BobAsh Road Tests the 1965 Tatra 603S

Apparently, it wasn't enough for our Coronet 440-drivin' Czech friend BobAsh to tip us off about some vintage Tatra hoonage or help us out with a Czech Project Car Hell. Now he's gone and found a beautifully restored, Communist-bureaucrat-spec '65 Tatra 603 sedan, shot a ton of quality photographs, and then road-tested it for us. Make the jump to get the whole story in BobAsh's own words.


Well, I have to say that it was kind of extraordinary afternoon. A week after picking up my new '68 Coronet in the port of Bremerhaven, Germany, I finally got to the old part of airport, where I have the car stored, to fix a few things up and see how it drives. That alone, coupled with the fact that the beast drove much better than I expected from such a piece of junk, would be enough to make it one of the better days in my life. But there was more to come.
As if the first-drive-ever in my Mopar wasn't enough, I ran into a friend in a bar the night before. Nothing unusual, I have some friends and live in a small city with only a few bars. But, unfortunately, not all of my friends have such a great taste in automobiles and even less of them have means to transform it into reality. But Marek is one of them and he and his father have a really nice collection of old European cars. Including a beautifully restored Tatra 603. So, with the latest Tatra-craze on Jalopnik in mind, I saw an opportunity and asked him to come see me and my new toy on the airport next day. And as you see from pictures, he agreed.
I think that for me, as a driver, it was even more interesting experience than a first drive in my Coronet. However it may seem strange, even though I am a Czech, I have driven a few Mopar B-bodies before, but to that day, I have never driven, nor sat in, a 603. I have driven one of the last 613s with 4.36 engine, but never tried anything older. So this was a big day for me, twice.
The car that was going to take me on my maiden voyage to the world of weird and eerie ass-engined limousines, was a 1965 Tatra 603, in typical commie big shot/secret police black paint job, but with the red interior and kind of hot-rod-esque red wheels. If there are some Tatra cognoscenti among you, you may point out that the car on the pictures does not look like a 603-2, which would be appropriate to the model year, but is more similar to the later 603-3. The reason is in the way they were maintained and rebuilt. Unlike the usual working-man's Skodas, constantly patched by their owners to keep them alive as long as possible, these big black beasts that served „the more equal ones" and their dogs were just sent to factory for an overhaul after some time. So when this car went through it's reincarnation in the beginning of the 70s, it became something more akin to then-modern 603-3 than the 603-2 that it was born as.
I'm not going to waste space by talking about outlandish appearance of this car - that's what pictures are for, and besides I can't quite grasp how strange this car must look for someone not used to seeing that (though rarely) for entire life. And parked besides the Coronet it even doesn't look as big as it does on average Czech street.
But we are here not just to stare at the peculiar shape of the car and discuss whether it looks more like a Tucker or a V8 VW. You can do that in museum. We are here to drive. First, Marek takes us for a quick ride around the place (a old, unused part of military airbase, with hangars turned into warehouses), and then I'll get a chance to drive it myself. When you get in, you feel much like in average American car of the era. High, upright bench seat for three in front (not many European cars seated six people), the overall style of the thing... even the V8 rumble resembles American cars, but with some influence of its air-cooled cousins from Wolfsburg and Stuttgart. But when it comes to driving experience, it's very different - and I think it's very different from anything but other Tatras. What strikes you first is how different the ways of technical development were. In US car of same era (I consider 603 a fifties car, even though it was produced also in next two decades) you get everything to make you more comfortable - power windows, power steering and several other toys, but it was common to have non-power brakes and hardly any car had more than three speed gearbox. But this thing is more like an oversized Porsche. The steering is manual and the wheel is a bit heavy, but thanks to light front it's not that big issue and it's weight and feel maybe even helps to protect you from the effect of oversteer. In fact, it didn't feel vicious at all, even when taking turns a bit harder (but I didn't have a chance to drive it on public road - and I was trying not to scare the owner) and for such an old car it handled really nicely. But the real surprise was braking. Granted, this car got power disc brakes in all four corners when it was overhauled, so I don't know how the original model behaved, but the experience of driving an old car with manual steering, but braking performance as good as average new car is still strange.
And when we're speaking about comparison with new car, this beast can surprise even with it's speed. One would say that 2.5 liter, 100hp V8 in such a big car would make for some lazy driving, but that's when you don't take weight and aerodynamics into consideration. Though 603 is roughly the size of an S-klasse Merc, it's only a bit heavier than current model VW Jetta. And when you add some slippery shape and four-speed manual, you'll get some pretty funny looks of drivers overtaken by this black whale, doing nearly 100mph. And, according to its master, this car is even quite good for (European) highway cruising and is able to do more than 110mph.
Only real downside is the gearbox with column mounted shifter. It's beautifully light and delicate, but it lacks accuracy and when you're not careful enough, you can easily break it. And as Marek says, adjusting the mechanism behind it is really a royal pain.
Which is where we come to the greatest nightmare of everyone who thinks about getting a Tatra. The maintenance. As I learned from Marek, my fears from unobtainium-made parts were unnecessary. He told me that you can still get just about everything for these cars, although it probably means knowing where to go and what to ask for. And being in Czech Republic and able to speak our language is certainly a bit of advantage...
Either way, this close encounter further cemented my decision that one day, I must get one of these fantastic creatures. The sound, the driving experience, the history of the car, all its charisma makes the urge to get one real, real hard. And the best of them all would be the orange, racing spec Marathon version. Or at least clone...
Hell, I think I should take a look at the one from the PCH a few weeks ago...


Many thanks, BobAsh! You can check out the complete collection of photos in his Picasa album, in case the gallery below isn't enough Tatra for you. And anyone willing to give him a deal on late-60s Chrysler B-body parts, let us know- they're a bit hard to come by in the Czech Republic!