I’m not ashamed to admit that one of the key criteria that determines how excited I become about any particular car is the quality of strangeness. I can’t help it; there’s just something about that quality of otherness or whatever that just grabs me. The Tatra 603 is a car absolutely saturated in whatever that quality is, and, as a result, I love it.
The Tatra 603 was the first real post-World War II passenger car design from the very old Czech carmaker, and continues the evolution of Tatra’s rear-engine, air-cooled engineering lineage that was probably best known in the striking Tatra T87.
If you have 12 minutes to kill and want to learn a lot about the 603, I suggest learning Czech and watching this unhinged promotional film about the car from Tatra:
I love how they make fishtailing-oversteer into a positive trait to show off on film.
The 603 was built from 1956 to 1975, and it’s very clearly a design of the 1950s, with bulbous, whale-like lines that were clearly influenced by American car design of the era. But it’s like a strange, alternate-universe version of American car design, with radically different engineering that solves the same basic problems with completely opposite solutions.
This was a car from the communist era, where everyone was supposed to be equal. But there were those who were more equal than others, and they got these cars. These were the massive, comfortable land-yachts of the Eastern Bloc, a far cry from the austere little Trabants and Zaporozetses and Skodas the less-equal equals had to putter around in.
As you can imagine, the Tatra 603 is full of great details and stories and quirks, so grab your copy of Das Kapital and hold on to learn five juicy things about the Tatra 603!
1. It had to be designed in secret
Because of the way the Soviet Bloc’s planned economic system worked, carmakers were assigned roles by the central government, and they built what they were told to build, whether they liked it or not. In Czechoslovakia, Tatra was assigned to build trucks, and Skoda was tasked with building passenger cars, and that was that.
In reality, though, that was not that. While Tatra was an extremely competent truck maker (they still do that today!) there were still plenty of engineers who wanted to continue development of their very radical and advanced rear-engine car designs.
So they did! In secret, they began to evolve the now quite dated 1930s Tatra T87 design into a more modern, full-width body shape (early prototypes retained the T87s distinctive dorsal fin), and developed further the T87's air-cooled hemi-head V8 engine, using it in military trucks so they could prove the engine without revealing their secret project.
While Tatra’s engineers were developing their new car clandestinely, Czech party bigwigs were getting their limos from the Soviet Union, and found the big ZIL limos to be, well, much crappier than the old Tatras they were used to.
So, finally, Tatra was given the okay to build cars again, if only to free the big shots from the shittiness of the Soviet limos. Tatra managed to produce their new big, comfortable car in a surprisingly short amount of time because, shhh, they’d been working on it all along.
2. I think it’s the biggest rear-engined four-door sedan ever
I’ll be honest here, I’m not 100 percent positive this is true, but I think it is: the Tatra 603 is the largest rear-engined four-door sedan ever built in any real quantity.
There’s been plenty of rear-engined cars over the years, but, generally, they tend to be smaller. There’s been many four-door rear-engined sedans as well, like the Renault 4CV and Dauphine, or many Simcas, or the Skoda 1000MB, or the Volkswagen Type 4. But none of those were really all that big.
Oh, and I don’t count the Dymaxion car. Because, come on.
The Tatra 603, though, is big. It’s not massive, like a ‘50s Cadillac, but it’s not small, either, and is easily about the size of many full-size cars of the 1950s. I bet if I qualify this a bit further as it’s the biggest four-door sedan with an air-cooled V8 mounted at the rear, it’ll definitely be true.
Unless Tatra’s later 613 or 700 was bigger? No, I don’t think it was.
3. It had a bomb under the front seat, sorta
Okay, this is a little bit unfair, since I’m talking about a gas-fired heater, but when you think about this thing too much, it becomes sort of alarming.
Sure, Tatra wasn’t the only company to use gasoline-fired car heaters—VW used them for years in the Type 2 buses and the Type 4—but they never put them right under your ass.
I mean, it’s a canister full of gasoline with an open flame that you’re sitting on. It sure looks and seems like a bomb, of sorts. And while it was certainly not designed to explode and as far as I know did its job of making hot air just fine, even the person who owns this (and many other) Tatra has disconnected it, because they just don’t like the idea of sitting on that thing.
4. There’s a great drop-down bin in the front trunk for the spare tire
While the 603 was by no means the only car to have this (the Dauphine comes to mind) it’s still one of those hardly-ever-seen-anymore car features that deserves to be mentioned whenever it’s encountered, because it’s just such a good idea.
Modern tire technology has made blowouts relatively rare, but think about how glad you’d have been to have this if you got a blowout in your 603 back in the day, on a long road trip with a full trunk.
Changing a tire on the side of the road is already a pain in the ass—this simple little innovation made it so much easier.
5. The Tatra factory would take back and re-manufacture older Tatra 603s
There were three distinct generations of the 603 in its long life, and older versions are very hard to find, mostly because many of the original ones were taken back to the factory and rebuilt into later ones.
This was actually Tatra’s official policy, where they suggested that the car be returned to the factory every seven years for a complete refresh. At a cost, of course.
The first generation had a novel three-headlight setup in the front, with all the lamps under glass, and the center light having some limited steering capability. Then came a close-set quad headlight design, and finally the wide-set quad-lamp front end.
This makes telling the actual year of 603s very tricky, and also makes early three-headlight survivors very valuable.