19th November 2019

Tatra: the petrolheads’ Czech mate

Tatra, one of the oldest names in the automotive industry and the builder of fascinatingly avant-garde vehicular creations. Founded in 1850 as a maker of horse-drawn wagons and carriages, it started manufacturing cars in 1897 and continued, without break, until 1999, when its focus turned to commercial vehicles.

The company’s output evolved in line with the early days of the automotive industry. It soon found its niche. A hugely innovative company, Tatra specialised in the manufacture of large, fast, luxury, technologically advanced vehicles powered by air-cooled engines with anything from 2 to 12 cylinders. The pre-war streamliner designs are things of beauty and the company’s cars are said to have inspired a certain German’s vision of the Beetle. It produced military vehicles during World War II, of course, but we’d like to focus on its post-war heyday and a series of models in particular.

The Tatra 603 was launched in 1953 and was a luxury car way ahead of its time. Featuring a rear-engined, air-cooled V8, lashings of chrome and sweeping fins, it brought a splash of Americana to Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia. Hand-built, it was just about as elite a vehicle as you could buy, being made available only to Communist Party leaders (the irony is not lost on us), industrial high rankers and select leaders overseas. Fellows such as Fidel Castro, for example.

The 603 was built for 20 years and underwent numerous minor revisions during this period. Surviving cars can be extremely difficult to accurately date as ‘new’ cars were often old models returned to the factory and updated with the latest refinements and a new registration.

Its replacement, the 613, which went into production in 1973, ditched Tatra’s customary swooping lines in favour of ‘70s muscularity. Angular Vignale styling replaced curved edges, but of course, some crucial details remained: the air-cooled V8 was still mounted in the rear. Although moved slightly closer to the front to improve handling, the engine this time boasted a quad-cam arrangement, 3.5-litre capacity and well over 160bhp. More attainable than the outgoing 603, over 11,000 examples were produced before the company’s last hooray into mass car production replaced it: the 700.

Essentially a 613 in a party frock and with a questionable facelift, the 700 was available with a mighty 4.4-litre version of the company’s famous air-cooled V8. Launched in 1996 as a saloon or coupe, eventually, fewer than 100 cars were produced before it was killed off in 1999. Thankfully, during this period Tatra found time to build the fastest Czech car ever: the MTX V8. Only around half-a-dozen were built, but the sleek 2-seater supercar was reputedly able to reach 60mph in a little over 5 seconds and was capable of 165mph.

We were delighted to learn that Tatra has remained true to its roots and is still an innovator in the commercial vehicle industry, even announcing the world’s first Euro 5 air-cooled engine.

We believe there simply aren’t enough air-cooled V8s in the world and we’d love to hear your Tatra experiences. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky few to have a 603, or experienced one in your days as a benevolent dictator? Let us know your stories in the comments below.