A grand vehicle for a grand tour - The Tatra 815 GTC

road tripping a house on wheels around the world

1y ago

In 1986 Czechoslovakian photographer and cameraman Jirí Stöhr came up with a giant ambitious plan to go on an expeditionary trip around the world. Stöhr was already experienced in long distance humanitarian expeditions as he was a part of a group of students that took a modified 6x6 Tatra truck filled with medicines from Czechoslovakia to the town of Lambaréné in Gabon, a country on the east coast of the African continent.

Stöhr was backed by the Czechoslovakian union of arts, the Barandov movie studios, Truck manufacturer Tatra and a whole host of smaller companies. The goal was to promote the country and it's industry around the world and gather a vast amount of photo and film material in the process.

Along for the ride were nuclear physicist Stanislav Synek who was a translator and sound equipment expert. Karel Valchar and Dalibor Petr were on driving duties with the latter also being the crew's cook. Journalist Peter Barta was in charge of promotion while geologist Frantisek Jenis was the crew's pilot. Karel Valchar joined them in China as a back-up driver.

The trip would take them through 67 countries around the globe and take approximately 3 years to complete. The vehicle needed for this monumental journey would have to be unlike any other. Tatra was up for it though and decided to pick their tried and tested 815 model as a base. The 815 series of trucks had already seen action in the military, countless of civilian applications and even the Paris-Dakar rally raid. It was the perfect vehicle for the job.

The 815 comes in dozens of different variations, from the base 4x4 chassis ranging to the massive 12x12 model. To keep maintenance at an acceptable level but still retain a healthy dose of off road capabilities the 6x6 chassis was chosen. Powering it was an air cooled T3-929 12 liter diesel V10 capable of 280 horsepower. Enough to bring the 10 meter long and 21 ton heavy behemoth to a top speed of 95 km/h.

The reason why it was so big is because of the special living compartment built on it by Vagónka Studénka, a company usually making train wagons. They basically put a small house on the back of the Tatra. it featured a kitchen, small office, dining table, fold out beds, bathroom with shower and even a separate cabin on top with plenty of sightseeing opportunities.

floorplan of the Tatra

floorplan of the Tatra

Almost all of the material and equipment came from Czechoslovakian companies. The only things that weren't homegrown was the camera equipment, supplied by Kodak an Pentax, and the paint job. The German Bayer group was tasked with decorating the truck with paint that could handle the vast differences in temperature.

next to carrying the crew and equipment, the Tatra also had a few small vehicles on board including a small moped, inflatable boat and an ultralight aircraft. With them the crew could go on mini expeditions of their own without having to take their giant motorized second home with them.

On 18 march 1987 the crew set of in Prague on their massive road trip. First up was mainland Europe follow by a trip across the Atlantic to the United States, After going up through Canada to reach the very top of Alaska they headed back down the map all the way to the very bottom of Mexico and into Central America

On 19 march 1988, just over a year after they started, the crew got into quite some problems. While travelling trough Guatemala they all got arrested. The government falsely accused them of being soviet spies. After all, the Cold War was still going on in the background. After 9 days in prison the crew was finally released.

Passing by some of the South American wildlife

Passing by some of the South American wildlife

The truck was shipped over to the south coast of Brazil where the crew was reunited with it and continued their trip. The next couple of months were spent driving around in South America. There the Tatra set a new height record after climbing over 5.2 kilometers above sea level in the Andes. Back down to sea level the crew boarded a ferry and headed towards New Zealand.

After a relative short stay the crew were back on a boat and headed to Sydney. Upon arrival they set of to drive straight across Australia to the town of Darwin located in the North on the other side of the country.

Their time down under was without any incident as the crew now found themselves looking for their trucked that had been shipped to Bohai Bay in Taijin, the city right next to the Chinese capital Peking. Life in China was more "strict" to say the least so the crew was accompanied during their whole trip. Two cars with Chinese officials followed them all the way to the border with Kazakhstan.

In Pakistan tragedy would strike. While descending the Hunza river in the inflatable boat, pilot of the ultralight aircraft Frantisek Jenis fell overboard and drowned. Jenis died at the age of 39. The ragtag team of adventurers had lost a member halfway through the journey. The ultralight aircraft would remain unused for the rest of the trip.

Despite the heavy loss the crew decided to complete the journey. The crew boarded yet another ferry on Mumbai to cross the Arabian sea to the coast town of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The trip on the African continent was one giant loop through the countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenia.

In Zambia the crew would celebrate Christmas for a third and last time during the trip. The first and second time were celebrated while at the foot of a volcano in Mexico and on the island of Samoa. This third time however was the strangest one as news came in from the motherland.

The Velvet Revolution had taken place and put an end to the communist regime turning the country into a parliamentary republic. The iron curtain was starting to fall apart. The entire expedition had no political motivation whatsoever but the crew did suffer some loss of precious business contracts. Some businesses just ceased to exists due to the revolution.

After a journey of just over 3 years the crew finally arrived back home. The arrival into their country was easier compared to when they left it 3 years prior as the borders were now open and no extensive checks were needed.

Sadly the expedition didn't get that much attention upon arrival. The people weren't all that interested in the truck that brought back sour memories of the communist regime even though it had nothing to do with it. The hours of film footage were never used and the thousands of photographs taken along the way were almost all for nothing.

The Tatra might have set off on it's journey at the right time to boost the morale and show to the world life behind the iron curtain might actually not be that bad after all but when it finally came back everyone had moved on. It simply arrived at the right place at the wrong time.

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Comments (3)

  • I‘d love to travel across uncharted land with a truck like this! But what a interesting and suprisingly sad story .

      1 year ago
  • A few days before Christmas 1989 I was laying in my tiny tent at a campground in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe when these guys drove in next to me. The vehicle is immense and was such a contrast to my Sierra Designs 2 man backpack tent.

      1 month ago
  • That is a crazy story! Yet also a sad one, I know. I just discovered it a year later, but it's the story I needed today.

      7 months ago