While other heavy truck manufacturers that originated in the historical territory of the Czech state either did not exist for very long or were swallowed up by more successful ones, the TATRA brand is still alive. It is the only one to keep the flag of the Czech design school hoisted in its segment. Hundreds of thousands of vehicles manufactured with payload capacities from 10 t to 33 t and with 4x4, 6x6, 8x8, 10x10 and 12x12 drive systems serve in armies around the world.
The foundations of the second oldest car factory in the world were laid in 1850 when Koprivnice was officially called Nesselsdorf and Ignác Šustala an ambitious entrepreneur manufacturing carriages and couches, officially known to the authorities as Ignatz Schustala. This was during the era of Austria-Hungary and Franz Joseph. Incidentally, Vienna played an essential role in the formation of the company that later became known as TATRA. In 1891 the Guttmans brothers, local bankers, capitalised Ignatz Schustala & Comp (founded in 1858) and transformed it into Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau Fabriks Gesellschaft.
In about 1919 trucks under the marque Tatra begun appearing in the newly created country of Czechoslovakia. The company manufacturing these trucks, situated in the Moravian town of Koprivnice (of which the Germanic name is Nesselsdorf), was called Koprivnicka Vozovka a.s. (Koprivnice Wagon Works) and would become Tatra some years later. Prior to this it had actually been called Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau Fabrik (Nesselsdorf Wagon Works). The history of this manufacturer streches back to the 1850s under various names and it has produced such vehicles as the mentioned trucks (built since the 1890s), automobiles (see the unofficial TATRA pages), carriages, wagons, and railway coaches. The firm is actually most famous for its fantastic aerodynamic sedans with rear-mounted engines but trucks have accounted for a major portion of its output since the 1950s.
The Tatra name comes from the Tatra High Mountains, some of the higher peaks of the Carpathian mountain range. One particular day on a road from the settlement of Lomnica to Strba (Szczyrbsk in Polish) in the Tatras a very successful test, in 1919 or so, of a Nesselsdorfer vehicle (sporting experimental 4-wheel brakes) occurred. This involved passing a sleigh on the snow-covered road and suprising its occupants as to how an automobile or truck could cope in such conditions, prompting a statement to the effect of "This is a car for the Tatras!". And the rest is, as they say, history.
No doubt one of the greatest contributors to the manufacturer was the Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka, who returned in 1921 for good after having left it for the Austrian Styer in 1916 due to a disagreement with the management. His return as chief engineer (until the 1930s or so) signalled the emergence of the company as a maker of technically significant and advanced trucks capable of operating in very rough conditions.
Hans Ledwinka prepared a surprise for the entire world with what we now call the “TATRA vehicle concept”. In 1923 a chassis consisting of a central load-carrying tube, at the end of which a directly air-cooled engine and transmission were installed with independently mounted swinging half-axles, was introduced as a new product. The consequent years of production of vehicles designed in this way proved the greatness of the design. It gradually became prevalent as a light version in special vehicles, and later in heavier off-road vehicles.
In 1938 Tatra fell under German control due to the signing of the 'Munich Agreement' which was apparently a way to avoid war by giving a part of Chechoslovakia to the Germans. This meant halting all production and having all patents confiscated.
World War II broke out in 1939 and Tatra was forced to produce trucks for military use. That same year the massive 8-ton 6x4 T81 which utilized a 12.5-litre water-cooled 8-cylinder engine of 158bhp (either in gasoline or diesel form), had a carrying capacity of 6.5-tons, and a 65 km/h top speed. In 1942, as war waged on, came the introduction of the legendary T111 which was derived from the earlier T81. This imposing 6x6 truck was powered by a massive and extremely reliable 14.8-litre V12 208bhp (@ 2250rpm) OHV engine, one of the first air-cooled diesel engines utilized in a truck. The T111 was also involved in a favourite Tatra past time, touring foreign countries and continents to prove the worth of its products. Several highly successful treks were made by T111s, across China (including Tibet), Mongolia, and Africa.
Hans Ledwinka's stay at Tatra was cut short after the war in 1945 when he was accused of collaboration with the Nazis and promptly imprisoned until 1951. After release he moved to Austria and then to Munich, Germany where he remained until his death in 1967. In 1946 the new socialist government of Czechoslovakia nationalized the company and its name was reverted to Tatra (Tatra narodni podnik to be precise). Julius Mackerle was now the head engineer of the design team.
The first new post-war Tatra truck to appear was the T114, capable of carrying 3 tons and powered by a 4940cc air-cooled 4-cyl. engine. The year following brought the T115, which utilized the same engine, and the 6-cylinder 10.2-litre T116 of 6 tons load capacity followed the year after and stayed until 1952.
In the 1950s Tatra would begin placing more and more emphasis on truck production and less on passenger cars, due to a decree by the government to do so in the early part of that decade. But Tatra had already a good reputation as a truck maker and was experienced in that field and therefore this did not present much of a problem.
The second year of the 1950s saw the introduction of the 2-powered-axle cross-country T128, which was followed in 1952 by the 6x6 T130. Both employed an air-cooled diesel 9883cc V8 128bhp (@ 2000rpm) powerplant.
In 1956 came out the rounded and interesting looking 4x4 T805, available in truck or van form. In production until 1960, the relatively small T805 was powered by a 2.5-litre 8-cyl. motor and could cruise at 75 km/h. A modified caravan version of it was involved in yet more expeditions of exotic places by Tatra vehicles.
Nineteen-fifty-seven was the first year of the production of the T141. It was largely based on the famous T111, still being produced at that time, and shared its diesel V12 engine. Production of T141, with its 5.7 ton load capacity and three power axles, ceased in 1969.
The distinctive T138, with an impressive 12 ton carrying capacity, appeared for 1961. It introduced a new type of suspension, for commercial vehicles, utilizing sprung suspension rods and its powerplant was an 11.8-litre 8 producing 177.5bhp at 2000rpm. It was succeeded by the almost identical looking and successful T148, made from 1970 to 1982 in a quantity of 113647, which made do with a slight bigger 209bhp unit. Both of these 6x6 models took part in an extensive trek across Europe during the 1970s to promote them.
In 1965 the squarely styled and imposing T813, outfitted with a monstrous and torquey 17.6-litre 12-cylinder unit of 247bhp @ 2000rpm (very likely a highly reliable air-cooled diesel V12). It could haul up to 8.2 tons and was available in many forms, including the approprietly named 8x8 (4 axle) Kolos (collosal) towing truck. The T813 is probably the most widely known Tatra truck ever produced.
The last new Tatra truck model to clear the gates at Koprivnice (trucks are as always made in the Koprivnice factory, while automobiles are built in near-by Pribor since the 1950s) was the T815 which went on sale in 1982 and is still produced with minor improvements to this day in a multitude of different versions. The rather conventional looking T815, available in 2, 3, or 4 axle format, was initially equipped with a 10-cylinder (an air cooled diesel, naturally) engine of 15.8-litres and with a torque of 1010Nm (@ 1400rpm) on tap. Later on 19-litre 470bhp 12-cyl. (with torque of either 1130Nm or 1295Nm @ 1400rpm) and 12.7-litre 8-cyl. (with 840Nm @ 1400rpm) units became available. Carrying capaciy of a typical T815 is about 14 or 15 tons and maximum speed is around 90 km/h.
Special versions, in 4x4 and 6x6 form, of the T815 have had phenomenal success in the well-known rallies with Dakar as the destination, for instance the Paris (thru Algiers) to Dakar and more recently Grenada to Dakar rallies. At the 1987 Paris-Algiers-Dakar rally Tatra T815VD 4x4s (equipped with the mentioned 8-cyl. engine and capable of 150 km/h) placed in 2nd, 15th, 16th, and 18th in the truck category against tough competition (such as the Russian Kamaz trucks).
In the 1988 Paris-Algiers-Dakar rally 1st place was captured by a similar truck piloted by Karel Laprais. At the 1990 Paris-Tripoli-Dakar rally the Kahaneck/Havlick/Krpec team took 3rd place. Third was also attained at the 1992 Paris-Sirte-Cape Town rally by the Loprais/Kalina/Stachura team. Once again 1st position came at the '95 Granada-Dakar by Loprais/Stachura/Tomecek.
With the change of political and social situation in 1989, the orientation on a single model range became a significant burden in terms of commercial development. The LIWA customer project was a certain turning point for TATRA. Based on an end customer’s requirements, a liquid-cooled KHD Deutz engine and a Twin Disc automatic transmission were successfully installed into a T 816 8x8. The winning tender for the United Arab Emirates Army meant not only a batch of 1,127 vehicles produced and sold within eighteen months, but also a significant shift in the production strategy.
In 1992 Tatra became a company of the Czech Republic due to the split up of Czechoslovakia. It is not apparent, however, when the company was privatized but this may have happend around that time. Tatra a.s. has been having some difficulty in adjusting to the rather sudden change to free-market economy and the (temporary) loss of markets after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., but it appears that the situation is improving, the case in point being an $180 million order by the United Arab Emirates Army for 1100 T815 8x8 trucks (albeit powered by Deutz water-cooled engines). Other news is that Skoda Plzen (unrelated to the auto-maker Skoda) purchased 43.5% of Tatra.
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