The members of the motor industry are prone to adopt each other’s ideas, even if they are flawed, then stick to them dogmatically. So what might have happened if ….?
We at DTW are fascinated by the what-ifs of the motor industry. Two of them celebrate their 70th birthdays this year. Next year one of these will commemorate 70 years since its demise, the other’s will be in 2019. So they are both short-lived failures and, you might say, justifiably so. But, if you add in another, longer-lived model and imagine a different financial and/or political climate, the large car of today could have been very different.
I’ve been a long-term admirer of Tatras, an interest that goes back long before they became as fashionable as a Flat White Jägermeister, to when I first saw a picture of a T603 in my 1963 Observer’s Book of Automobiles, then encountered them in the metal purring mysteriously around in the middle of Winter in the, then Communist, then Czechoslovakia. They were, and remain, a glorious aberration, there really was nothing else like them. Which, of course, isn’t strictly true.
Admirable though they were, Preston Tucker’s creations don’t catch my imagination quite as much, possibly because Tatra is commemorated in one of the finest and most daring moving pictures of all time, whereas the Tucker 48 has only the work of a jobbing director called Coppola to remember it by. But it takes three before any movement starts gathering critical mass. Whether the 1947 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C Monterosa has any significant celluloid memorial I doubt but, with the 1947 Tucker and the large Tatras it does complete a trio of rear-engined behemoths produced in the postwar period.
In terms of getting there first and staying there longest there is no competition. Tatra takes the accolade since, when both the Isotta and the Tucker were conceived, the pre-war Tatra T87 was still nominally in production and its forthcoming successor, the 1956 T603, remained in production until 1975. The heavily invested Tucker fizzled out in 1948 after 51 cars, whether a victim of hubris, an elaborate scam or underhand machinations from the established manufacturers, you can decide.
Dating back to the very start of the 20th Century, and a manufacturer of marine and aeronautical engines as well as trucks, Isotta Fraschini’s automotive high point was in the 1920s and 30s, selling louche and luxurious straight-eight cars, notably to the United States. After the Second World War its attempt at rebirth was always going to be tortuous, as Italy’s society and economy rebuilt itself.
Whereas Alfa Romeo saw that the financial and political climate for its large luxury cars had, more or less, disappeared and just filled-in with its coachbuilt six cylinder chassis until Orazio Satta Puliga delivered his more democratic four cylinder 1900 saloon, Isotta Fraschini still hoped to cash in on its golden times with a luxury vehicle, aimed at the American market. But, unlike some of the half-hearted attempts to keep the old prestigious names going in France, Isotta’s idea was far more ambitious.
In charge of development was Fabio Luigi Rapi. He had visited the Tatra factory and, as is most obvious in the first, 6 seater, Zagato-bodied, Monterosa prototype, the T87 inspired his own concept. A wide range of body styles was to be offered, all powered by a 3.4 litre, rear mounted, water-cooled, light alloy V8 which Aurelio Lampredi developed and it was independently sprung. Subsequent designs were less Tatra-like, more conventionally elegant, yet still modern. The designs and prototypes were presented and well received, but investment wasn’t forthcoming and the project was cancelled. The company carried on in other fields, but its car making days were over.
The larger a rear-engined car gets, the more volatile its weight distribution is likely to become. There was never room for three overweight passengers in the back of a rear-engined Porsche, nor did the front boot have room for a couple of suitcases full of bullion, yet it still took Porsche many years to engineer out the 911’s less agreeable foibles. So the likelihood of completely taming any chance of such a large car swapping ends in extremis is low and it might be concluded that, unless your company is based in Zuffenhausen and remarkably stubborn, the rear-engined format is a dead-end, best avoided.
But the behaviour of many conventional, front-engined, rear-driven, cart sprung chassis of the time was hardly perfect and, anyway, just because something is flawed, that doesn’t always stop the motor industry from embracing it wholeheartedly. So it is not inconceivable to suggest that, had Preston Tucker not been so cavalier (or, if you prefer, conspired against by the establishment), had Italy not been so devastated and socially divided after the War and had Czechoslovakia had freer access to trade with the West, these three cars could have succeeded. And, had they succeeded, others might have followed.
Some did follow, of course. In 1954, Ferry Porsche delivered four Type 542 prototypes fitted with 3.5 litre V6 engines that Studebaker had commissioned his company to develop. His original proposal had been for a rear-engined 4 door but this was vetoed by the Studebaker board.
In the event the Porsche prototypes were eventually evaluated by a Studebaker engineer named John DeLorean, who was left generally unimpressed, which makes you wonder whether Porsche’s original proposal would have been the better way to go.
Studebaker seemed to have second thoughts and, under Curtis-Wright’s management, produced a prototype Lark compact fitted with a Porsche 356 drivetrain and, indeed, it was mooted that a production model would feature a rear mounted Wankel. But money was always tight at Studebaker.
The 1960 Chevrolet Corvair was a better car than history gives it credit for, but it was destroyed by a series of bad and cynical management decisions. After the Studebaker disappointment, Porsche themselves seem to have (over)steered away from the idea of a rear-engined 4 door, but that didn’t stop Ghia coming up with a proposal, and we might allow a small mention of the late 60s Troutman and Barnes conversion of a 911S for a private customer.
But, in the end, it was left to Tatra, free in its hermetic economic environment to ignore the whims of Western manufacturing. In 1975, the T603 was replaced by the T613 which, in subsequent forms, flew the flag for the big, four door, rear-engined saloon, unrivalled until its demise in 1999, 66 years after the first T77, and still mourned by some.
And, lest you think that he learned nothing from his foray into large, luxury cars, 10 years later Luigi Rapi produced the far more down to earth, but still stylish, rear-engined Autobianchi Bianchina.