Geography professor restores rare car to old fame

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Dydia DeLyser poses in front of her restored 1941 Czechoslovakian Tatra T87. DeLyser and her boyfriend, Paul Greenstein, recently published an article on the life of their Tatra T87. (Courtesy of Paul Greenstein) Dydia DeLyser and her Tatra T87 in its homeland, the Czech Republic
Dydia DeLyser poses in front of her restored 1941 Czechoslovakian Tatra T87. DeLyser and her boyfriend, Paul Greenstein, recently published an article on the life of their Tatra T87.
I(Courtesy of Paul Greenstein)

This story was updated at 5:11 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 29 to include attributions to parts of the story. 

Most people who think about restored classic cars usually picture Ford Mustangs or Chevrolet Impalas, but most have never heard of a Tatra T87.

In 2010, a 1941 Czechoslovakian Tatra T87 won the New York Times Collectible Car of the Year Contest. Then in 2014, its owners, Cal State Fullerton geography professor Dydia DeLyser and her boyfriend of 29 years, Paul Greenstein, published a biography on its complex history and restoration.

DeLyser and Greenstein spent many years traveling across continents researching and interacting with other Tatra enthusiasts who helped them give their rusty war-weary car another chance to be the luxurious vehicle it once was.

The history behind the metal
Tatra began by creating horse-drawn carriages in the 1850s in Czechoslovakia, leading to trams and railroad coaches, according to DeLyser and Greenstein’s article about their car,“‘Follow That Car!’ Mobilities of Enthusiasm in a Rare Car’s Restoration.” In 1897, the company made the first passenger car in Central Europe. Their article said it is the third oldest motor vehicle company that still remains in business today.

Tatra cars such as the T87 influenced the design for the 1940s American Tucker and the T97-inspired Ferdinand Porsche during his “Volkswagen collaboration with Adolf Hitler,” according to DeLyser and Greenstein’s article.

Between 1936 and 1951, only 3,023 Tatra T87s were created and fewer than 300 exist today, according to “‘Follow That Car!’”

Tatra enthusiast and author Ivan Margolius said Tatra T87s are recognized as an icon of the modern era. Today, they are displayed in several museums and art institutions.

“The streamlined courageous design illustrates the modern progressive design of the 1930s,” Margolius said via email.

Margolius has been studying the history of the company since 1987. In 1990, he published his book entitled “Tatra: The Legacy of Hans Ledwinka,” and will release a second edition this year. Margolius met DeLyser and Greenstein after reading the New York Times article and they included his research into their T87’s biography.

The spark that plugs the interest

Greenstein said he wanted to own a T87 since he was 15 years old, but the “fabulous and expensive Czechoslovakian car” seemed far out of reach.

That is, until one appeared on eBay in 2001 and DeLyser and Greenstein rushed to enter the bidding process. They won the T87 for $8,000 and began their “eight-year restoration odyssey” of restoring the vehicle and discovering its past, according to their article.

“To me it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that was worth getting,” Greenstein said.

From car graveyard to a safe yard

DeLyser and Greenstein began researching their car’s origin by traveling to the Tatra Museum in Czech Republic. There they found records of their car’s original buyer, V. Konstantin, an auto-garage owner and presumed car dealer. Konstantin’s car was delivered on May 10, 1941 — six weeks before the Nazis invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa and confiscated it, according to DeLyser and Greenstein’s article.

Greenstein said his grandfather ordered a Tatra that was seized by the Nazis during World War II.

The Nazis’ fascination

Though the car’s war-service records remain unknown, T87s were praised for being fast and “luxurious” — making them prized possessions for German officers, according to “‘Follow That Car!’”

The article notes how the Tatra company revolutionized automobiles with T87’s features such as its “air-cooled, overhead-cam V8” rear engine and three headlights and four-wheel independent suspension.

After the T87 survived the war, it was imported to the U.S. The T87 made the roads of central New York its new home until a thrown rod caused a “catastrophic engine failure” during the early 1950s, according to DeLyser and Greenstein’s piece; Molyneux Lincoln-Mercury, a used car dealer in Dansville, took the damaged T87 as a trade-in.

The T87 remained there for years until the late 1960s when a father and son purchased the car as a restoration project, according to “‘Follow That Car!’” The pair carefully rebuilt the drive train, but their plans were interrupted when the son was drafted into the Vietnam War. The unfinished T87 was returned to the same dealer where it continued to rust on his land until his son sold it to DeLyser and Greenstein.

The road to restoration

Greenstein said in “‘Follow That Car!’” that his T87 initially seemed like an unrestorable disaster with a missing engine, door panels, seats and a trunk.  However, he said he had the most difficult time restoring the car’s missing clock because it was constantly being misplaced and broken; sadly, it remains broken.

Since T87s are rare, finding parts was a challenge. However, Greenstein said reproducing his car’s steering wheel was a simple task after a Wisconsin Tatra owner lent and shipped him his original steering wheel to create the molding for Greenstein’s T87, an account also depicted in their article.

“He was willing to take the risk to support us in our project to restore our car, and we didn’t even know him,” DeLyser said. “He was a stranger who loved the car.”

Greenstein said he and DeLyser painted their T87 its original color and spent about $80,000 for its restoration; however, he suspects his car’s value is around $300,000.

Revving international attention

When the Tatra T87 was completely restored, Greenstein and DeLyser wanted to drive it on the roads of the Czech Republic, but the restoration shop mechanics wanted to make sure they knew how to drive it, they recounted in their article. Greenstein already drove the car, but it was the first time DeLyser saw it completed.

DeLyser had driven several antique cars and at the time, she drove a 1924 Nash to work. She recalled that the mechanic seemed nervous to see her drive the car but, since she was familiar with the gear pattern and double clutching, the mechanic did not have to give her any instructions.

“I found out later that they had never seen a woman drive one of their restored T87s,” DeLyser said. “This was very unusual for them.”

After the drive, a mechanic told DeLyser that she drove really well.

“If I was a man, he wouldn’t have said that to me,” DeLyser said. “He said that because I was a woman and he thought I was going to drive really poorly.”

Although DeLyser said they only drive the car for special occasions, the New York Times article made Tatras internationally prominent and their T87 became the most famous Tatra in the community of Tatra enthusiasts.

“Every Tatra person wanted to know us in a nice way because that article put these cars on the map,” DeLyser said.

DeLyser said she and Greenstein have been recognized in the streets of Prague and interviewed by several Czech news outlets. Even television host Jay Leno asked Greenstein for expert advice to repair his Tatra T87’s engine while also lending Greenstein parts from his mechanic shop.

“That’s the community of enthusiasm; you just help each other out,” DeLyser said.

From Oil to Ink

DeLyser wrote their paper about the history of their Tatra T87 once she decided to attend the International Conference of Historical Geographers in Prague in June 2012.

“I thought to myself, ‘What a great venue to be talking about that car and there might be Czech scholars that would appreciate it,’” DeLyser said.

The two spent a week-long vacation there, traveling to car museums during the day and working on the paper in the evening. Greenstein knew the history of Tatras while DeLyser connected it to geography.

“I bet if these Czech scholars see a paper about their national treasure written by some Americans, they will smile upon it,” DeLyser said.

DeLyser said they presented their paper titled “‘Follow that Car!’ Mobilities of Enthusiasm in a Rare Car’s Restoration,” during the last day of the conference which, in relation to conferences, generally had a scarce audience. However, DeLyser was surprised by a packed house. She soon discovered that everyone attended that day to vote for the location of the next conference, which takes place every three years.

DeLyser has been presenting at conferences for about 20 years, but said the Prague conference was the most fun she ever had because of the paper’s subject.

“It’s not just about how many Tatras were produced. It’s about the emotions of the work of restoring the car and about the life of the car,” she said.

After receiving positive feedback from the audience, DeLyser decided to expand the article and submit it to the Professional Geographer, so members of the American Association of Geographers can see it. In the article, she thanks all the geographers who voted for her car online to win the New York Times Collectible Car of the Year Contest in 2010.

DeLyser and Greenstein completed a journal article this summer about the historical geography of restoration and how those ideas changed with time as communities of restorers evolve. They used three Indian motorcycles that Greenstein restored as case studies.

DeLyser said her research and her life with Greenstein have always been tied together.
“That’s what writing the paper about the car was about. It was about saying, ‘My research and my life are one,’” DeLyser said. “They are not separate, so let’s write a paper with Paul, let’s do this together, let’s complete the circle.”

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