Author Ivan Margolius on a chilling personal connection to classic Tatra cars

Ivan Margolius and his 1949 Tatraplan, photo: James Whitacker

Tatra’s futuristic-looking, aerodynamic cars, which first appeared on the roads in the 1930s, represent some of the most distinctive designs ever produced in Czechoslovakia. These now classic cars were not the only thing Tatra made; as well as their well-known trucks, the company based in Kopřivnice, Moravia also turned out planes, military vehicles and even the stunning Slovak Arrow train.

However, cars are the main focus of the book Tatra: The Legacy of Hans Ledwinka by Ivan Margolius and John G. Henry, which has just come out in Czech for the first time. Margolius’s father Rudolf Margolius was executed in the notorious Slánsky show trial when Ivan was a small boy and in the 1960s he moved to London, where he became an architect.

He shared a startling family connection to Tatra, and lots of fascinating information on the company’s history, in this interview from his home in the UK.

The title of the book is Tatra: The Legacy of Hans Ledwinka. Who was Hans Ledwinka?

“He was a man who was born in Vienna, but his parents, or his father, came from Moravia, from Brtnice.

“So in fact he’s already got a sort of Moravian connection, through his father; he wasn’t an Austrian as such.

“There are witnesses during his time who stated that Ledwinka wasn’t a Nazi in any way.”

“He started working in Nesselsdorf, which was Kopřivnice in those days, in September 1897, as a young man.

“He more or less stayed there with the company the whole of his career.

“Nesselsdorf – or Nesselsdorfer, Kopřivničan, as it was called then – was renamed Tatra in 1919.

“He had an enormously long career with the company, as a technical director and as a designer.”

In his long association with Tatra, what were his greatest achievements, would you say?

“There are many, but his prime interest was in the design of a small car.

“In 1921 he designed the small Tatra 11, which was a revolutionary design, because it had a central, tubular chassis with independent swing axels at the front and at the rear, and with an air-cooled engine at the front, in those days.

Hans Ledwinka | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“It proved an enormously popular car, and very reliable and very robust for the Central European conditions.

“Because the roads were not in very good condition in those days and this car just managed to go everywhere.

“That was one of the big milestones for the company, because from then, from 1921, the basic design of Tatra cars is based on that same sort of principle.”

But there’s also a dark side to his story. He was imprisoned in Czechoslovakia after the war.

“It’s quite important to understand this, because the company was occupied by the Third Reich straight after the Munich Diktat.

“And in fact it is said that they stretched the boundaries of the Sudetenland, which was to be occupied, to include the factory on purpose, because the border was just where the fence around the factory was.

“The Tatraplan was probably the best Tatra car produced which still had the fin at the back.”

“The reason was so the Germans would have a say over the company and take over its production for other purposes and acquire the archives they had and the technical expertise of the company.

“Hans Ledwinka tried as much as he could to remain director during those times, because he wanted the company to survive, despite this occupation.

“His prime reason was to keep the company going, to keep the workforce occupied in the region, because most of the people living in Kopřivnice were employed in the company.”

So do you think it was unfair that he was imprisoned as a collaborator after the war?

“I think so, because he had to in a way, unfortunately.

“That happens in most political regimes – he in a way had to sort of work for the Germans to keep the company going.

1949 Tatraplan with the 1942 Czechoslovak 310/312 Squadrons Spitfire Mark Vc at the Shuttleworth Collection,  Bedfordshire,  photo: archive of Ivan Margolius

“There are witnesses during his time who stated that he wasn’t a Nazi in any way.

“Ferdinand Porsche similarly had to collaborate, in a way, to keep his company going.

“Or Škoda, I think it was Mr. Hrdlička, Karel Hrdlička was the name, who similarly had to keep the company going by working in unison with the Germans in those times.”

There are marked similarities between one Tatra model, the V570, and the Volkswagen Beetle. What’s the story behind that? I was reading Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the Beetle, used to visit Ledwinka.

“It’s an incredibly complicated story and there are lots of books now about it.

“But the whole thing started in a way with the economic crisis in the States, where the economy collapsed and in those times most of the automobile companies were making big, luxurious cars.

“Tatras were no ‘Nazi killers’ – that’s just a nonsense really.”

“There was no money and no customers who could spend the money to buy these big cars.

“So all these companies, in Europe or in the States, started to think about how they could carry on with their production and sell cars.

“They started to think from the late 1920s and 1930s about designing small cars.

“And the contribution of Tatra to the whole story, from my point of view, is that other people started to build on the success of the Tatra 11, which was the simple chassis, the air-cooled engine, which was cheap to produce, and the simple construction.

“Therefore the air-cooled engine was placed at the rear of the car by manufacturers, to avoid the drive shaft from the front to the back.

“In those days there were not front-wheel drive cars yet.

Ivan Margolius and his 1949 Tatraplan | Photo: archive of Ivan Margolius

“It’s much cheaper to produce a car without this drive shaft.

“So in a way Tatra, or Ledwinka, had the advantage of having this experience of building these cars for 10 years already before the Volkswagen started to be produced.

“In those days Porsche and Ledwinka used to meet. For example, there’s a photograph in the book of their meeting in Brno in 1935 at one of the races there.

“So they talked together. The story goes that Ledwinka said, Sometimes I looked over Porsche’s shoulder, and sometimes Porsche looked over my shoulder.

“They basically used their ideas and borrowed from each other.

“In those the patents were rather loose and they didn’t worry too much about it.

“And it was a sort of collaboration, in that sort of way.”

Many people will associate the name Tatra with these amazing aerodynamic cars with a fin on the back, like the Tatra T77 and T87. How innovative were they at the time, in terms of design?

“The Iron Curtain came down and the Tatra was separated from other happenings in the technical world in the West.”

“Well, it had started in the early 1920s when Paul Jaray, who was pioneer of streamlining, was working for Zeppelin and started to use the Zeppelin wind tunnel for his own experiments in designing small cars.

“In those days that was a really innovative approach, because all the cars were boxy looking and translating streamlining into car design was quite a long process.

“In the early 1920s it was probably too early for the public to accept these very innovative designs, these blob-like cars, which were such a contrast to the previous boxy car designs.

“But it made enormous sense, because the cars could drive faster with the streamlining and save fuel and be safer on the roads.

“So it made sense to start changing car design, using the streamline principles.

“Other innovative companies, like Maybach in German with the Maybach Spohn produced in 1932, pointed the way and Tatra decided to carry on in the same principle.

Photo: Repro Ivan Margolius - TATRA,  Argo publishing

“The story goes that it was Erich Übelacker, who was the designer employed at the time by Tatra, who started to work on these streamlined designs and persuaded Hans Ledwinka to produce cars with the same principles.”

For you what was the pinnacle of Tatra’s car designs?

“Everyone loves the V8 engines and the Tatra 87, which was designed in 1936.

“But from my point of view, I love the Tatraplan, because I think it’s the most resolved car.

“It was a post-war design, it came out in 1948, and the front fenders, for example, are totally omitted – they are just included in the teardrop design of the car.

“It’s got a smaller engine, it’s a smaller car, it’s much simpler and it’s got the best streamlining coefficient.

“So from my point of view, the Tatraplan was probably the best Tatra car produced which still had the fin at the back.”

Recently I saw an excerpt of a car show hosted by the comedian Jay Leno, in which he said that Tatras were a “killer of Nazis” and “the Czechs’ secret weapon”, because so many German officers were killed driving them. Is that true?

“A Tatra club was established in Britain; now it’s got about 90 members, with about 30 various Tatra models here.”

“It’s just sensationalising the whole thing.

“Jay Leno bought the first edition of our book when it was published in 1990.

“He didn’t know anything about Tatras and on the basis of our book he decided to buy one.

“He managed to find a car which was originally exported by Tatra to Belgium in 1947 and he bought it, renovated it and was incredibly enthusiastic about it.

“But the story basically is only partly true.

“Tatra cars are quite difficult to drive and you’ve got to get used to them, because the engine is it at the back, it’s very fast and the most of the weight of the car is at the back as well.

“With the T87, the weight distribution is about 63 percent of the weight of the car at the back and only 37 percent at the front.

“So if you imagine this car going very fast, it tends to take off like an aircraft, so you have to be very careful.

“In fact the handbook given to Tatra 87 drivers says, right on the front page, Please drive this car very carefully.

Zikmund and Hanzelka's legendary Tatra 87 | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

“And some of these German soldiers or whoever drove these cars in Germany didn’t drive them very carefully and they tended to end up in ditches, for example.

“There were no deaths, as far as I know.

“There was an interview with a German Tatra agent who was actually called to the Wehrmacht during the war and he was asked how dangerous these Tatra cars were and he said, If you drive them carefully, they’re absolutely fine.

“But apparently it was still later forbidden for German officers to drive these cars.

“But they were no ‘Nazi killers’ – that’s just a nonsense really [laughs].”

The Czech travellers Hanzelka and Zigmund famously drove a Tatra T87 on their travellers around the world. Were they driving a regular model, or was it reinforced in some way to help them to survive those journeys?

“No, as far as I know, it was a standard production car.

“The only thing which happened was that at the beginning of their journey, near Tripoli in Libya, they had an accident which is still unexplained.

“Later they discovered that the brake lines were cut and the cable on the handbrake was somehow cut during the night, when they were staying at a hotel.

“What happened was that they were driving in Libya to the border with Egypt and suddenly they couldn’t stop the car.

Tatra 77,  photo: Matěj Skalický / Czech Radio

“To stop the car, they had to drive it into a concrete bollard; otherwise they would have crashed into a border barrier which would have taken their heads off.

“Luckily [laughs] they managed to stop the car by driving into the bollard.

“So for a few weeks they didn’t have a car, because the car was a write-off.

“Luckily there were a few Tatras being delivered to Egypt at the same time, but they were black, rather than silver.

“So because black is not a very good colour for the tropics, they had one of the cars re-sprayed and when they picked up the new car in Alexandria it was a standard model delivered to Egypt.

“And that’s the car which they drove all the way through Africa and then to South America, through Central America and back to Europe.

“So it was a standard car.”

What impact did the Communist takeover have on Tatra?

“I think the main problem in those days is that the Iron Curtain came down and the Tatra was separated from other happenings in the technical world in the West.

“That’s why there is so little known about the company, even nowadays.

“And our aim was to publicise the company in the West, because our book was the first published in English.

Tatra 77 | Photo: Matěj Skalický,  Czech Radio

“So the Communist regime was a downside from that point of view.

“It stopped the company in Kopřivnice having direct contact with other companies and being able to exchange information or gain expertise from other countries and gain all the magazines they needed to read.

“Because it’s important to be informed of what other automotive developments there are in the world.

“So that was a downside for the company.

“They sort of carried on blinkered in a way, because they didn’t have this connection with other manufacturers.”

One relatively well-known model is the Tatraplan, the Tatra 600. I’m not sure if I read it in your book or elsewhere, but was it the case that the “plan” in the name came from the Communists’ planned economy idea, or the five-year plans? Is that the connection?

“The story goes that one of the quite famous designers in those days, called František Kardaus, who did quite a lot of drawings for Tatra, was involved in the Tatraplan design.

“He designed the front of the car, up to the doors, so he had quite a big influence. He was the first industrial designer to be involved with the company.

“Initially he suggested that the car be called ‘Autoplan’. The idea was that… yes, it is to do with I think firstly the two-year economic plan, and then from I think 1949 it was changed to the five-year economic plan.

“But the other connection is to do with planes: ‘Aeroplan’, because there was this connection with streamlining, and there are leaflets showing the Tatraplan with an aeroplane in them.

“There is this connection from the word Aeroplan as well, so the economic plan or the Aeroplan connection – those two things probably played a role in the choosing of the name.”

You were born in the late 1940s, I guess. When you were young, how common were Tatra cars in Prague?

“In those days unfortunately – and I was a little boy, I was born in 1947 – these cars were really only available to the governmental bodies.

“There were not really sold privately. There were not that many of them on the market.

“They were used, for example, by the governmental ministries, or the police, or StB, State Security, personnel.

“So the domestic market was limited in those days.

“The other effort was obviously made for exports – quite a few of these cars were exported to gain hard currency.

“That’s why they were not available for the general public to buy.”

Your father was executed in the Slánský show trial. You say at the beginning of the book that your father was picked up in a Tatra.

“Yes [laughs], it’s a rather strange story.

“He was a deputy minister in the Ministry of Foreign Trade, from 1949, and during his time there he had at his disposal a Tatraplan, to be driven to meetings or visiting other cities.

“During his service at the ministry, he was familiar with the Tatraplan, as well as the T87 – when he was picking up visitors from the airport, he was driven in an 87 to pick up these people and bring them back to Prague.

“And then when he was arrested in January 1952, the StB came along in Tatraplans, arrested him in the street, just outside our flat in Veverková Street, and took him to the Ruzyně prison in a Tatraplan.”

You also write that his ashes were scattered beneath a Tatraplan. Could you explain that please?

“After the trial, early in December [1952], 11 defendants were executed out of the 14, and their ashes were then driven from the crematorium in a Tatraplan, by StB agents.

“Somewhere outside Prague, towards Benešov… it was a snowy and icy day, early in the morning, and the car skidded into a snowdrift outside Prague.

“And the agents, to be able to get out of the snowdrift and from the ice, scattered the ashes under the Tatraplan, to be able to return back.

“I don’t know where they were going. It’s not explained at all. But that’s how the ashes suddenly were gone under a car.

“So I’ve got this connection with the Tatraplan, which my father had.

“That was one of the reasons why I wanted this car – to be reminded of this family connection to my father.

“So I own a Tatraplan now, in Britain. It’s in my garage and every day I’m reminded of this story.

“This is the connection with the car – and with Tatra.”

That’s an amazing and terrible story at the same time. Wow. Getting back to the designs…

“That’s Prague! That’s Czecho – absurdity happens all the time.

“Apart from that, our tomb in the New Jewish Cemetery is next to Kafka.

“Did you know that? When you go and visit Franz Kafka’s tomb in the New Jewish Cemetery, head to head is our tomb, where my father’s ‘in memoriam’ plaque is.

“So my father, the victim of ‘the trial’, which Kafka predicted in his book, is lying head to head with Kafka.

“In spirit, because he’s actually not there – his ashes [laughs] are on the road to Benešov somewhere.”

Somehow to get back to the designs, as well as the famous trucks and other vehicles such as trolleybuses and even planes, one of Tatra’s products was the incredible looking Slovak Arrow [Slovenská střela] train engine, from the 1930s. Was that the only train that Tatra made?

“I think so, yes. That was done in 1936, again as a kind of streamlined body.

“Vladimír Grégr, one of the famous architects from the 1930s, who unfortunately died during the war, was partly the designer. He designed the interiors.

“The Slovenská střela is now being renovated by the specialists in Kopřivnice and it’s going to be a beautifully designed object now.

“It’s really to their credit that they have done that, because it’s a very important element by the company, designed in those days.

“But yes, apart from the passenger cars, Tatra mainly designed trucks.

“And aeroplanes for a short time. Also military vehicles; they did draisines [small maintenance vehicle] for the railway and little sort of cannons and things, armoured cars, that sort of that thing.

“They even designed fridges and other products like that, and agricultural implements like ploughs.

“So the company was very diverse, mainly in the 1930s, to gain a customer base.

“It was one of the largest companies in Czechoslovakia between the wars.”

I know at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London there was a show at the end of last year about the history of the car that included a section dedicated to the Tatra. I was wondering, generally speaking, how much interest is there in Tatras internationally? Or how well known are they beyond the Czech Republic?

“I think our book when it was published in 1990 helped to introduce Tatra into Western consciousness.

“Because there was nothing known about the company, or very little.

“There were a few articles about the company in specialist automobile magazines, but no books.

“So that was the one of the reasons we wanted to publish the book.

“And one of the consequences was that, for example, a Tatra club was established in Britain; now it’s got about 90 members, with about 30 various Tatra models here.

“Another consequence, for example, was that in 2010, 10 years ago, a Tatra 87 owned by Paul Greenstein was voted the most collectible car in the United States.

“So slowly these cars are coming into consciousness.

“Norman Foster, for example, the famous architect, became acquainted through our book became acquainted with Tatras.

“He has got a wonderful collection of very early designed cars: KdF and Porsche cars, and one of his cars, which he bought about 10 years ago, was a Tatra 87.

“And very kindly he agreed to write a foreword for our book.

“He’s a great supporter of Tatra and – from a design point of view, mainly – admires the marque enormously.

“So slowly I think Tatra is becoming quite an important element in automobile consciousness in the West.

“And I think it’s important for the Czechs to realise that.”

Paul Greenstein’s Tatra 87 was voted the most collectible car in the United States.