Hans Ledwinka

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Hans Ledwinka

Herbert Austin
Hans Ledwinka
MANY CAR DESIGNERS have achieved lasting fame in their own lifetime, and the names of engineers like Ferdinand Porsche, Ettore Bugatti, W. O. Bentley, Rudolph Uhlenhaut and Alec Issigonis are well known to motoring enthusiasts. Yet a man who could justly claim to have been as innovative as any of them is barely known amoung car enthusiasts today.

That man was Hans Ledwinka, who pioneered technical advances such as air-cooling, backbone chassis frames, rear-mounted engines, four-wheel brakes and a host of other developments. Part of his obscurity can be put down to the fact that he operated almost entirely in Austria and Czechoslovakia between the two World Wars - not the sort of location to attract a great deal of attention throughout Europe.

Born in Austria in 1878, Hans Ledwinka spent much of his early childhood in Vienna with an uncle who was a locksmith. He soon showed mechanical aptitude and went to work in the then new Waggonfabrik Ignaz Schustala at Nesselsdorf in Moravia, which opened in 1897.

As it happened, the factory was then becoming involved in building its first ever car, a primitive device which Ledwinka saved from extinction by re-building the defective transmission system. The car was put into service, being used as a driving instructor's car for 25 years before being saved for the Technical Museum in Prague.

Building a car for Baron von Liebig

The car's designer, the famous Edmund Rumpler, soon left the factory and Ledwinka was given the task of building the first pre-production batch of cars. One of these was used for competition work, and in 1900 Ledwinka was asked to build a competition car from scratch around a Benz engine for Baron von Liebig. This gave him a great deal of experience in car designing and he felt confident enough to leave the factory in 1902 to join a well known designer Richard Knoller who was building a steam car.

The S and T-type Nesselsdorf

Knoller had designed four-wheel brakes for the car but could not make them work, but Ledwinka soon had them working to perfection. The design was sold to a French firm and Ledwinka spent a short while in France but he soon yearned for home and returned to the Nesselsdorf factory in 1905. He soon showed that he had mastered the art of car design by designing two completely new models, the S and T-type Nesselsdorf. The S was a four-cylinder with single overhead camshaft and hemispherical combustion chambers while the bigger T was also a four-cylinder with a capacity of 3½ litres, giving 45 bhp. Its 55 mph top speed was allegedly achieved at 20 mpg, already showing evidence of Ledwinka's talent for efficient engines.

The Type-U Nesselsdorf

The Type-U Nesselsdorf was introduced in 1914, this being a six-cylinder version of the S and T, having a capacity of 5.3 litres, a power output of 65 bhp and a top speed in the 75 mph region. This model was fitted with four-wheel brakes. During the 1914-18 war, Nesselsdorf built trucks and rail cars, which did not interest Ledwinka at the time so he took up an offer to work for Steyr, in what was shortly to become Austria. Steyr had made a lot of money from munitions and proposed to use their profits to build a car factory, but it was 1917 before Ledwinka started work and 1920 before the first car was produced.

It was virtually a copy of his Type-U, now known as the Steyr Il, but with many improvements, especially in the engine, which became a classic in Austria and Germany. Ledwinka stayed only briefly at Steyr because the Nesselsdorf management pestered him to come back to them after the war, and he eventually rejoined them in 1922. The factory was now in Czechoslovakia and the town had been renamed Koprivnice, but it was decided to name the cars Tatra, after a range of mountains.

Hans Ledwinka
Hans Ledwinka.

The Backbone Chassis Frame

Ledwinka produced a revolutionary design, the type II, which featured a backbone chassis frame, at one end of which the twin-cylinder air-cooled engine and four-speed gearbox was bolted directly to it, while at the other end the differential was bolted on. Suspension was by swing axles at the rear and a rigid front axle on a transverse leaf spring, but only rear brakes were fitted at first, front ones being added in 1926. This was a revolutionary design, the robust construction and soft suspension of which suited the atrocious roads of that time.

It remained in production for seven years in gradually improved form. Ledwinka then moved to the other extreme by building a large luxury car using the same principles. It was powered by a 6-litre V12 engine which gave 100 bhp at 2500 rpm and endowed the car with a top speed of over 90 mph. Ledwinka's next sensation was the type 77 of 1934, a fairly big saloon with an incredible body (for those days) of teardrop shape which completely enveloped the mechanical parts. It retained the tubular backbone chassis but a brand-new V8 air-cooled engine of 3.4 litres was mounted in the tail of the car.

With all independent suspension by swing axles the car was not perfect, for the overhanging rear engine gave strong oversteer, but it rode extremely well and cruised quietly' at almost 100 mph. The 77 was developed into the more refined 87 of 1938 which formed the basis of all later big Tatras, including the type 603 which was still in production in 1974. Ledwinka's last major new model was the 97, a small car with its flat-four 1760 cc air-cooled engine in the rear, which was announced in 1937.

The Tatra Works Fall Under German Occupation

But by then the Tatra works was under German occupation and the Germans forbade its production because it was too like their own Volkswagen saloon. During the war years, Ledwinka worked on commercial vehicles and rail cars as well as editing a technical magazine, but when the Germans capitulated, Ledwinka was arrested by the Allies and imprisoned for six years for collaboration, mainly because he had redesigned the 87 as a propeller-driven sledge device to assist Hitler's invasion of Russia.

Upon his release from prison he went to Munich to live, where he died in 1967. However, he lived to see his son Erich installed as Chief Engineer at the Steyr factory where he designed the Steyr 700 and Haflinger models. He also saw his brilliant type 87 perpetuated in the 603 while his type 97 was eventually built as the Tatraplan. Sadly for him, it was only in his declining years that his ideas for backbone chassis frames, air cooling, rear-mounted engines, swing axle suspension, hemispherical combustion chamber design and streamlined bodies were seriously copied and exploited.

1932 Tatra Type 57
1932 Tatra Type 57.
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