The Tatra T97: The Car Hitler and Porsche Copied

The Czechoslovakian Tatras were the world’s first truly aerodynamically designed cars, but this fact was forgotten after the Cold War divided Europe’s motor industry. We’ll be looking at the T97 that was copied by Dr. Porsche when he designed the Volkswagen Beetle.

The Tatra T97 was probably the most influential car that no one has heard of.

From its beginnings in the aerodynamics of Zeppelin airships the Tatra was the result of the application of rational thought. But how did the goats of the Tatra mountains influence the design, and why did the car later become known as the “Nazi killer”?

A blue Tatra 87 looking like a VW Beetle
A blue Tatra 87 looking like a VW Beetle
A grey-blue Tatra saloon car in a museum.
This Tatra T613 was built in 1994. Sales were poor and car manufacture finished in 1999

The 1936 Tatra Model T97

Tatra’s chief designer Hans Ledwinka had worked with Paul Jaray, a Zeppelin airship aerodynamic engineer, using Jaray’s expertise and access to wind tunnels to design a truly slipstreamed motor car.

Jaray had patented an aerodynamic design and Auto Union had built a concept car based on his ideas in 1923. This led to a new look for cars, and Jaray, who is little heard of today, can be regarded as a pioneer of this science.

He understood the crucial fact that aerodynamic bodies cause lift, a fact that did not dawn on rival car designers until twenty years later.

A red Tatra 97 looking just like a VW Beetle, which copied it.
A red Tatra 97 looking just like a VW Beetle, which copied it.

Ledwinka and Jarays Tatras were influential in another area of car design. They had to contend with the steep, heavily cambered mountain tracks of their region. Rear engines with their weight over the driven rear wheels gave them the traction they needed.

Air-cooled engines wouldn’t freeze up in the mountain winters. Swing-axle independent rear suspension was just the job on a steeply-cambered mountain goat-track.

And so the Tatra engineer Hans Ledwinka produced a series of advanced streamlined cars with air-cooled rear engines: at first twin cylinders, then four, six, eight and culminating in a vast V12. With a rear engine! As we have seen, along the way he also built the world’s first aerodynamic car.

Even after 60 years the 1938 Tatra T77 still beat everything hands down with a Cd of 0.212; the 2001 Audi A2 1.2 TDI scored a Cd of 0.24, and even today the Mercedes EQS has only just beaten the Tatra with a Cd of 2.0!

A green Tatra 77 looking very streamlined
The Tatra 77 was the first streamlined car

At the Paris Show of 1934 journalists were amazed that the Tatra could reach 90 mph (140 kph) on just 60 hp of engine output: more than twice that power was usually needed to drive a conventionally shaped car at that speed. 

The rear of the Tatra 77 looking like a giant insect
The streamlined rear of the Tatra 77 looking like a giant insect

The cars’ reputation grew, and a Tatra T77 was owned by the Czechoslovakian president. Then Hans Ledwinka turned his attention to a cheaper model.

An image showing the wooden frame construction of the Tatra 77
The wooden frame construction of the Tatra 77

The Tatra T97 vs the Beetle

The car-enthusiast and non-driver Adolf Hitler had ridden in Tatras during his political tours of Czechoslovakia, and he admired them.

He had also discussed cars with Hans Ledwinka, in particular his new 1936 Tatra T97, an economy car with an air-cooled, four-cylinder, flat four engine mounted in the rear. It had a platform chassis with central structural backbone, forked at the engine end, and it provided accommodation for four or five passengers with their luggage carried in a front compartment and also behind the rear seat.

It looked a bit like a metal beetle. Is this beginning to sound familiar?


The 1937 Tatra T97 swung into full production in Kopřivnice, Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, In Germany of the 1930s only one in fifty of the population owned a car and for most it was an impossible dream.

Car ownership in other countries was far more widespread than in Germany and this irritated Hitler, who saw the motor car as “a source of unknown joy”. After one of his dinners with Ledwinka Hitler remarked of the Tatra T97 to the self-promoting Ferdinand Porsche,

“This is the car for my roads”.

– Adolf Hitler, (source: Mantle, Jonathan (1995). Car Wars: Fifty Years of Greed, Treachery and Skulduggery in the Global Marketplace).


Like all populists Hitler knew about the power of big promises. He promised this: every German would have a car. And German cars would be the best. Nazi-sponsored Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union Grand Prix motor racing cars, the “Silver Arrows” dominated the scene between 1934 and 1939.

And so in 1938 Porsche copied the Tatra T97 design and produced what eventually became known as the KdF-Wagen or Volkswagen, which was strikingly similar to Czech car. Tatra launched a lawsuit, with ten legal claims filed against VW for infringement of patents.

Porsche was about to pay a settlement to Tatra, but he was stopped by Hitler who said he would “solve his problem”. Tatra’s claim was simply disposed of when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

Production of the T97 was ordered to be halted to avoid comparison with the Volkswagen. But after the war, in 1965 Volkswagen paid Tatra one million Deutsche Marks in an out of court settlement.

After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia Nazi officers prized the powerful Tatra 87s for their straight-line speed but found them a handful on corners due to the rear engine.

The combination of swing axles, terminal roll-oversteer and a high polar moment of inertia proved too much for their driving abilities. After several fatal accidents personnel were ordered not to drive these cars.

The Tatra was thereafter known as the “Czech secret weapon”! Owners of older Porsche 911s will know what I’m talking about…

The Tatra T97 story doesn’t end there. Now, though it seems that Ledwinka had in turn copied a design of the 1920s by the Austro-Hungarian inventor and engineer Béla Barényi!

Barényi was a prolific inventor with 2,000 patents to his name. He is now credited with being the inventor of passive vehicle safety: crumple zones, the non-deformable passenger cell, and the collapsible steering column.

There exists a 1925 drawing by Barényi reproduced on the Mercedes Benz website which shows a car remarkably like the VW Beetle, even down to the louvres on the engine lid (source: So exactly who was copying whom?

“Well, sometimes I looked over his shoulder,” admitted Porsche of his discussions with Ledwinka, “and sometimes he looked over mine.”

Margolius, Ivan; Henry, John G (2015). Tatra – The Legacy of Hans Ledwinka.

Where Can I Find a Tatra T97 For Sale?

As I write these words there is a Tatra for sale on eBay for £6,500. But it is a post war 603 model. There is a 1938 Tatra T97 for sale on for Euros 58,000. Otherwise the usual places are Sotheby’s, Bonham’s and

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