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I Found This Beautiful, Bizarre Car In A German Design Museum -- And Its Backstory Is Fascinating

Streamlined 05Nicholas Carlson/Business Insider

I was in Munich for DLD, a conference, and I had a morning to kill.

So I joined a group tour of modern art museum Pinakothek der Moderne’s design wing.

There was all kinds of impressive stuff — but I immediately gravitated to a crazy-looking, beautiful car.

You can see it on the bottom left of this photo.

Here it is. Just look at it.

It looks like a car from the distant past's lost vision of the distant future.

The placard said it's a Tatra 87 from 1937…

…designed by a man named Hans Ledwinka.

Our guide, chief curator Corinna Roesner, said the Tatra 87 was the first mass produced 'streamlined' car -- meaning it was designed in a wind tunnel.

But that's not true. The first mass-produced streamlined car was this one, the Tatra 77.

And Hans Ledwig didn't design the 87 or 77's body. This guy, Erich Übelacker, did.

And actually, Übelacker really got his design from this man, Paul Jaray

A pioneer of streamline design, Jaray made his name designing zeppelins like this LZ 127

Jaray designed the very first streamlined car (not mass-produced) in 1922, the Ley T6.

These are Jaray's sketches.

You can see the Ley T6 in the Tatra 87…

…particularly in that curving swoop of its back.

I love the car's little design details, like this air vent behind the rear windows…

…and these slits above the back bumper.

Here's a shot of the interior.

The streamlined looks aren't just for show, by the way.

The Tatra 87 was fast for its time, with top speeds of nearly 100mph.

The engine is a V8, making 85 horsepower. (Today's V8s make 400+ horsepower)

The Tatra got amazing fuel efficiency too. Going 18 miles per gallon, versus an average of 11 mpg for cars in its class.

Loved by Germans, Tatra was actually a Czechoslovakian car company

Ledwinka may not have come up with the Tatra 87's design, but he was lead engineer. So he deserves some credit for those great numbers.

The car cost about $US25,000 back in 1937. Today, it costs $US125,000.

The Tatra 87 has lots of famous admirers, including Jay Leno and John Steinbeck…

…and Hitler.

Lore has it that Hitler rode around in Tatras during political tours to Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.

It's said that after one tour, Hitler went to Ferdinand Porsche and said: 'This is the car for my roads.' (This is Hitler opening a Volkswagon factory)

Porsche took the hint. The museum had a Volkswagen and a Porsche to show they are influenced by the Tatra.

You can see it, right?

I look at the curve of the back.

Hans Ledwinka certainly noticed. He sued Porsche.

Then the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. The suit was dropped.

Of Ledwinka, Porsche said: 'Well, sometimes I looked over his shoulder and sometimes he looked over mine.'

Jaray, a Jew, survived World War II in Switzerland. In his career, he designed cars for Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Maybach, and defunct brands like Adler.

Here's one last look at the Tatra 87. Beautiful, right?

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