Three oceans, two Tatras, one trip of a lifetime
Twenty years ago, a traveler headed north on the Dempster Highway in the Canadian Yukon might have been shocked to stumble over an alien craft. The vehicle gleamed silver against the sparse greenery of an Arctic summer landscape, finned and louvered and looking like it had just landed amid a plume of rocket exhaust. But it was not a UFO. It was a 1947 Tatra T87, partway through a journey of more than 10,000 miles. If we’re honest, aliens would be a less crazy story.
At the wheel sat John Long, and beside him was his childhood friend Gary Cullen. Neither man spoke a word of Czech, beyond being able to ask for an ice cream or a beer, but each graduated from a childhood obsession with Citroëns to a mania for the Czechoslovakian Tatra.
Though the two men drove a pair of T87s to the Yukon, this particular day they shared driving duties in Long’s, accepting the inevitability of a roadside repair and figuring that many hands would make light work. Their goal? To dip the front wheels of Long’s T87 in the Arctic Ocean, baptizing the car in the last of a salty trinity. This car had already touched rubber to brine in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
“Gary and I didn’t really think about how crazy it was until well afterwards,” Long says, “We just thought, you know, an adventure!”
Their trip took them from Boston to Vancouver, up to Inuvik—approximately 60 miles from the Arctic Ocean—and back again. Later, just for the joy of it, they’d also drive down the Pacific coast all the way to Los Angeles. However, their trek across the vast, remote Yukon left a strong impression on Cullen.
“Driving the Dempster Highway was a real highlight,” he says. “You just feel how alone you are up there.”
There’s every chance you’ve never seen a Tatra T87—if you have, you likely encountered it in a museum. If you’re among the latter group, you may have spotted an example owned by one of these men: John Long’s first Tatra, a later Tatraplan from the 1950s, is currently stored in Nashville, Tennessee’s Lane Motor Museum. One of Cullen’s T87s (he owns two) now resides in the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota. However, the cars from this epic road trip aren’t relegated to display cases or show stands. Both men still own the cars from their odyssey, and they still prefer to get out and drive them.
“They’re great highway cruisers,” Cullen says, “With the engine in the rear, the steering is light, and reasonably accurate.”
The Tatra T87 is among the most advanced automobiles ever produced. It features slippery aerodynamics from a time when most cars were blunt instruments, boasts an incredibly clever and reliable air-cooled V-8 mounted in the rear, and can cruise all day at highway speeds that would be a misery in contemporary rivals. When it was introduced at the Prague Auto Salon in 1937, the T87 was a glimpse of a high-speed future.
The T87 had three fathers: Tatra head engineer Hans Ledwinka, mechanical engineer Erich Übelacher, and streamlining expert Paul Jaray. Building on principles learned on the earlier T77, and Jaray’s experience building zeppelins and seaplanes, Tatra’s team produced a fin-backed shape that matches the current Bugatti Chiron with a drag coefficient of 0.36.
The T87’s 2966-cc, air-cooled V-8 makes 75 hp, and its top speed is 100 mph. In 1937 it was considered the perfect car for the then-new autobahns springing up all over Germany. The T87 was so popular with the German military command that Tatra production continued through WWII and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. There is an apocryphal tale that the T87’s combination of high-speed capability and wet-weather slipperiness killed more SS officers in crashes than the Allies did with bullets.
Long and Cullen’s inspiration for their journey came from post-war times—specifically, from a pair of adventurers named Hanzelka and Zigmund. Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zigmund were Czech-born writers who travelled some 70,000 miles in a factory-provided T87 between 1947 and 1950 through Africa and Latin America. Their exploits came to represent freedom to the Czech people, even as Stalin’s iron curtain fell across the country.
Thus, when Long acquired an unrestored T87 in Los Angeles, he began dreaming of a long trip in the same style. The car needed a lot of work—once displayed in the Harrah museum in Las Vegas, it had been parked in an open lot with the seized engine removed. A tree had grown straight through the engine bay.
It took Long just over two years to finish the restoration at his home in Toronto. In the spring of 2000, Cullen flew out, and the pair headed towards Boston and the Atlantic Ocean. Boston was only a short trip away but the Tatra’s maiden voyage quickly proved challenging, revealing a broken alternator bracket requiring welding and a laundry list of to-do items. Even more discouraging was the discovery that the engine rebuild, completed at great expense at a specialist in Czechoslovakia, had been poorly executed.
There is no proper repair manual for the T87; the owner’s manual has just four pages on the engine. Long did a bit of problem-solving and guesswork and heroically got the car mostly sorted in two months. Full of optimism, he headed east—but serious trouble lay ahead.
The T87’s V-8 features an elegant design, with hemispherical combustion chambers, chain-driven cams, and finned cylinders of a design later copied by VW for the Beetle. However, there are a few areas that can be a bit tricky, and in South Dakota Long discovered that a hardened-steel rocker foot had broken off and fallen into the engine.
“That was the one that was most deflating,” Long says, “I thought to myself, ‘Is this going to end before it’s even started?’”
He couldn’t find the rocker foot, didn’t know if he could repair it, and risked catastrophic engine failure if the part fell into the oil return line.
“I was parked in the shade next to a little auto parts store,” he says, “and whenever I needed a tool or something, I’d just rush in and buy it. Of course, there were no Tatra spare parts apart from what I had and Gary had in Vancouver.”
Eventually, with a rush of relief, Long spotted the rocker foot and managed to fish it out with a magnet. He buttoned up the engine and got going again. It wouldn’t be his last roadside repair of the trip, but his confidence returned.
“You couldn’t get a job as an engineer at Tatra unless you were a mechanic,” Long says, “Most of the car is designed to be relatively easy to repair.”
Long and Cullen joined up in Vancouver, along with Long’s family, who had flown out to meet them. The pair assembled a war chest of spare parts by taking apart one of Cullen’s T87s. They fitted roof boxes for added storage and headed north.
The trip north was filled with grizzly bear spottings, sled dog tumbles, mountain switchbacks, and crude ferry crossings. Cullen remembers how the landscape changed seasons in just a few days. Long recalls the delighted Czech tour guides they ran into halfway.
Near Watson Lake, in the Canadian Yukon, is the signpost forest. Started in 1942 by an American GI, it’s now filled with signs showing the distance to towns and cities all across the world. Long and Cullen put up their own sign pointing to the small town of Kopřivnice, where the T87 was made, nearly 5000 miles away.
On the return trip, the Mackenzie River ferry (roughly 80 miles south of Inuvik and deep in Northern Canada) was stymied by choppy waves. The T87 squeezed onto the last run of the day and slowly climbed up the switchbacks into the teeth of a mountain snowstorm.
“That really felt like an adventure,” Long says, “We didn’t have any choice but to push forward. There was no place to stay behind us.”
And they made it. The Tatras coursed back down through British Columbia, arriving at Cullen’s place with Yukon mud still caked in their wheel wells. After a long break, the pair headed south towards Los Angeles, a smoother trip. They parted ways there, with Long heading back to Toronto and Cullen to Vancouver.
Today, Long is the force behind the Bowlus Road Chief camper, the idea for which came from an offhand remark by his wife on the Tatra road trip. Cullen is now retired and has recently returned from a road trip to Yellowstone National Park in his 1968 Citroën DS21.
Twenty years later, both men laugh at the recollection of the madness of their trip, the breakdowns and the victories, the shared experiences. In pictures, their Tatras look incongruous, exotic spaceships framed against such a huge landscape. But they’re not. This is exactly why the Tatra T87 was built. They were made for far-off roads. They were built for adventure.