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Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Nazi Killing Machine: The Story of the Car Hitler Declared Enemy of the Third Reich

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It was 1938 and the first territory that Adolf Hitler invaded in his sinister expansion plan through Europe was Austria, his native country. Once he annexed his homeland to Germany, that same year he began to weave a geopolitical network throughout the rest of the continent. And he put his feet in Czechoslovakia, by adding the Sudeten region from concessions that left him open the Treaty of Versailles (the one signed after the First World War) and weaknesses exhibited by France and Great Britain, which seemed not to have registered the monster that was feeding from the European center. The rest is already part of the known history: on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and exploded the second great war of the 20th century. What remains of the occupation in Czechoslovak lands is the love-hate relationship that the Führer had with a car brand that gave him one of the best products of Nazi propaganda, but another that condemned the scaffold because it was a killing machine. hierarchs of his regime.

Tatra is considered one of the leading car manufacturers in Europe, second only to Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot in seniority.. Founded in 1850 under the name of Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriks-Gesellschaft, was dedicated first to the manufacture of carriages and carts. In 1897 he was to become the producer of the first motor vehicle in Central Europe, the Präsident. And in 1919 (same year of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, what a coincidence) the company was renamed Tatra. Today it is still in force but as a producer of heavy vehicles, and maintains the same logo that was known in the first decades of the last century.

His streamlined shapes made him as swift as he was seductive.  (Sotheby's)

Another Austrian, the engineer Hans Ledwinka, had less fame but a better reputation than his terrible compatriot. Within the automotive industry, he is recognized as the mastermind behind Tatra, a brand little recognized in the West but which had its star moment in the 1930s and 1940s, with the appearance of a series of evolved and revolutionary models, by design and motorization. One of them was the T97, which was produced for three years, between 1936 and until the outbreak of World War II., which however was imprinted in the collective memory for having been the mold taken in Germany for the conception, later recognized as plagiarism, of the most famous car in the world: he KdF-Wagen which later became the Volks-Wagen, because it was considered the people’s car in Nazi Germany, and it is nothing less than the Beetle.

That T97 had an appearance is a beetle with wheels much more marked than the model that Ferdinand Porsche was going to present to Hitler at the end of the 30s as the solution that he had required of a family and economic car, which was within the reach of the majority. in that plan to establish a fascist populism of its political platform. But the creator of the Beetle also took into account another Tatra model, the T87, another sedan with a semicircular appearance but with more extravagant shapes and a great engine for the time: an aspirated 3.4-liter V8 and 75 horsepower. Four years earlier, Ford had introduced the first known V8, the Flathead, 3.6 liters and 65 hp, but placed in larger cars and that did not take into account an aspect that has not yet been examined: aerodynamics.

The 75-horsepower V8 engine that allowed it to reach a speed of 160 kilometers per hour.  (Sotheby's)

The shapes of the T87 were sculpted by the brilliant Ledwinka: its development began in 1920 to culminate with its arrival on the market in 1936. With an advanced tubular chassis, It was 4.74 meters long, 1.67 meters wide and 1.5 meters high. They were, indeed, relatively short dimensions for a saloon of those years. Three round optics dominated the front, one of them positioned in the middle, just below the Czechoslovak manufacturer’s logo, while the rear part fell from the roof to the rear bumper and was topped by a striking longitudinal fin.

It was a revolutionary car for its time, built with materials that are still highly advanced and unconventional today such as magnesium or aluminum. Its engine, located at the rear, allowed the highly aerodynamic Tatra to easily exceed 160 kilometers per hour, an unusual figure in street models of those years.

Adolf Hitler in 1938, when the Beetle, a car created on the basis of another Tatra, the T97, was introduced.  (AP)

With the convenience of independent suspension, rare at the time, and its spectacular futuristic design with an eye-catching roof fin, no wonder he seduced Reich officers and appropriated most of them for his personal use, after invading Czechoslovakia with their armored vehicles. Even General Erwin Rommel, one of the greatest exponents of German strategy who became known as The Desert Fox, became a staunch admirer of the T87.

If this car was taken by Quentin Tarantino in a movie script, it could have been Lieutenant Aldo Raine, the Nazi hunter who played Brad Pitt in the film Inglorious Bastards.

Tatra represented the Central European automobile vanguard of the period between the two great wars. Very powerful and fast, it excited the Nazi officers who ran down the innovative highways that were built in Germany and Italy during the 1930s to glorify the new dictatorships.

A brochure from the time showing the T87 as a fast car.

The weak point of the T87 design was the oscillating axle rear suspension, which caused the wheels to change very abruptly when cornering. If to this suspension defect we add that radial tires would still take 30 years to be invented, that the engine was placed behind the axle (as in the Porsche 911 and the Beetle) and, above all, that the drivers were not used to it. to be able to reach the speeds that the car did achieve, The result is that the officers ended up killing themselves in accidents at full speed, which is why the Reich himself even prohibited “his people” from getting on that murderous machine: the model was eliminated as a service vehicle in Germany.

But it was not the only conflict that Hitler had had with the Czech brand. Although their officers were not very lucid in their handling, the advanced Tatras were still technologically unusual vehicles. Even the Führer himself had one before coming to power. “These are the right cars for my highways,” he told Porsche.

Inside, it also looked like a forward car, with modern touches.  (Sotheby's)

Before the war, Ledwinka was considered in Germany as one of the best specialists in the world and the national socialist press praised his great innovations, such as being the first to equip a car with brakes on all four wheels (Type U of 1915) . In addition, the lives of Ledwinka and Porsche would intersect both professionally and in friendship, since they met personally when they temporarily coincided working for the Austrian brand Steyr.

But admiration turned to ambition, and German-built Volkswagens began to look suspiciously too much like the Tatras, both in architecture and in suspension and design details. The Tatra V570 had already attracted the attention of Porsche powerfully and its successor, the T77, was a resounding success at the Paris Motor Show in 1934, which is already becoming too impertinence for Nazi pride. And launched the plan to make them his own.

The Tatra T97, the car that Porsche took as a model to create the Beetle.

When Volkswagen had its Type 1 ready in 1938, pompously christened for the occasion as KdF-Wagen (for its German acronym for Kraft durch Freude Wagen, or car of force for joy), was presented in a lavish ceremony in which Hitler appeared in person aboard the later known as the Scarab before the 70,000 attendees. The following year and to avoid any suspicion or comparative injury, the Führer personally banned the presence of the Tatra brand at the Berlin Motor Show.

What the dictator did not count on at the time was that Germany would lose the war. And Volkswagen then had to face a trial against Tatra for plagiarism because the KdF-Wagen it was too similar to the T97, for which the German company had to pay three million marks in compensation.

The T87 unit that Sotheby's will auction in October: they hope to sell it for no less than $ 300,000 (Sotheby's)

Today, some of the 3,000 T87 copies that were made survive and are highly sought after by collectors. American entertainer Jay Leno has one. And on October 23, Sotheby’s auction house is putting up another unit from 1948, with an estimated price between $ 300,000 and $ 400,000.

Curious was the fate of Ledwinka: After World War II, he was accused of collaborating with the German occupation forces and imprisoned for five years in Czechoslovakia. After his release in 1951, he refused to work for Tatra and retired to Munich, Germany, where he died in 1967.

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