Tatras are some of my absolute favorite cars. Tatra tended to make high-end, large(ish), four-door, V8, rear engine cars, and as such they’re one of the few examples of the 30s-era streamlined, rear engine concept applied to something other than a small economy car. I never realized that Tatra was experimenting with tiny economy cars, as late as the 1950s.

While Tatra did make small, affordable cars in their past, and even did experiment and develop prototypes of small rear-engined volume cars, they got a lot of discouragement during WWII when cars like the Tatra T97 were thought to be just a little too close to the German KdF-Wagen (later the VW Beetle) for the comfort of people like Adolf Hitler, who, um, persuaded the Czech company to stop work on their smaller people’s cars.

Advertisement

After the war, when Czechoslovakia found themselves under the influence and aegis of the Soviet Union, the Communist planned economy tasked Tatra with producing trucks and, grudgingly, low-volume, high-end cars and limos for the ruling class, mostly. Small, cheap cars were to be left to companies like Skoda. That’s the main reason why I’m so surprised to see this prototype of the Tatra 604 from 1954.

If Tatra was diligent about naming things consecutively, we can assume that the 604 was the next project after the T603, the successor to the legedary T87. The 603 was a large, air-cooled V8-powered luxury car, and mostly used by senior political and industrial executives.

I’m not sure why Tatra decided to work on a small economy car right after the 603 — the first T603 was ready in 1955 (actually produced by 1956) and the T604 prototype is from 1956. The T603 started development in secret, so maybe the small-car project was done the same way — something the designers and engineers wanted a crack at, Five-Year plan be damned.

The T604 was still very much in the Tatra tradition in everything but scale. Like Tatra’s other rear-engeined ‘low-end’ cars, the T600 and Tatraplan, the T604 used a flat-four, air cooled engine, but this one was about half the size of its ancestors, at 750cc. Making about 22HP, the T603 would have been a good competitor to a car like the Fiat 600.

Advertisement

The one prototype actually built has a sort of shrunken, dumpy three-box design, though sketches show at least two more attractive versions: one more in keeping with ‘50s European car design, and a crisper-edged version that feels a bit more forward-looking.

It almost feels British — a bit like the Austin A40 Farina and even looking ahead a bit to the Mini, even if the layout was totally backwards in comparison.

The sharper-edged drawings are badged LIDO on the hood, which may reference another Czech small car from 1946, the Lidovka, though I’m not certain.

The T604 seems like it would have been a successful car for the time and place, had Tatra ever had a chance to produce it. In fact, the niche for that sort of car — small, cheap, rugged, useful — was soon filled by the Soviet/Ukranian factory ZAZ, who designed the Zaporozets 965 in 1958 and started production in 1960.

The Zaporozets is quite close to the Tatra T604 in many ways, which could be because both cars cribbed (possibly in Tatra’s case, definitely for the ZAZ) from a common source, the Fiat 600. The Byzantine politics of the Soviet Bloc likely would have prevented Tatra from making a competing small car ever, so the T604 remains a tantalizing vision of what could have been.

Advertisement

Skodas were sold to the West in some quantity, though Tatras weren’t. Would a more affordable, accessible Tatra have changed this?

I have no idea. But I know I really like those sketches of a little rear-engined car that never quite got a chance to be.


Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.

Click here to view this kinja-labs.com embed.