aims to celebrate the centennial of the name all year long.

“New,” in fact, is a relative term when it comes to the foundation of Tatra. The company that built those 10 vehicles, Nesseldorfer Wagenbau, dates back to 1850. Nesseldorfer — aka NW — built both cars and trucks before the end of the 19th century. And the Tatra Mountains, from which NW borrowed the name, arose roughly 66-million years ago — give or take a few million years.

In the spring of 1919, however, change was in the air. Czechoslovakia’s declaration of independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire upon the latter’s defeat at the end of World War I triggered a wave of Czech nationalism. That movement, in turn, compelled NW to move its headquarters from Vienna (where the company had been based since 1904) back to Kopřivnice, rename itself Kopřivnická Vozovka, and install new managers who decided the time was right to expand automobile production.

While the new management, headed by Leopold Pasching, negotiated with Hans Ledwinka to return to the company to design more advanced automobiles, the company’s engineering staff set about improving the firm’s two pre-war production models, the 3.6-liter four-cylinder Typ T and the 5.3-liter six-cylinder Typ U, both featuring monobloc overhead-camshaft hemispherical-head designs. One of those improvements, front brakes, reportedly necessitated a wintertime test drive of three Typ Us from Kopřivnice to Tatranska Lomnica, a village at the base of some of the tallest peaks in the Tatra Mountains (located in present-day Slovakia). Jan Novák, head of the company’s automotive department, oversaw the tests, according to Ivan Margolius and John Henry’s “Tatra – The Legacy of Hans Ledwinka.”

(Novák) urged them to drive along the worst possible routes. The cars climbed over stones, the wheels fell into ditches. When the type Us approached the mountains, their tyres started to sink into the deep fresh snow. Snow chains were put on, and the cars proceeded.

As test driver Josef Veřmiřovský told the tale, local villagers found it difficult to believe the car had made it up to the snow-covered roads to the village on its own until a sleigh driver who they had passed caught up with them and vouched for their story, calling the drivers devils at the same time. “That would be a car for the Tatras!” somebody exclaimed. Novák decided then and there that Tatra would make for an excellent brand name and reportedly had a logo design in mind before the test vehicle made it back down to Koprivnice.

Hemmings Archive photo.

Rather than place the logo and Tatra name on its automobiles right away, Koprivnicka Vozovka slapped them on a batch of its TL-4 four-ton trucks destined for the Czechoslovakian army that March day. When the Typ T and U re-entered production not long after, the company renamed them the T-21 and the T-10 respectively.

It fell to Ledwinka, however, to design the first all-new Tatra vehicle after he finally returned to the company in 1921. Designated the T-11, Ledwinka’s design introduced Tatra’s signture backbone chassis, and though it still relied on a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, it also made use of swing-axle independent rear suspension and an air-cooled opposed twin.

By 1927, it became apparent that the Tatra brand name had enough cache to warrant changing the company’s name to Tatra, the name it continues to use today in truck manufacture.

To celebrate the centennial, Tatra will host the Kopřivnice Days of Technology at the company’s facilities in Kopřivnice in conjunction with the Tatra Technical Museum. The Kopřivnice Days of Technology will take place June 8-9.

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