Some cars, in whole or in part, deliberately place style above rationale, yet these four Tatras cannot be counted among them. They came about thanks to the insight of Hans Ledwinka, the Austrian engineer who considered form to be determined by function. The Tatra factory began as the Nesselsdorf Wagon Works, which Ledwinka joined in 1897. He departed for Puch eight years later prior to re-joining the firm, by then named Tatra, in 1921. One of his first designs was the T11 light car, which was powered by a twin-cylinder air-cooled engine – Ledwinka believed that the elimination of radiators, pumps and hoses reduced service requirements – and by the 1930s he began to develop his ideas about aerodynamics.
The result was the Tatra T77 of 1934, a vision of the future built on a chassis consisting of U-section tube with the floorpan welded to it. There was independent suspension for all four wheels, with swing axles at the rear, and power from an air-cooled V8 engine. Any possible noise – a crucial consideration for a prestige car – was compensated for by the aerodynamic properties of the coachwork and by effectively insulating the rear-mounted powerplant.
‘WITH THE T87, YOU ARE AFFORDED A GLIMPSE INTO A PARALLEL FUTURE’
Two years later, the T77 was supplanted by the T87, which retained the older car’s chassis design but with the V8 engine now having one overhead camshaft per bank, as opposed to a single central valve ‘bumper’, with each aluminium head individually cast. The T87 was 880lb lighter than the T77 – much of this weight loss was due to a shorter wheelbase, which was also introduced to improve the Tatra’s handling. The T87’s styling is a refinement of its predecessor’s, which itself was inspired by the philosophies of the Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray. He believed that a blunt, rounded nose and a long tapering tail would encourage smooth, laminar airflow. The result is, quite simply, an airship on wheels.
From top: wide-angle V8 engine needs to be worked hard to give its best; gorgeous Deco-era details; blunt nose and elongated tail highlighted in profile. From above right: cockpit features a workmanlike steel dash but a stylish sprung wheel; delicate gearlever; spectacular central fin was an attempt to reduce lift; the T87 can be driven hard, but you always have to keep in mind the potential for the swing-axle rear end to bite.
It is not just that its drag coefficient was 0.36Cd (Cx) at a time when most large cars were 0.50Cd (the fin and two spare tyres in the front compartment were to compensate for body lift), it is more that with the Tatra you are afforded a glimpse into a parallel future. A T87 is as much a monument to Futurism as the architecture of Antonio Sant’Elia.
Not that such a silver vision was for the masses, for the T87 was a car produced in a country that was the fifth most industrialised nation in the world and aimed emphatically at the ‘social elite’. It could be argued that only the Traction Avant could come close to matching the Tatra’s impact but, even in 2.9-litre 15-Six form, the Citroën was a large car for the bourgeois whereas the T87 was exclusive transport for those who could have afforded a Daimler or a Cadillac. To think that the T87 was made at the same time as any such Western car, however, takes a considerable feat of imagination. Every detail of the Tatra stands out, from the front windscreen to the controls on the dashboard.
To be conveyed in the T87 is to experience a smoothness of ride that anticipates – and indeed surpasses – the Citroën DS, accompanied only by the gentle purr of the V8 and the barest minimum of wind noise. The sound of the engine is muffled by having behind the rear seats a second, and more practical, luggage compartment sandwiched by another bulkhead. If baggage has to be stored in two not-terribly accessible boxes and rearward visibility is minimal, the rear backrest may be tilted forward. All T87s were fitted with a sliding roof and a reclining front bench. Dr Jiri Pechan, the owner of our featured car, has even slept in it “for fun”.
T87 production continued until 1950, including a limited amount of cars made after the 1938 German invasion of Czechoslovakia and during WW2. The Tatra factory was nationalised in 1946 and Ledwinka was imprisoned for six years on a charge of collaboration with the occupying German army, although the government of the day still called upon him for advice during his internment. A smaller T600 was introduced in 1948 and CZAL – the United Czechoslovakian Automobile and Aircraft Industry, which was controlled by the Ministry of Defence – decided that Tatra would manufacture both commercial vehicles and large cars with an engine capacity of over 1500cc. By 1951, this decision had been rescinded and CZAL decreed that only Škoda would make cars. There were no Tatra saloons in production in 1952; work on future models had to be undertaken in secret.
Clockwise, from above: bulbous T603 repeats T87’s trick of looking like nothing else on the road; upright tail-lights in discreet fins; power boost for 2.5-litre V8; interior is far more understated than that of the T87; rear wings contain vents to feed air to the engine.
By the following year, the Czech Politburo decreed that Tatra could build a limited number of passenger cars to replace the imported GAZ Pobedas (GAZ M20) as party transport. Official development of the eventual replacement for the T87, the T603, was carried out under the supervision of Julius Mackerle, who had succeeded Ledwinka as chief designer. The body was of monocoque construction and power came from a lightweight, air-cooled 2.5-litre V8 engine. Early T603s had a central rear stabilising fin, although this was lost for production.
The first prototype T603s were running in 1955 but production did not commence until 1957 at an initial rate of two cars per day. The price of 98,000 Crowns was around three times that of a Škoda Octavia, and T603 production occupied far less factory space than lorry manufacture – in 1959, Tatra built 250 of the former and around 4000 of the latter. The T603 was facelifted in 1962 to become the T2-603, its distinctive three-headlamp styling (the central unit swivelled with the steering) being replaced by quad units beneath a cover. In 1968, the T2 gained a slightly more conventional headlamp layout and four-wheel disc brakes; it was unofficially known as the T3. Production continued in this form until 1975.
Our 1968 test car is the property of the noted marque expert Ian Tisdale, and manages to simultaneously look formidable, elegant and surreal in Oxfordshire surroundings. You sit commandingly high on the split-bench front seat and, if the dashboard might not look terribly inspiring, Tatra sales were restricted to party chiefs, diplomats and various foreign VIPs including Fidel Castro. Such passengers would almost inevitably be seated in the rear, enjoying the benefits of the petrol exchange heater and the generous headroom – the T603 was designed for tall passengers wearing impressive hats.
A T603 looks imposing to the novice Tatra motorist, but it was designed so that the hardpressed chauffeur could easily transport Politburo members in ease and comfort. The four-speed transmission is controlled by a steering- column lever but, in place of the stout control you might find on a Peugeot 404, there is a slim switch that might easily be the control for the indicator – and is almost as straightforward to operate. The servo-assisted brakes, as fitted to all post-1966 models, allow for an elegant halt, the better to gauge the startled reactions of the general public; we will overlook the passer-by who thought that it was a Saab.
From far left: featured T613-3 was supplied with a high-compression engine; functional centre console; Mercedes-like tail-lights. Above right: austere interior with simple plastic dash pod. Below: revised suspension offers a better ride than its predecessors.
The cabin is almost entirely lacking in gimmickry; those who believe that walnut picnic tables and extra chrome are the sine qua non of executive motoring will be disappointed in the Tatra. Even after a short drive, however, it makes you wonder about the definition of the term ‘luxury car’ as those that revel in uncompromising standards of engineering excellence. As government transport that might have to travel 60,000 miles per year, the Tatra was devised, and stringently tested, for a wide range of official duties, all of which it had to carry out with elegance and aplomb. The ride absorbs the worst pot-holes without the slightest qualm and pressing the accelerator results in a sound akin to a Saab 99 Turbo ready for take-off.
Some of the T603’s detailing – the strip speedometer and the starting-handle bracket for example – anchors the Tatra into the 1960s but its dynamic abilities surpass many models 20 years its junior. After T603 motoring, most other cars do feel like an anticlimax.
‘THE T603 MANAGES TO LOOK SIMULTANEOUSLY FORMIDABLE, ELEGANT AND SURREAL’
Work commenced on the T603’s successor in 1968, and the T613 entered production in 1974. The rear-engined layout was retained but the 3.5-litre powerplant was new, being fitted with four overhead camshafts, and the swing rear axles were replaced with semi-trailing arms. Weight distribution was improved by mounting the gearbox forward of the axle-line, and there was also radically new coachwork from a Western concern. The Vignale styling ensures that the T613 is clearly from a particular era, a quality that separates it from previous Tatras.
From top: the final incarnation of the T613 featured a lower ride height and wider track; extensively reworked cabin boasts more equipment plus walnut veneer; fuel injection was fitted to the T613-5’s quad-cam powerplant; five-spoke alloy wheels.
The T87 was launched at a time of cars with then-fashionable ‘aero’ styling but, as with the T603, its coachwork had been scientifically formulated. Both models created their own ethos, with their styling being a mere function of their engineering. In short, they looked like themselves and no other car. In contrast, the cuboid lines of the T613 belong emphatically to the late 1960s – Tatra meets Fiat 130.
‘THE T613’S CUBOID LINES BELONG TO THE 1960s – TATRA MEETS FIAT 130’
In 1985, the third-generation T613-3 lost its chrome fittings and production continued until 1996, with our two featured examples being aimed at very different markets. The black car was originally one of 500 T613-3s that were built for North Korea before the order was cancelled; its owner Peter Frost believes that it was originally destined for police work. Compared with the standard model, there is a high-compression engine, a lack of electric assistance for the windows and door locks, plus higher front seats. The overriding impression of this T613-3, however, is lent by its original intended customer. The T603 was already associated with the much-loathed Czech secret police, but in North Korea the sight of a black 613 owned by the Ministry of People’s Security would have been akin to seeing an unmarked Ford Falcon in Argentina during the 1970s.
Our final car is the T613-5, a model launched at the 1993 Frankfurt Motor Show and aimed at Western markets. By then, the fall of the Iron Curtain had meant the collapse of many of the firm’s traditional export territories – within three years, sales to the former Soviet Union had been reduced by nearly 90%. Western sales, which had previously been of marginal concern to Tatra, were one option, but its cars had never been created with such markets in mind.
Enter the British engineer and visionary Tim Bishop, who saw in the T613 the potential for a ‘five-seater Porsche 911’, but the challenges of selling the car in the UK remained formidable. The Tatra name meant little to your average Jaguar XJ owner, and large rear-engined saloons had last been seen way back in 1974 in the somewhat smaller form of the VW 411.
So, Tatra GB offered a T613-5 that would be handbuilt to the owner’s specification for a price in the region of £30,000. Bishop and his team had the suspension lowered in order to enhance the handling and update the car’s appearance, in addition to replacing the carburettor with electronically controlled multi-port fuel injection and fitting emission-control devices plus a five-speed transmission. There were also alloy wheels that are typical of the early 1990s plus a bodykit to enhance the T613-5’s appearance.
Four right-hand-drive prototypes were made and our featured car received a great deal of publicity, even appearing on Top Gear, but the British executive buyer was just not ready for a four-door rear-engined luxobarge, even if it did have a walnut-veneer dashboard. The T613-5 represents a fascinating reminder of both the conservatism of so much of that market sector and the awe-inspiring potential for individuality. With its unorthodox layout and uncompromisingly angular body, it deserves complete respect in an increasingly conformist world.
After the demise of the T613, Tatra car production continued with the facelifted T700 until 1998, 31 years after the death of Hans Ledwinka. Our spectacular quartet forms a fitting testament to his legacy. Some cars belong to a particular era and a few define one, but only a machine such as a T87 can transcend the years. My abiding memory of the day, however, is of our T603 surrounded by various seabirds against a background of sinister clouds reflected on the waters of the reservoir – an almost cinematic Cold War scenario, and truly fitting to the enigma that is a Tatra.
Thanks to Dr Jiri Pechan; Ian Tisdale; Peter Frost; Patrick Donlan; The Tatra Register UK: William Barnard and everyone at Farmoor Reservoir.
Behind the wheel
Tatras are naughty cars. They’ll beguile you with their styling, their other-worldly engineering and the firm’s underdog status in the face of political dogma.
Back yourself into a T87 to settle in the driver’s seat, and you’re faced with a baywindowed vista. From cold, Tatra engines will instantly burst into life, but when warm there’s a deal of cranking necessary – a feature of the marque. At idle, there’s a cammy mechanical insistence. You need to get some revs on to pull away – there’s an increasing liveliness the higher up the rev band you push. Its thrum is intoxicating and encourages you to drive a T87 hard, just as intended back in the 1930s.
Handling? There are few cars with such a killer reputation. But get all your braking done in a straight line, don’t lift off in corners, and the benign body-roll combines with subtle feedback through the sprung wheel.
A T603 has more power. Instead of individual chairs you’re perched on a vast horsehair bench. The four-on-the-column wand, directing gears almost three metres behind you, is not precise. Also, each T603 seems to require different inputs of push, pull and wiggle to engage ratios. The swing-axle suspension feels supple on coil springs instead of a T87’s leaves. Driven fast, a 603 is more difficult to upset – and on radial tyres you’ll hear an audible protest prior to any rear-end breakaway. But break away it will.
A 613-3 feels like a quantum leap. Fully articulated suspension suppresses the road surface. Quadruple overhead camshafts in the 3495cc motor give adequate power, and hustling a 613 is fun. Until, that is, the longtravel bump and rebound coupled with tall 80-profile tyres fool you into a tank-slapper.
The final 613-5 is almost a regressive step: it feels more homemade and a development too far. Yes, the handling is better – the lower ride height and wider track see to that – but the fuel-injected engine’s ‘driver learning’ mode can be easily upset – giving gaps in the power-band – and reliability suffers.
Everyone should drive a Tatra, though. They’re flawed dynamically, and all the more enticing because of that. Dave Richards. Each generation of Tatra has its own distinct driving characteristics.
|Car||Tatra T87||Tatra T3-603||Tatra 613-3||Tatra 613-5|
alloy block and heads, iron barrels, air-cooled, sohc-per-bank 2969cc V8
|2545cc V8||dohc-per-bank 3495cc V8||fuel injection|
|Max power||74bhp @ 3500rpm||100bhp @ 4800rpm||165bhp @ 5200rpm||200bhp @ 5750rpm|
|Max torque||78lb ft @ 2200rpm||125lb ft @ 3500rpm||195lb ft @ 2500rpm||300lb ft @ 4000rpm|
|Transmission||four-speed manual||five-speed manual|
independent, at front by torsion lever and double wishbones rear coil springs, swing axles, hydraulic dampers
|independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear swing axles, coil springs||independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coil springs|
|Steering||rack and pinion||power-assisted rack and pinion|
|Brakes||drums all round||discs all round, with servo|
|Length||15ft 8 ½ in (4470mm)||16ft 7in (5065mm)||16ft 5in (5000mm)||16ft 9in (5130mm)|
|Width||5ft 5 ½ in (1676mm)||6ft 3in (1910mm)||5ft 11in (1800mm)|
|Height||4ft 11in (1498mm)||5ft 1in (1530mm)||4ft 9in (1440mm)||4ft 11in (1505mm)|
|Wheelbase||9ft 4in (2844mm)||9ft 1in (2750mm)||9ft 10in (2990mm)|
|Weight||3020lb (1370kg)||3329lb (1510kg)||3527lb (1600kg)||3990lb (1810kg)|
|0-62mph||18 secs||16 secs||11 secs||7.5 secs|
|Price new||25,000 SFr||98,000 CSK||88,000 CSK||£30,000|
|Value now|| |