David Meredith Czechs out the home of Tatra
When a manufacturer uses a military design as a template for civilian equipment, there may well be substantial pay-off in robustness and longevity. But the effect that armour plating, IED proofing and the odd gun turret mount reinforcement has on the fuel efficiency of a commercial vehicle tends to upset the business case.
What really intrigues me though is a truck builder who persists with an engineering profile that’s identical whether the application is a war zone, a city building site, a declared national emergency zone or the great civilian outdoors.
The Czech Republic’s Tatra has a sole focus – to build an all-wheel-drive platform that can take the heaviest loads anywhere, anytime, and seemingly forever, no matter what the climate, nor whether the people it serves are wearing combat greens, fluoro vests, hazard suits or boardies.
Tatra has existed longer than most – as PowerTorque found when we attended its 120-year anniversary – and has managed its way through economic, political and social upheavals that would permanently dull the senses of a less resilient company.
Then there’s the small matter of past invasions and occupations from the Nazis in their unstoppable Panzer tanks, followed 29 years later by the Soviets in their tanks.
The factory facilities visited still bore the scars of the commissars, dull concrete facades and depressed architecture, mingled with brightly painted new development built to meet a steadily rising demand for the company’s key asset – an utterly unstoppable off-road truck chassis.
And that’s one of two major reasons several European and Middle Eastern military forces check the Tatra box when they need to reliably transport troops, supplies, missile launchers, warheads, ammunition, fuel and anti-aircraft equipment across impassable natural landscapes, without any unexpected and inconvenient explosions, as well as recover bogged APCs – and old Russian tanks.
The second reason for the visit was looking a little dodgy until recently. Tatra’s own diesel engines have never shirked heavy workloads, nor ambient temperatures ranging from minus-40 to plus-50 degrees centigrade.
But the emissions performance stopped dead at Euro 5. A few years back the company was owned by a US machinery group, which pulled back on development and stripped the assets. So much so the company went into administration.
However, Czech investors have moved in and brought some expansive thinking along with freshly minted chequebooks.
In order to see how that thinking was playing out in future plans, PowerTorque spent a day playing with new Tatra trucks and old Tatra cars at the 120-year gig, then an hour or so with Radomir Smolka, a vice-chairman of the Tatra board and director of research and development.
It seems work on developing the air-cooled, 13-litre, V8 diesel to Euro 6 had been underway several years ago, but was halted when the financial attack on the company’s viability was made by the US Machinery Group that owned it at the time.
Now that work has recommenced in earnest, and, in an exclusive for PowerTorque magazine, Mr. Smolka told me the Euro 6 version will be available to the production line by early 2018. Not only that, but during the rethink it became clear some heavy-duty military applications demanded more power than the 13-litre could muster.
Finding another engine supplier wasn’t difficult, but the process of squeezing pumps, coolant, hoses, radiators, anti-corrosion materials, anti-freeze, thermostats, header tanks and electric radiator fans into the Tatra cabs was so complicated, the new boss said, “Hovno – let’s revive the V12”.
So the new management approved the redevelopment of Tatra’s air-cooled V12, and that will also meet the Euro 6 standard as well. At least the Dakar Rally enthusiasts will be happy. They’ve been keeping 1100 hp versions of the old V12 on the track by raiding parts bins at the factory.
The Euro 6 work is being done in conjunction with another Czech company and will include full electronic control and direct injection for the first time on a Tatra engine. Currently, the only electronic gadgets on Tatra V8s are three sensors on each head that kick off the viscous engine-cooling fan when temperatures reach 210 degrees F.
It must be effective. The Tatra V8 powers trucks built at a CKD plant in India – the Indian military has 10,000 of them in service – from -20 C. in the mountains to over +40 C. on the plains with no coolant, no pumps, no plumbing and no cooling problems.
With a further nod to the geographic realities of Tatra’s customer locations, Radomir told me that mechanically controlled Euro 3, 4 and 5 versions of both engines will continue to be built for what he called the “s*** fuel spots.”
This engine development process is a significant shift in strategy for the maker. Tatra had already signed up to take DAF cabs and the MX-13 engine from PACCAR for a less military looking model option.
The new Phoenix has opened the door for sales into the European mainland, and given the company a much broader reach for its traction technology. Tatra feels that most of its Australian sales will be the Phoenix version.
When asked if the new Tatra engine work would make the MX-13 option redundant, Radomir replied, “No! The DAF cab is all-electronic, and matched to the MX-13 CAN bus. We couldn’t use the Tatra V8 without major investment, so we’ll run both engine options side-by-side. Our own cab will have the Tatra V series, and the Phoenix will run the MX”.
Perhaps the only negative is that Phoenix buyers will have to accept a conventional cooling system, while Tatra V8 and V12 users have none of that complication.
PowerTorque also met with Ondrej Skacel, the engineer responsible for cab development. I was actually surprised there was such a role, as Tatra cabs are what I perhaps unkindly call flat-pack cabs, with zero styling input.
Whenever I’ve wrinkled my nose at Tatra’s cab appearance, local distributor Larry Gill of Offroad Trucks Australia has always been quick to point out that the roof is 6.0 mm steel and needs no rollover reinforcement, indicating a probable link to the original design incorporating a gun turret.
But Ondrej explained that although the low-profile cab was mainly for the military, it was very popular with civilian low-profile applications such as drilling and fire fighting.
In my final discussion with Radomir I asked him why there was ongoing development of the chassis when the company claimed it was already ideal?
He said that refinement in the areas of suspension tuning and steering geometry would always continue, and the braking system was also upgraded for the mixed terrain in Europe.
Operators had advised that more and more tasks included up to 90 percent on-highway running, and that the drum brakes in that environment weren’t up to standard. Discs are now required on fire trucks in CZ, where fire truck drivers all think they are doing a stage in the Dakar and drum brakes regularly overheat.
Some modifications were recognised via feedback from Australian operations through Offroad Trucks Australia, the Perth, West Australian based distributors of Tatra vehicles for our market. Dust management was enhanced and the testing program modified to highlight that requirement.
In some cases components developed for military markets were included in the Aussie spec trucks, however, no matter what the Australian application there has been no need to modify cooling system parameters.
Radomir concluded our interview with an observation familiar to Australian operators. “The preoccupation with up-front purchase price is always more prevalent in developed nations and markets. When whole-of-life cost is considered more, as it often is in secondary markets, Tatra always does well”.
Tatra Track Test
PowerTorque spent over an hour on Tatra’s test tracks, highlighting how the company’s unique swing-axle setup can be a perfect formula for getting heavy equipment across seemingly impossible terrain without shaking drivers, passengers, bodies and payloads to jelly.
Part of the evaluation included traversing a potholed mud track at relatively high speed. Had this been any other all-wheel-drive truck it would have been likely to have pounded suspension, body and occupants, while constantly losing traction from unmanageable axle rebound.
In a plus for body longevity, as well as load security the suspension’s unique configuration and extraordinary articulation irons out body flexing.
Tatra’s fully independent suspension and traction system easily coped with a demanding 65-degree incline – that’s one in 0.4663 or a 214.5 percent gradient. Coming back down in the Tatra desert racing truck was even more dramatic, especially with race driver Tomas Tomecek laughing all the way.