Tatra (named after the Tatra Mountains) is a Czech auto manufacturer, one of the oldest in the world. Founded in 1850 as a maker of horse-drawn wagons and carriages in the Moravian village of Koprivnice, Tatra began making motor carriages in 1897 with the Präsident, Central Europe's first car. Trucks, Tatra's other specialty, were produced beginning in 1898. Tatra is said to be the world's third oldest automobile manufacturer.
Tatra rose to prominence from the 1930s with the production of extremely technically advanced, rear engined, streamlined cars, starting with 1934's Tatra T77, the world's first mass-produced aerodynamic car. Unlike most streamlining of the time, Tatra's was genuinely slippery, with a drag coefficient of 0.212, which is lower than almost all cars produced even today. It featured a rear-mounted air-cooled V8 engine, and was the model for almost every Tatra car produced into modern times.
Tatra's chief engineer designer in that period, Hans Ledwinka, discussed many design ideas with Ferdinand Porsche, and Porsche's Volkswagen Beetle shows clear Tatra T97 influence, as do rear-engined Porsche sports cars.
After the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany, Tatras continued in production, largely because Germans liked the cars. Liked them too well, in fact; many German officers met their deaths when pushing heavy, rear-engined Tatras faster around corners than they could handle. In fact, the Tatra became known as the 'Czech Secret Weapon' for the scores of officers who died behind the wheel; at one point, it seems, official orders had to be issued forbidding German officers from driving Tatras.
Postwar, Tatras continued to be built; the factory was nationalised in 1946 after the Communist takeover. Although production of prewar models continued, a new model, the Tatra T600 Tatraplan was designed -- the name celebrating the new Communist planned economy. It went into production in 1947. In 1951, an illogical decision of the state planning department decided that the Tatraplan should henceforth be built at the Skoda plant in Mlada Boleslav, leaving Tatra free to concentrate on trucks. This was, as might be imagined, quite unpopular with the workforce at both plants, and indeed Skoda built Tatraplans for one year only before the model was discontinued in 1952. This left Czechoslovakia with no home-built luxury cars.
A mere three years later, amid much dissatisfaction among officialdom about the poor-quality official cars imported from Russia, Tatra was again given permission to produce a luxury car, the famous Tatra T603. A fair successor to the prewar cars, it was also driven by a rear-engined, air-cooled V8 and had the company's trademark aerodynamic styling. Uniquely, the Tatra T603 featured three headlights, and the first prototypes had a central rear stabilising fin, though this was lost for production. Fitted with almost American-style thick chrome bumpers with bullets, the Tatra T603 was an amazing looking car for 1955. Looks weren't all it had going for it; performance was spritely for a large, six-seater car, and the ride was smooth as glass. Almost entirely hand-built, Tatras were not for everybody; normal citizens could not buy them. They were reserved for Party elites, Communist officials, factory presidents and other notables, as well as being exported to most other Communist nations as official cars. Even Fidel Castro had a white Tatra T603, custom-fitted with air conditioning.
Tatra T603s were built until 1975, a twenty-year reign as Communism's finest car. Numerous improvements were made over this time, but not all the 'new' cars built in this period were actually new. When a new Tatra replaced an old, the old vehicle was returned to the factory. There, it was upgraded to modern condition, refinished, dubbed 'new' and sent out again as a putatively new vehicle to replace another older Tatra. This makes it hard to trace the history of surviving vehicles.
In 1968 a replacement was developed; the Tatra T613. It was styled by the Italian styling house of Vignale and was a more modern, less rounded shape. It wasn't until 1973 that any were actually produced by the factory, and volume production didn't begin until the following year. Although the shape was all new, the engine and layout remained the same, except for moving the engine somewhat forward to improve balance. These cars were built until 1996. It's a tribute to Vignale's excellent styling that they didn't look outdated until rather late in that time period. Over 11,000 cars were built, slowing to a trickle of but a few dozen a year towards the end.
With orders and production almost at a standstill after the fall of Communism, Tatra decided to stop building the T613 in 1996. An attempt was made to produce an updated version, the T700; it was largely based on the old car, with updated body panels and detail. Sales were poor, and in 1999 Tatra abandoned the manufacture of cars.
The firm is still in business, however, and has made quite a name for itself in the production of trucks, particularly large all-wheel drive off-road vehicles. Tatra trucks are powerful, dependable, work well in very poor weather and temperature conditions, and the company seems to have a promising future.
Sources: Tatra a.s page at http://www.tatra.cz/; the International Streamlined Tatra Site at http://www.tatra.demon.nl/; the Tatra Registry UK at http://www.tatra-register.co.uk/, and the Wikipedia entry for Tatra that gave links to these.