by James Kraus
Most automobile enthusiasts are quite familiar with the road trip. The lore and romance of the open road, the potential of new discoveries, a flexible itinerary, the promise of new adventures. In the halcyon days of yore, road trips also contained a fair element of danger. Tire punctures were a common nuisance; breakdowns an always threatening menace. Mobile phones and GPS systems existed only in science fiction. One couldn’t telegram for a replacement part to be flown out, because airfreight did not exist. Failed components had to be repaired or re-fabricated locally.
One normally thinks of a road trip as a journey encompassing a weekend or maybe a few weeks at most. How about a 3 1/2 year road trip? That is just what Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka set out on 62 years ago.
These two Czechoslovakian gentlemen met at the Trade Academy of Prague in 1938 where they were studying engineering. Both were intrepid travellers and together they hatched a courageous scheme to explore the world’s five major continents by automobile.
Their initial expedition would explore the length and breadth of Europe, Africa and the Americas. Accomplished diarists and photographers, they would document their travels in writing, film and motion pictures.
They were able to secure a new vehicle for their mission from Tatra who realized the publicity value of such an enterprise. Any extended journey is made more enjoyable if one is behind the wheel of an especially interesting automobile. In the 1940’s, few automobiles were more exotic or technically intriguing then the Tatra 87.
A carryover model from before the war, the 87 was designed by Austrian engineer Dr. Hans Ledwinka. As befitting a Ledwinka design, the 87 featured a backbone chassis, fully independent suspension and a rear-mounted engine. In this instance, the powerplant was a 2.9 litre single-overhead-cam air-cooled V8. As an illustration of how far ahead of its time the 87 was, consider that the world would not see another mass-produced overhead cam V8 engine until 1963.
Like the Lamborghini Miura that would arrive 30 years later, visibility was via a vertical rear window built into the bulkhead forward of the engine, complimented by a series of horizontal louvers in the engine lid that enabled both rearward sightlines and extraction of hot air from the engine compartment. A central rear stabilizing fin kept the lateral centre of aerodynamic pressure near the car’s centre of mass, minimizing side wind disturbance.
Miroslav and Jiří spent a full three months at Tatra headquarters learning correct maintenance procedures and all plausible repair operations before embarking of their odyssey in the new 87. One must remember that cars of the 1940’s needed maintenance every few thousand miles and the service life of many components was rather short by contemporary standards. Numerous spares had to be carried on board.
The two men departed Prague on 22 April 1947 and started their journey heading south through Europe and on to Africa through the Sahara desert. They were the first travellers to ever traverse Africa by car.
While crossing Tanzania they proudly planted the Czechoslovakian flag on the 5,882 meter (19,298’) summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Eventually reaching the Southern tip of the Dark Continent, the Tatra was hoisted aboard a ship at Cape Town and they steamed across the Atlantic toward Buenos Aires. Throughout the trip they wired a total of 702 progress reports that were broadcast over Czech Radio.
Disembarking in Argentina, the duo headed Northward through South America, crossing the Andes a few times, including a drive over the Ticlio Pass in Peru at an altitude of 4,860 meters (15,940 ft). Eventually, they traversed Central America and entered the United States. Looping back South to explore the Eastern side of South America, they finally boarded ship for the return to Europe. They arrived to a hero’s welcome in Prague on 1 November 1950 with thousands welcoming their return.
It had been quite a journey. They travelled 61,700 km in the Tatra and explored 44 countries. In many instances, they were the first foreigners that local populations had ever seen. Miroslav and Jiří wrote hundreds of pages of journals during their travels, took thousands of photographs, shot many short films and assembled a few full-length films.
They undertook their second trip between 1959 and 1964. This was more expedition than road trip, and on this excursion, the duo used two prototype Tatra 805 lorries with trailers, visiting the Middle East, Asia, Indonesia and Japan.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, they published ten volumes of their journals from the trips, and their films were quite popular in Czech movie theatres.
Their faithful silver Tatra 87 is now in the care of the National Technical Museum in Prague and a permanent exhibition of their adventures is installed at the Museum of Southwest Moravia in Zlín.