History has been cruel to any number of cars, and even carmakers, but the story of Tatra and the T87 might bring a tear to the eyes of some enthusiasts. Tatra was a Czechoslovak company from the days when that was a thing. It is mostly famous for making the V570, the car Ferdinand Porsche is said to have ripped off for the design of the Volkswagen Beetle. A lawsuit from Tatra over the design was only stopped by the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. But it was the T87 that was Tatra’s real masterpiece. Far from being a “people’s car,” the T87 was a marvel of design and technology at the time.

WWII was obviously hugely disruptive to a lot more than just the automotive industry, but it was ultimately also the reason why so few T87s were ever made. The car has never really managed to break out of the near-obscurity it was born into in 1936. It was produced after the war, all the way up until 1950, but it never really took off in terms of sales. But one showed up at Pebble Beach this year, and that’s always a good enough reason to sing its praises once again.
Continue reading for my full review of the Tatra T87.

  • 1948 Tatra T87
  • Year:
    1948
  • Engine:
    V8
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    85
  • Displacement:
    2969 cc
  • Top Speed:
    100 mph (Est.)
  • car segment:
  • body style:

Exterior

1948 Tatra T87 High Resolution Exterior
- image 643346
1948 Tatra T87 High Resolution Exterior
- image 643353
1948 Tatra T87 High Resolution Exterior
- image 643342

Where to even begin talking about the design of the T87? Automotive design was still pretty adventurous in the ’30s, but even in that context the T87 is is pretty wild. The design is actually an evolution of the Tatra T77, the first car designed specifically to be aerodynamic. This is where the T87’s pronounced dorsal fin comes in. It looks weird, but few cars in history have had a lower drag coefficient, so it does indeed work. But the dorsal fin isn’t the only odd thing about the design. The T87 also has three headlights — a not completely unheard of design element, but the T87 does predate the Tucker 48 by 12 years, the other car famous for its extra headlight.

The rear-engine layout made for a different sort of body shape then was prevalent in the day. The hood is low and slopes forward in a way that it couldn’t if the engine was under it. If the profile makes you think of a zeppelin, that is because it’s meant to. The designers Hans Ledwinka and Erich Ubelacker used the airships as an inspiration for the car. It has a beautiful art deco look that is somewhat reminiscent of the Stout Scarab that debuted a few years earlier, although it is highly unlikely that the Tatra was inspired by that design.

Interior

For all of the elegant art deco interiors that graced the high-end cars of the day, the T87 is one of the best examples of this design philosophy on a more mainstream car. The steering wheel, dash and gauges in particular are some of the best examples in the automotive world. The interior is well appointed and comfortable too, with big seats and extensive use of leather. It’s pretty spacious for a rear-engined car as well, most notably in the rear seats.

Drivetrain

Much like the Volkswagen Beetle, the Tatra V570 had a small rear-mounted, air-cooled boxer engine. But since Tatra ultimately decided to take the idea upmarket, something bigger would be needed for the new car. So the T87 ended up with a rear-mounted, all-magnesium, air-cooled 3.0-liter V-8. It produced 85 horsepower, but because of the car’s aerodynamic body it was able to do over 100 mph on the autobahn. This made it one of the fastest production cars of its day (the first official records for this sort of thing date from 1947 and are for the Healey Type 2.4’s 110 mph top speed).

The downside was the handling. Tatra had somehow managed to fit both the engine and the luggage compartment in the back of the car. Two full-sized spares were stored under the hood in order to try to balance the weight out a bit, but the T87’s handled a bit like an early Porsche 911, in that if you got too aggressive with it, it would try to kill you.

Prices

1948 Tatra T87 High Resolution Exterior
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The T87 was a luxury car, and it wasn’t cheap even when new. It sold for the equivalent of $125,000 in today’s money. They tend to go for about double that now, and upward of $300,000 today. It’s not hard to find them listed for more, but it should be noted that the seller in Texas that I found asking $1 million for his T87 has had it listed for a year without finding any takers. Just over 3,000 units were built, so it’s not super rare, but also not exactly common.

Competition

Auburn 851 Speedster

1948 Tatra T87 High Resolution
- image 643523

If you’re looking for a bold and attractive but still mainstream design for your ’30s luxury car, the Auburn 851 “Boattail” Speedster is an extremely good choice. It’ll cost around the same money and is another magnificent example of art deco design. Also worth considering is the Cord 812 “Coffin Nose” from Auburn’s parent company, a car that is related but with a look all its own. However, for my money, the 851 Speedster is one of the best looking cars ever made.

Delahaye 135 M

1948 Tatra T87 High Resolution
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This is actually more the norm when it comes to prewar luxury cars. Delahaye would supply you with a body if you wanted one, but it was more typical of customers to just buy a chassis and then take it to a coachbuilder for a custom body. These custom bodies are serious works of art, sculptures made for the rich and stylish to travel around in, and for whatever reason, those made for the Delahaye 135 M were some of the most beautiful ever made. Not all of them will cost you into the millions to buy today, but don’t expect to get one for less than $200,000.

Conclusion

1948 Tatra T87 High Resolution Exterior
- image 643356

The T87 might have been a supremely weird machine, but it was very good at what it did, and many people (myself included) think it looks fantastic. In a weird way, it could also be thought of as the car that the VW Beetle could have been if it were approached with a different philosophy. But more than anything, it’s a car that never got its due, and something this great doesn’t deserve a fate like that.

  • Leave it
    • * not everyone is going to love the looks
    • * handling might kill you
    • * you will have to explain it to every person that ever sees it
What do you think?
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