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Opinion: A rear-engined air-cooled V8 deserves our admiration

By David Morley, 17 Apr 2017 Features

Tatra T87 cover

Morley muses on the genius-or-madness of Czechoslovakia’s secret war-time ‘weapon’

Consider the anchovy: A hairy little strip of trawler-stank soused in oil and salt. It should be like eating a Greek fisherman’s eyebrow.

But it isn’t (at least, I hope it isn’t). In fact, it’s a true delicacy that can be enjoyed in many ways. Such as, straight from the little pot-bellied bottle they come in. Or mixed with other things. A pizza, for instance, is not a pizza until the bristly wee fish have been peppered across it. Neither is a Caesar salad pukka till it’s been achovied up.

And yet, other people think I’m a weirdo for enjoying these tiny piscatorial salt-bombs. Not that I care. And neither is the anchovy the weirdest of my favourite things. Consider also, the Tatra T87. Here is a car that really appeals to me, and for a variety of reasons.

Tatra T87 rearFor starters, it was built by the Czechoslovakians; the same mob who also allegedly invented the screw propeller (where would we aqua-bogans be without that?) and Semtex (kinda ditto). Secondly, the T87 was allegedly the first car ever to be placed inside a wind tunnel, although I’m tipping that was probably just to see what happened rather than for any fine-tuning of the huge rear tail-fin.

Thirdly, the T87 was a V8. And not just any old V8, either. At around the same time in history that Clyde Barrow was pumping up Henry Ford’s tyres for building a sidevalve V8 with underdone cooling (you think bonnet louvres are soooo hot-rod? They were added by Ford to try to cool the hot-headed V8) those crazy Czechs thought to give their bent-eight overhead camshafts and a top speed of about 160km/h. Oh, and cooling? Forget leaking water pumps and stuck thermostats – the Tatra was air-cooled. Oh, and let’s not forget it was also rear engined!

So, then: fast, technically interesting and left of centre. What’s not to like?

Tatra T87 sideBut here’s my favourite Tatra T87 factoid. When the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia in 1938, many high-ranking German officers commandeered T87s and T77s for their personal use. And as Europe descended into World War 2, those same German officers stuck around as the occupying force and, so, continued their love affair with the big Tatra.

The problem was that the ass-heavy layout took a bit of getting used to and, after a hard day’s goose-stepping and beating up Czech peasants (not to mention a stein or two of Pissenbrau at the wet mess on the way home) many of those same German high-ups found themselves leaving the road backwards and on fire as their purloined Tatras swapped ends with little or no warning.

I’m told that more German officers in Czechoslovakia went to their reward flailing away at the helm of out-of-control Tatras than were killed in actual, war-stuff, active service. The story also goes that the Allies began referring to the Tatra as its ‘secret weapon’ against the Nazis.

Tatra T87 frontNot that the T87 is the only weirdburger I’m fond of. I’d also nominate the Renault 16. It had dodgem-car looks, was probably the first five-door hatchback and possessed a rear torsion-bar suspension that gave it a different wheelbase on each side. Not that the wheelbase thing is necessarily cool in itself, but I love the fact that Renault could think laterally enough (back then, anyway) to conclude that the rule about cars having equal-length wheelbases on either side didn’t apply to it.

And how about those early Saabs? A crazy, mad-ass three-cylinder two-stroke that sounds like a heavily armed swarm of killer bees. All wrapped up in a body that’s a cross between a cockroach and a tinned ham.

I got to drive Erik Carlsson’s race-prepped 96 a few years back, with tuition from the great man himself. I got a Scandinavian bollocking for stalling the thing at my first attempt, but deep down, you could see that Erik was digging the fact that I was digging his car. The other thing I remember about that day is that there were anchovies on the lunch buffet. Of course there were.