Cars You Didn’t Know You Want: Tatra 603

If you were a high-ranking Czechoslovakian party official or an industrialist during the communist era, chances are, that between the years 1956-74, you were ferried around in a Tatra 603.

A rear-engined, rear-wheel drive large sedan, the Tatra 603 was reserved exclusively for those senior political figures and heads of industry. And it has an interesting story.

Czechoslovakia was under socialist rule from 1948, and as such was regulated by the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) which consisted of eastern European socialist nations.

In 1952, COMECON handed down the edict that Tatra, a company that had been building cars since 1897, should focus only on making trucks. Luxury cars, COMECON decreed, could only come from the Soviet Union. Mutual economic assistance and all that.

But, car designers and engineers being what they are, ignored COMECON’s edict and began working on a successor to the Tatra 600 in 1952. The team, led by František Kardaus and Vladimír Popelář worked on the design – dubbed the Valuta – in secret.

It wasn’t long, however, before their secret project was given legitimacy when the Czech government, frustrated by not only delays in getting deliveries of luxury cars from the Soviet Union, but also by the crappy quality of those Soviet-built cars, ordered Tatra to start working on designs for a new luxury car.

With the Valuta project already well advanced in development, Tatra’s team of engineers had an almost ready-made solution.

The initial design brief called for a car with 3.5-litre V8 engine, but with the deadline for completion less than two years away, developing an all-new engine simply wasn’t feasible.

In its place, Tatra suggested a temporary solution of using the already developed 2.5-litre V8, with the caveat the larger 3,5-litre engine would be ready within the next five years.

The government agreed, and by 1955 the first Tatra T603 was ready for testing. Several body designs were considered but ultimately it was the streamlined shape of the design proposed by Kardaus and Popelář that prevailed.

Production of the T603 began in 1956 and would last until 1975 and three model updates.

All were powered by Tatra’s rear-mounted 2.5-litre air-cooled V8 hemi, making a decent 74kW at 4800rpm and 162Nm at 3000rpm. Thanks to its relatively light weight (180kg), Tatra’s engineers were able to achieve a nicely-balanced 47:53 front-to-rear weight distribution. Top speed was a claimed 170km/h.

Just one transmission was offered, a synchronised four-speed manual although for those officials living in the higher reaches of Czechoslovakia, the T603 could be ordered with ‘mountain’ gearing in place of the standard ratios.

The first T603 model was distinguished by three headlamps housed behind a glass cover. Luggage could be carried under the bonnet which also housed the spare wheel while a large storage area behind the rear seats added some cargo carrying capacity.

The T603 had seating for six and the front seats could be folded flat to make a large bed. Ingenious.

The first T603 remained in production until 1962, replaced by the 2-603. The glass enclosed triple headlights of the original T603 made way for a four headlamp arrangement, now housed inside an oval grille. Inside, the dashboard was upgraded while the rear track was widened by 55mm. Power-assisted brakes were added in 1966.

The final 603 made its debut in 1968 and remained in production until the model’s end in 1975. It gained disk brakes all ’round and became a five-seater, with the advent of mandatory seatbelts for all passengers in 1968.

It’s believed some 20,455 T603s were manufactured during the model’s 20-year production run. However, clouding that figure is Tatra’s unusual production method for model upgrades.

Those exalted government officials and heads of industry would regularly return their older model T603s to the Tatra factory in exchange for new models. However, Tatra would then disassemble those older cars before rebuilding them with the updated styling and the handing them over as ‘new’ T603s. Thrifty.

As a consequence, most surviving examples of the T603s are of the last ‘3’ generation, even if they rolled off the production line in 1956 as the original model. Cheeky.

Today, the Tatra 603 is a sought-after collectable car. A well-maintained 1974 model year T603 (or is it, hmmm?) is for sale at around AUD$85,000 while a recently restored 1974 model year (again, is it really?) is priced at around AUD$66,000.

Prices have started climbing in recent years. In 2012, local auction specialist, Shannons, sold a pristine 1974 (?!) model for a measly $10,000. That has blown out to $85,000 in 2021 going by a current listing on one popular Australian online classified site.

Those old Czech socialists who once rode around in comfort and style, would be turning in their graves at the forces of capitalism driving prices of their ever higher.

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