As is often the case with old cars, the story of Lou Heger's Czech-built 1934 Tatra 75 Cabriolet involves quite a bit of history, more than a little coincidence, considerable pure chance and, of course, a great deal of enthusiasm.
Heger, who now lives in Toronto, was born in 1950 in the small Czech city of Koprivnice, the birthplace of Tatra, a pioneering - but on this side of the Atlantic little-known - automotive nameplate.
In his teen years, Heger was a student at the Tatra Technical Institute, studying mechanical engineering and automotive design. Because it took a very hands-on approach, he also earned his automotive mechanic's certification.
The Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 saw the Heger family escape to Austria, where the Canadian embassy granted him entry to Canada. He settled in St. Catharines, Ont., spending 30 years with IBM as a service representative before "retiring" and going to work for a company specializing in European cars. He "retired" again last spring, and is now freelancing his skills in the service and restoration of vintage European machinery.
The 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in what is now the Czech Republic reopened the country to exiles like Heger and led to his finding his now beautifully restored Tatra 75 Cabriolet, a type of car he had never forgotten since his first sighting as a youngster.
Heger's research shows the car was originally delivered to a dealer in Vienna, but then disappeared until coming into the hands of a Koprivnice doctor in the 1960s. It then fell into obscurity again until discovered by some Tatra enthusiast friends Heger had become reacquainted with on visits to his homeland.
On one such trip in the late 1990s, he mentioned the local doctor and his Type 75 cabriolet and a year later the local Tatra network had unearthed this one in a nearby village. "Part of it was in a chicken coop and the rest in a barn," he says. After extended negotiations - helped along when it emerged the owner had actually known Heger's father - he bought it in 1998.
The body and interior were restored in the Czech Republic with parts found through his new network of friends, although acquiring some of the bits wasn't always easy.
After locating a set of still-in-the-box Scintilla tail lights, he offered Canadian, then U.S., dollars and euros, but their owner wouldn't sell. On subsequent visits over the next few years, Heger pursued the purchase, often over lunch.
"But every time I'd ask him, he'd say no, they weren't for sale. Until one day I said, 'Well, can we trade?' and he said, 'I thought you'd never ask,' " says Heger, who located the Indian motorcycle carburetor his new friend required and came home with the box of tail lights.
The rare car - only 22 Cabriolets were built in 1934 and apparently only three survive - was shipped to Canada in 2003, arriving complete but in barely driveable form mechanically.
"Its fuel consumption just about matched its oil consumption," says Heger, who then spent the next three years giving it a thorough mechanical restoration.
The company that produced Heger's car was founded in 1850 as a wagon works in Koprivnice in what was then known as Moravia. It added rail-car production some decades later and produced its first car, the Prasident, and a truck powered by a flat-four engine, in 1898.
Car models called the Meteor, Spitzbub and Nesselsdorf (the town's German name) soon followed. And a racer called the Rennweier, which competed successfully in some of the heroic and quite mad open-road races of the era. Designer Hans Ledwinka was also signed on to draft even more innovative creations.
The company produced military trucks during the First World War and, after returning to civilian production in the newly created Czechoslovakia, adopted the Tatra brand (named after a nearby mountain range).
Ledwinka's Type 11 of the early 1920s was a revolution in design with its air-cooled, opposed-twin-cylinder engine, central tubular chassis and rear differential with swing-arm axles - basic design precepts that were to carry the factory through the decade and beyond, including luxury models with (liquid-cooled) V-12 engines.
The early 1930s saw the introduction of the Type 57 and the quite-amazing Type 77. The latter was built around a central box-frame structure split at the rear to accommodate a 3.4-litre, air-cooled, 80-horsepower V-8 engine that gave it a top speed of almost 160 kilometres an hour, aided by a body shaped on scientific aerodynamic principles. Sleek aero shapes, rear engines and extremely tricky handling, owing to the rear swing axles, were to become Tatra trademarks.
A cheaper version of the follow-on Type 87 of 1937, called the Type 97 and powered by a horizontally opposed 1.8-litre, air-cooled four, caused a bit of controversy when Ferdinand Porsche allegedly borrowed some of Ledwinka's ideas and used them to create Hitler's Volkswagen. Tatra sued, Hitler responded by invading, and VW apparently paid Tatra three million marks in compensation in 1961.
The low-cost Type 57 was still based on Ledwinka's early 1920s ideas and had a 1,160-cc horizontally opposed, 22-hp engine and traditionally upright bodywork that soon gave way to a much more attractive form in the larger version Type 75.
The 75 also benefited from a 1.7-litre, 30-hp engine fitted with a four-speed gearbox with overdrive available (and selected with a separate lever) on every gear.
Aero-style Tatras continued to be built during the Second World War, ostensibly because Germans liked them, and legend has it many died by driving them too fast and failing to keep up with the rear axle's antics.
The factory was nationalized by the Communist government after the war. It soon came up with the Tatraplan, a very Saab-like small car, but it and most car production was assigned to rival Skoda. Tatra did continue to build a few luxury cars popular with the Soviet hierarchy, though - Cuba's Castro had one -until 1998.
But Tatra was basically left to concentrate on trucks. Paris-Dakar rally fans will recall its successes in this tough event, and it still produces commercial vehicles with unusual air-cooled engines. Tatra today is owned by a consortium of U.S., British, Belgian and Czech companies.