If you read the Hagerty website everyday:
0. thank you, thank you, thank God for you, the wind beneath my wings
1. You’ll have already seen that we rolled a vintage Tatra T87 at NCM Motorsports Park.
“We”, in this case, means my Editor-At-Large and boon companion, Sam Smith, who rose with the Nashville dawn and had the Tatra on its side before I made it completely through my habitual morning run to the McDonald’s down the street from the Corvette Museum. Sam’s call to me had the unmistakable tone of someone who expects to be keelhauled for his actions, and perhaps rightly so: isn’t your humble author the fellow who has made a habit out of calling out the industry’s most overprivileged mistakes, from the time Aaron Gold somehow managed to knock the nose off a Camaro ZL1 at about 30mph to the recent incident of buffoonery from some buffoon who, after a year or so of riding an Indian motorcycle provided to him at no charge, promptly managed to crash the same model of Indian motorcycle into a rock at the speed of the brisk run with which he is probably entirely unfamiliar?
The crashing of cars is an apparently unavoidable part of automotive journalism, particularly at the magazines. One of the more prominent rags has destroyed so many cars in recent years, including a $500,000 carbon-fiber specialty Porsche, that they are supposedly no longer allowed to have their writers on any kind of racetrack whatsoever, being forced instead to use a “hired gun” for any closed-course work at above school-zone speeds. I’m not immune from this, having managed to harm two press vehicles. The first incident happened when I drove a kit car out onto a racetrack (GingerMan) that still had ice in its banked first turn; the car basically slid down the bank at about 15mph and shattered the lower part of the fiberglass nose against the “chiclet” curb. The second bashup happened when I used a compact crossover to push an old Chevy van across a parking lot; the collision-warning system, activated, the crossover slowed, the blanket I’d placed between the bumpers slid off, and the nose got scratched when I recontacted the van.
In Sam’s case, however, the Tatra rollover wasn’t due to laziness, lack of talent, bad luck, or even just plain not giving a damn. It was part of a test to see… well… what it would take to make the car roll over. We didn’t actually want to roll the Tatra, but we knew it was a possibility, and so did the car’s owner. I’d argue that there are certain times it’s totally fine to damage a press car — but there’s a certain litmus test that needs to be applied in order to determine whether now is one of those times.
Let’s start with this: there is driving a car, and there is testing a car. The majority of manufacturer-sponsored interaction with new cars is nothing but driving. You’re given an example of the car (or motorcycle), you drive it, and you report your impressions of the vehicle to your readers. Every mommyblogger experience is a drive, every European vacation masquerading as a new-car introduction is a drive. What’s less obvious is that all the coned-off, instructor-provided, stability-control-on track events for new cars are also just drives.
The purpose of a drive is to give you an idea of how the car behaves in general-purpose, light-duty use. There’s nothing wrong with drives. Most of the time that’s all you can get.
Okay, so what’s a test? A test is any time you are actively determining the limits of a vehicle. Obviously a timed racetrack session using a skilled driver is a test, but towing a serious load or hauling a serious payload with a truck is also a test. If the car is making unpleasant mechanical noises, and you expected them, it’s probably a test. If you are knowingly driving the car at the limit of its handling or braking, with the intent of reporting the car’s behavior to the reader, that’s a test. (Absent the reporting to the reader, you’re just joyriding.) The suite of instrumented results found in some car magazines, if it is done with ethical attention to detail, is obviously the outcome of a test.
One of my readers told me that his younger son reads this website, so I’ll paraphrase the old slogan a bit: “Every zoo is a petting zoo, if you aren’t a coward.” Well, every drive can be a test, if you aren’t stymied by a sense of decency and/or humanity. In my late thirties and early forties, I was a bit notorious for testing during drives, occasionally producing violent nausea and/or panic attacks in my co-drivers. When the second-generation SRT-8 came out, I had a co-driver at the intro event who told me, “I’ve never been scared in a car, go as fast as you want, I just don’t have that fear in my blood.” As my readers know, I tend to take people at their word. The second or third time I approached a coastal corner of California Highway 1 at over 140mph, he said, in this oddly controlled voice, “I have a family and I want to live to see them, please please please stop and let me out.”
“You can drive if you like,” I said.
“What I’d like best,” he responded, “would be if we could just stop the car and sit until my hands stop shaking, then I’d like to drive right to the hotel and be done with the day.”
When I took my current job, it was explained to me that I would be setting the example for my writers to follow, so as a result I have adjusted my behavior to suit and I no longer drive on public roads with anything like that kind of energy. If one of my writers crashed a car or motorcycle due to inattention, carelessness, or an arrogant belief that they are better drivers or riders than is truly the case, I would discipline them to the limit of my corporate ability. To use a currently popular phrase, that’s not who we are.
Sam’s rollover, on the other hand, occurred under controlled conditions, on a private parking lot, overseen by the car’s owner and a technician assigned to the car. A change made to tire pressure caused the Tatra to go from “lifting a wheel” to “rubbing a doorhandle” at more or less the same speed in a cone-defined corner. The purpose of his test was to determine if the Tatra was truly as rollover-prone as history would have us believe. Well, now we know.
This sort of thing is important, and not just because it makes for great photos. There is always value to be had in confirming or disproving conventional wisdom or historical recollection, because it helps us truly understand history better than we would otherwise. Sam’s article discusses the story, widely told in certain circles, that Tatras were notorious for killing German officers during the Second World War. According to this story, “the Nazis” eventually forbade their officers from using Tatras.
Is this true? Probably not the way it’s told. There’s precisely one photo out there that claims to show SS officers with a Tatra staff car; if “hundreds of Nazis” had confiscated them, we’d have a lot more photos available, as we do for Mercedes-Benzes, KdF-wagens, and other vehicles. The SS itself didn’t have hundreds of officers in Czecho or anywhere else until the Waffen-SS got up to strength after the “Phony War”; those officers were in the trenches with their soldiers, not sporting around Eastern Europe in luxury cars.
It’s more likely that the idea of “killer Tatras” was spread as part of Communist propaganda lionizing the Czech Resistance after the war. It’s a fun story and it makes people happy to hear it; like most “tales of the Resistance” from WW2, it helps in some way to promote the comforting myth that there was widespread, wholehearted, and effective resistance to German occupation. No doubt there were plenty of people in Czechoslovakia after 1948 who wished their Soviet komissars would take a fast ride in a slow Tatra.
Sam’s test strongly indicates that Tatras were, in fact, inherently roll-prone, but also suggests that this tendency was ameliorated somewhat by the low-grip, bias-ply tires of the day. We learned something from it. We understand history a tiny bit better. The litmus test of increasing our understanding has been satisfied. It’s a nice article, and deserves your attention. We have two more episodes of “The Death Eaters” coming your way; I will spoil them a tiny bit and say that we didn’t roll anything else. I did, however, manage to spin a Renault Clio V6 a few times. What’s my excuse? Well, I was testing!
Last week, for Hagerty, I took aim at the politicization of pickup-truck ownership.