Museums of the Alternative Motoring Universes of Both Porsche and Tatra
A recent visit to Austria was intended to lead to a return by way of Prague and, en route, a further diversion would be made to the Technical Museum Tatra in Kopřivnice. The Tatra company has a long and fine pedigree, and the streamlined 30s Tatras of Hans Ledwinka and his team, as well as their post-War successors, have long fascinated me and, to someone frustrated by cordons, the museum tantalisingly offers that “some of our exhibits and models are available for you to touch”. In the event, time conspired to make the zig-zag trip north impractical, though I strongly hope that I will have another chance.
Under these circumstances, my description of a visit to a Porsche Museum as only second prize should not be taken as a reflection on the quality of the Porsche Automuseum Helmut Pfeifhofer though, unlike the plan to visit Tatra, this was entirely chance. Driving back north after a diversion over the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, we passed through Gmünd in Carinthia, the birthplace of the Porsche, in which a private museum to all things Porsche (or at least those where the engine sits behind the driver) was opened in 1982. Of course, Tatra and Porsche are far from unconnected. Volkswagen’s out-of-court payment of 3,000,000 DM to Tatra in the 1960s acknowledged the very strong influence of Ledwinka’s T97 in the genesis of the Beetle.
A good start for any museum is to be greeted at the door and sold tickets by the founder, and this was the case with Herr Pfeifhofer. As with any good museum of this nature, it has obviously been born out of a long-held obsession. It’s a smart, but relatively small space to house just part of what appears to be an extensive collection and, for that reason, it fails Richard Herriott’s (and my) criteria that a museum should give you space to stand back and contemplate (and photograph) the shapes. But there is enough of interest there to excuse this. There is an obvious emphasis on the early Beetle and the 356, because these are the vehicles directly connected with Porsche’s period in Gmünd in the 1940s. To start the story, a military Beetle with chunky tyres looks strangely fashionable in satin black though, instead of 1900 watts of extreme bass box behind the driver’s ears, there would be the reassuring clatter of that unburstable 19kW flat four. Downstairs a gallery of pictures and artifacts takes you through Ferry Porsche’s time in a converted sawmill at Gmünd, developing the hand made prototypes of the 356, and a wooden body buck and a complete beaten aluminium body gives authenticity.
Upstairs there is the cutaway floorpan and drivetrain of an early Beetle that marked the starting point of the rear-engined Porsche line. Looking at an early 356, we see the starting point of a slow evolution and realise how extreme it has actually been. The Museum’s showpiece row of six pastel 356s – original, A, B & C variants – could all qualify for the description ‘cute’, in the best possible way. The longer nose of the B & C has a more purposeful look, which hints at the future 911 but, park an early 356 next to today’s bulging wheel arch Carrera, and a non-enthusiast would be hard-pushed to see the link. Park it next to an early 911T and it is perfectly obvious. Other exhibits include a body buck for a Spyder, which forms part of an inevitable tribute to James Dean, a neat looking 906 racer, a 935 used by Ickx and Maas which impressed me most by its contorted looking cabin, which would have me limping to the chiropractor before I’d left the pits. Also, it is the resting place of the only Polizei 911 (997) Carrera, rejected by the police after a short trial for lack of stowage space. Exhibits change from time to time and, if you are a Porsche enthusiast, it is well worth the trip. If you’re not a huge fan, but it would require only a simple detour, I’d still recommend a visit.
Had I also made it to Kopřivnice, site of the Tatra Museum and the company itself, I would have seen what history and fortune have decreed a bywater. After Ferdinand Porsche and Preston Tucker no-one else looked to Tatra for inspiration but, unlike other Communist countries, the Czechs retained credibility as car manufacturers. Although far from perfect, Skoda did not deserve to be the lazy butt of so many 70s British comedians’ repertoires and Tatra just carried on in their own unique way. The glorious, rear-engined, V8 603 saloon underwent a sort of constant development, with older cars being returned to the factory to be updated to the latest specification. Offering ample accommodation for six well-fed adults, the car was touted around the Comecon countries as a conveyance for Party high-rankers, providing internal political conditions permitted but, to the West, it was reduced to just a grainy photo in The Observer’s Book of Automobiles. In time, the more conventionally good-looking 613 took its place. It retained the rear V8 engine layout, uprated with twin camshafts per cylinder. The engine remained light and, combined with a long wheelbase, the weight distribution gave far more benign handling than might be found in a 911 of the same era. After the demise of the Soviet Bloc, the 613 and its variants were half-heartedly offered to other markets, but there were few takers for what was, maybe, viewed by the uninformed as an oversized Skoda 105. After nearly 100 years, production of Tatra cars ceased in 1996 though, at present, the truck division still carries on. Their demise saddens me greatly, but probably less so than the thought of, say, a reskin of an Opel Omega being touted round with a Tatra badge.
In Zuffenhausen however, where Porsche set up full production following the initial development in Gmünd, the 911 has doggedly defeated those who have sought its demise, even within Porsche. Its once undeniably snappy handling has been tamed by modern aids, but it still has a reputation, attractive to many, as the sports car for those who really know how to drive. And it seems to have weathered the Yuppie stigma of the 1980s and 90s. Of course it still remains popular with certain younger professionals who you might judge do not always fully deserve their high incomes, but there is also a seriousness to it that the alternatives do not offer. Basically, if someone turned up in my work car park in a 911, I might assume they used it as daily transport – a little bit indulgent, but still practical for moving two people, a case, a portfolio and a laptop around. However, if you parked a 458 Italia outside, or practically any other sports car for that matter, I’d assume you were a bit lightweight – preferring to put show before practicality.
Somewhere I have sketches that I did, at various times in the distant past, of mid-engined ‘911 replacements’ with things like flush glass and wedgy bodywork. I’m sure these look, at best, embarrassingly of their time and I am glad that people within Porsche with the same ideas never got their way. The high price of a modern 911 and the huge team of serious engineers involved in its ongoing development sometimes masks the fact, but the car continues to exist as a rather glorious engineering folly in a sadly predictable industry. I only wish at there was a Tatra 703 to complement it.