Automobile of the Week: The 1934 Tatra T77 Is a Czech Surprise. Now a Totally Restored Mannequin Is up for Grabs.
RM Sotheby’s comes to Florida’s Amelia Island on March 3 for an auction replete with automotive treasures old and new. Among the most unusual cars on the auction house’s docket is a rare and exceptionally restored Tatra T77, one of very few remaining and certainly one of just a handful to come to market in contemporary times. Tatras are an automotive outlier and an acquired taste, but connoisseurs of design find few cars are as engaging and as historically significant as those made by the Czechoslovakian marque.
Founded as a car manufacturer in 1897, the company is best known for the streamlined luxury models it developed before World War II, by which time the Nazis took over and, following their defeat, the Communists assumed ownership. The slippery Tatra T77 was presented to the world in 1934. It was designed by Austrian Hans Ledwinka and German Erich Übelacker, with input from Paul Jaray, the aerodynamic engineer for the Zeppelin, and the model remains one of the most aero of any road-going automobile. It was certainly the first series-production car whose main aim was cheating the air. Depending on whom one believes, Googling “lowest drag coefficient” reveals a list of strange automotive bedfellows, with the McLaren Speedtail at the top and the 1934 Tatra T77 seventh, above the eighth-ranked Tesla Model S.
Only 106 examples of the Tatra T77 were produced from 1934 to 1936, when it was replaced by the T77a. A total of only 249 T77 and T77a models were produced through 1938 and, at present, only five examples worldwide are known to be restored and drivable.
The four-door sedan comprises a coach-built body on a pressed box-section steel chassis, and is distinguished by a prominent tail fin extending from the nape of the rear window to the base of the rear bumper. Resembling nothing so much as the automotive equivalent of the prehistoric Dimetrodon, the Tatra was equally unusual under its skin. Beneath its finned rear decklid resides an air-cooled, 3.0-liter V-8 engine that makes 60 hp. A V-8 enlarged to 3.4-liters and producing 75 hp was developed for the Tatra 77a, and both models use a four-speed transmission. The Tatra engine was advanced for the time, with overhead valves in hemispherical combustion chambers and dry-sump lubrication for the oil system. Suspension was independent with rear swing axles, and the metallurgy was cutting edge, with magnesium employed for parts of the body, engine, transmission and suspension.
In 1934, an enthusiastic Vilém Heinz wrote in the publication Motor Journal, “The car maintained 145 km/h, it has astonishing handling, it drives through curves with speeds that are both mad and safe, and it seems just to float on any kind of road. . . . It is a car which opens new perspectives to car construction and automotive practice.”
If there are similarities between Tatras and Volkswagens, it’s because Ferdinand Porsche, author of the VW Beetle, and Tatra’s Hans Ledwinka, often discussed a design for Hitler’s “People’s Car.” Tatra even sued Volkswagen for copying its 1936 Type 97, litigation which was dropped when Germany took over the Tatra factory with the 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Conveniently, the German military liked the high-performance Tatras, later called the “Czech secret weapon” due to so many fatal accidents in the heavy, tail-happy car, whose unpredictable handling at high speeds killed many German officers prone to taking corners at excessive speed.
This car is the ninth production chassis made. Its original owner was Count Jaromír Egon Czernin-Morzin, who took it on a tour of the Italian Alps in 1935 and owned it only one year. While its intermediate provenance is unknown, it is thought to have been driven until the mid-1970s, after which it was parked in a barn in Slovakia. Acquired by a German collector in 2005, it passed to the consignor in 2007, who shipped the car to the United States and began a comprehensive restoration in 2012 that was completed in 2022 at a total cost of over $1 million.
The story of that restoration includes the fabrication of many intricate mechanical components and trim, including ash framing under the original sheet metal, wheels and bumpers. The decade-long project was performed by International Auto Restoration of Oak Lawn, Ill. Those in attendance when it crosses the auction block will, without question, be witnessing the finest example of the model in existence.
Click here for more photos of the 1934 Tatra T77 on offer through RM Sotheby’s.
Source: Robb Report