Undersea treasure: the lost Tatraplans of BC

Rumour has it, there’s a barge-load of postwar Czechoslovakian machinery beneath the waves of the Strait of Georgia near Vancouver. I went looking for the story.

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This is Gary Cullen’s Tatra T87, the only known running and driving example in Canada. I was given his contact as a lead for the sunken Tatraplans, and his reply email included the line, “if you’re willing to come out this way you get to go for a ride in a Tatra.” Well, Nazi deathtrap or not, you’d be crazy to pass that up.

If you’re not familiar with the Tatra story, educate yo’self. If you are, then you already know that the air-cooled rear-engined V8 had a tendency towards snap-oversteer, compounded by the lead soles of the Third Reich’s jackboots and 1930s tire technology. Gary wriggled it around for me - he’s driven the car as far North as Alaska and South to California (shades of Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund), so he’s pretty familiar with its quirks.

However, fascinating as the T87 is, I’m not here to learn about it. This is the story involving its smaller cousin, the Tatra 600, or Tatraplan. Powered by a flat-four engine, the Tatraplan is a little bit Ur-Saab, a little bit T87, and a little bit VW Beetle. A boatload of them was traded for a shipment of wheat, and headed towards Canadian shores. More details and pictures below.

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It could very well have been a great success. Canada got VWs a little before the US did, and we loved them. Rear-engine traction, durability, and above all cheapness have always appealed to the Scottish side of Canadian thrift, and the Tatraplan offered all that plus four doors. So what if it was communistical? After all, we’d have Skodas and Ladas sold here well into the 1980s.

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And yet, the Tatraplans’ timing couldn’t have been worse. The dates on the newspaper clippings Gary gave to me seem to indicate the first cars started showing up at Vancouver’s docks about a month after Joe McCarthy got up and made his famous speech about the bureaucracy of America being riddled with communists. The whole of North America was in a panic about the Red Scare, and the innocent Tatraplans found themselves shunned and vandalized.

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The cars sat on the lots, including a bunch over in the capital of Victoria at Shorter’s Electric, a refrigerator sales company that also sold horsemeat (yes, really). At some point, so the rumour goes, they were simply barged out to the middle of the Strait, and dumped into the water.

How many? Nobody knows. Where’d they drop them? Everybody on that tug is now probably long dead. A restored Tatraplan is pretty valuable, and while seawater would be murder on them, the Pacific is very cold, so perhaps there’s still something salvageable out there. It’s a mystery.

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Even more of a mystery, to me at least, is how many of these things were tucked away in barns and garages by frightened owners and simply forgotten. I’m forever finding odd stuff around here - a 1911 Detroit Electric that was daily-driven into the 1960s, the million-dollar chicken barns on Rudi Koniczek’s property - and there’s far more hidden away behind closed doors.

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The story goes out in the local paper this Friday. Maybe some old-timer will read it, send me a note, give me a thread to pull on. For now, I know that the below Tatraplan, an original BC car, is now back in the Czech Republic, in the hands of a restorer.

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There’s a couple in the Lane Motor Museum, including one from Victoria that belonged to John Long. John’s brother Greg wrote a barn-find novel called Found, which is well worth your ten bucks. You might remember his Citroën DS Chapron Decapotable from an old Automobile Magazine story by Sam Smith. Greg also has a Citroën SM - seriously, he’s our kind of dude, read his book.

Gary says the man in the above picture, John Minnie, first told him the story of the sunken Tatraplans. Later, in a parking lot, a passerby saw Cullen’s T87 and recognized the dorsal fin. The stranger once worked on the tugs, and remembered dumping the cars into the sea. Cullen pressed him for details, but too many years had passed.

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They’re out there somewhere, underneath the waves, or under a tarp in a shed somewhere. Hidden. Waiting.

www.brendanmcaleer.ca

@brendan_mcaleer

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