Bohemian Rhapsody

Like the 1975 Queen single, the Tatra 613 was big, bold and went on for a bit. But was it a stylistic pathfinder, or simply the end of a noble line? We investigate.

Tatra 613. Image: motor1

Kopřivnice is a medium sized town in the Moravian-Silesian region of Czechia and has been home for many years to the predominantly commercial vehicle maker, Tatra. Amongst the earliest auto manufacturers, the company was formed in 1850, but became a carmaker under the name of Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft in 1897, adopting the Tatra nameplate in 1919.

We tend to associate Tatra with the distinctive and technically noteworthy streamlined luxury saloons from the the immediate pre-and post-war period, but arguably the most long-lived Tatra motor car would also be its last; the company, now partly US-owned, being solely in the business of commercial and military vehicles.

The Tatra T603 was introduced in 1956, having been partially developed in secret, owing to COMECON politics. It cleaved to a large extent to the pre-war template, being developed primarily for local conditions, but unlike its four-cylinder T600 Tatraplan predecessor, the T603 employed a lightweight 2.5 litre hemi-head V8 cantilevered aft of its swing-axle rear suspension.

Tatra T603 X-5 (c) hemmings

During the early 1960s, Tatra designers began work on a more up to date version of the 603, evaluating a large number of alternative designs, culminating with the 1963 603 X-5, a sleek looking fastback tailed saloon, with a large wrap-around rear screen. This attractive design is believed to have been developed in-house at the Bratislava carmaking facility to fully engineered prototype form, but was rejected by management as not meeting their requirements, being smaller overall than the existing car.

As befitting a car for senior members of the the ruling party, it was deemed necessary for any 603 successor to not only major on passenger accommodation, but for it to display a more contemporary Eurocentric style. So while the basic proportions of the 603 would be maintained, the 613 would dispense with all vestiges of the earlier cars’ streamlined appearance.

Further developments lay with the technical specification. Its air-cooled 3.5 litre four-cam V8 engine, developing 165 bhp, was mated to a four-speed manual transmission, the powertrain mounted over the rear axle line within the all-steel unitary shell in a unique semi-midship arrangement. Suspension was by front struts and semi-trailing arms at the rear. Brakes were discs all round.

Tatra eschewed their in-house design team for the 613, commissioning carrozzeria Vignale instead. Vignale’s design was modernist and linear, with clean, defined lines, a long (if bluff) four-headlamp nose, a tall, glassy canopy and a short tail. The rear styling, with its D-pillar buttresses which flowed to the rear decklid were reminiscent to that of the 1969 Ford Capri, although given the timelines, any resemblance would have to be entirely coincidental. Series production of the 613 (there is some discrepancy on dates) is believed to have began around 1973.

Two years later, Renault debuted the R30 saloon as its flagship model. The first six-cylinder saloon from Billancourt in a generation, the R30 was styled in-house, under the supervision of Gaston Juchet, also responsible for the epochal R16 of 1965, and while it’s clear that Renault’s designers were drawing from their own stillborn R40 flagship, what they produced was a large modernist hatchback with clean defined lines, a long (if bluff) four-headlamp nose, a tall, glassy canopy and a short tail. Even the latter treatment bore a strong similarity, despite their diametrically opposed engine layouts and the Renault’s rear hatch.

Even to the untrained eye, the similarities between Vignale’s design and that of the Renault are undeniable, but can they be entirely coincidental?While on the subject, the 1976 Audi 100 C2, especially in liftback Avant form, again bore slight resemblance to the Vignale design, especially around the mid and tail section. More tenuous still, but perhaps in overall theme and especially around the daylight openings and rear lamp treatment was Talbot’s 1980 Tagora.

(c) motorstown

Regardless of similarities, rear or imagined, the 613 proved long-lived. Produced in its original form for a decade, before receiving a facelift in 1985, again in 1991 and for the third time in 1995. Other even lower-volume variations were also built (ambulance/ long-wheelbase/ limousine/ state cabriolet). There was even a version used by the state airline (CSA), employing a centrally mounted aircraft wheel which could be deployed to ascertain runway grip levels during adverse weather conditions.

In 1996, Tatra introduced the T700, a fully reskinned version of the 613 bodyshell, powered ultimately by a 4.4 litre version of the four-cam air-cooled V8. Built in tiny numbers, the car was withdrawn from sale a mere three years later, a victim of its age, its many makeovers and the fact that Czechoslovakia had in 1993 become the Czech Republic, completely independent of Russian control. Naturally, Tatra’s primary customer base wasn’t keen to be seen in a car so redolent of Communist rule. There were after all, plenty of more up to date choices for indulgent, upmarket motoring available from elsewhere in Europe by then.

A final observation. The Tatra 603 had another equivalent, somewhat closer to these Western European Isles. In 1976 Bristol Cars introduced the 603 model. Bristol, like Tatra was better known for its earlier more streamlined cars, and like the Czech carmaker, had a background in Aviation. Like the Tatra 613, the Bristol was notable for breaking away from this more curvaceous style to a more modernist, more lineal formality.

Also inordinately long-lived, the 603 gave way to a whole series of related models, basically facelifted versions, culminating in the last of line Blenheim (603 S4) of 1994. And just as with the Czech design, the Blenheim would mark Bristol’s swansong (notwithstanding various attempts at reanimation). There has latterly been whisperings of Tatra being revived, but it too is probably best left at peace. I think on balance we’ve heard enough.


Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

43 thoughts on “Bohemian Rhapsody”

  1. Good morning Eóin. The T603 X-5 really was rather lovely, and a huge missed opportunity. Like the Citröen DS, it must have appeared very futuristic looking in 1963:

    The Tatra 700 and Bristol Blenheim shared another unfortunate characteristic, small quad headlamps that gave both a rather piggy-eyed look:

    1. I cannot find anything to dislike about the T603 X-5 – very pleasing to the eye. I note that we’re looking at two different cars here and I prefer the framing of the glass on the sides of the first car to that of the second – the door handles, too. Did the snout inspire Ogle for the Reliant Scimitar, do you think?

    2. The second car seems to have a transparent underbody when you look at the lit area underneath it in the picture.

    3. Hi JTC. The first car, the DLO of which I also prefer, looks more feasible for production with solid B and C-pillars and framed door glasses.

      There are certainly similarities to the front end of the Ogle Scimitar, and even moreso to this prototype’s front end which, sadly, did not make production:

      The production front end was, IMHO, considerably less attractive. I’m sure it will not be difficult for DTW’s knowledgeable commentariat to identify the car in question!

    4. Hi Dave. Well spotted. I also think I see a leg supporting what must only have been a mock-up of the design. Here’s a couple of colour photos of a running prototype:

    5. Daniel

      Think the image of the prototype was from the Austin Allegro, not the Reliant Scimitar.

    6. Hi Bob. Yes, that’s the right answer!

      (Perhaps I should have been clearer in the way I posed the question.. 🤔)

    7. The Bristol Blenheim is another that could have done with more improvement, though had some potential.

      Speaking of Bristol Cars. It is mentioned in Christopher Balfour’s book the company could have become much bigger than did via a 1946 report by Sir George White as to whether the company should build 500 cars or 5k cars yearly as well as other changes in circumstances for the better, additionally featuring a proposal which was supported by one H.J Aldington to develop a 3-litre six-cylinder based on the pre-war 3.5-litre BMW M335 engine for a 3-litre version of the then upcoming Bristol 401 intended to put out 100 hp with more potent versions envisioned putting out around 140-160 hp.

      They could have also potentially built their own engines instead of using Chrysler V8s had the company been able to bring forward the 3.6-3.65-ish litre six-cylinder twin-Cam Bristol Type 160 into production, with Jaguar’s XK6 engine used a benchmark during the project.

      Not to mention replaced the pre-war BMW-derived Bristols with something comparatively more modern by way of the Bristol Type 220/240 prototype, which was intended to utilize Alex Moulton’s flexitor suspension as well as the 2-seater Bristol Type 225 prototypes in the late-50s to early-60s.

  2. I hadn’t seen the T603 X-5 before, and it is so much nicer than their other post-war V8 models.

    1. I completely missed the supporting leg and the underbody shadows on the mock-up; one detail that is sadly missing from the running prototype is the wing-top flashing indicator. Much nicer than the parts-bin item fitted instead. Much too expensive to produce, though. Thank you, Eóin and Daniel, for digging this one out.

    2. Thanks, JTC, but I can take no credit for unearthing the T603 X-5, the existence of which I was unaware until today. It’s all down to Eóin’s diligent research.

  3. In terms of corporate destiny, there’s another British parallel to Tatra in Alvis, which successfully concentrated its efforts on fighting and exploration vehicles and retained its own name until 2004 when it became part of BAE Systems Land & Armaments division.

    Alvis’s post-war car production war was 6938, nearly half of these the 1946-50 four cylinder TA14. By the mid-sixties it was down to about 100 cars per year. Bristol’s car output seems to be a closely guarded secret, thought to be around 2100-2200 in total.

    1. Are you referring to all Bristols or a specific model? I did not think it was that low but then again, the figure of 100 cars a year makes it a plausible ball park. I know they wanted to be exclusive but isn´t 100 cars a year about one tenth of what would be desirable and still exclusive.

    2. Having taken a bit of time to check facts – in this case they don’t get in the way of a good story – I have some more solid numbers for Bristol production.

      Bristol 400-411 numbers (1947-1976) total 2556. From the 412 and 603 production figures were ‘not declared’.

      287 411s were made from 1969 to 1976, or about one a week. Tony Crook’s comment that “I will never make more than 150 in one year”, was fanciful if we are being kind.

      The number given for Fighters is “9-14”, which suggests either evasiveness or very slack inventory checking.

      In their last five years of car production,up to 1967, Alvis were making around 100 Three Litres per year.

    3. The TA 14 was quite a come-down from its pre-war range, presumably to get anything up and running ASAP.
      The TC 21/100, later as the Grey Lady, were more in keeping with its heritage.
      The later Graber-styled cars were not much faster.

    4. Speaking of Alvis reminds me that while the company no longer produces cars, new Alvis cars can still be had from the company originally set up to handle parts sales. A choice of pre or post war models is available and while the older ones are “continuations” made from scratch to the original spec, the newer incorporate original engines (albeit treated to modern fuel injection and management systems) and other parts that have been in storage from the 1960s. Production is however at a level more consistent with Bristol in their later years.

    5. Does anymore information exist on the Alvis TA30 project that was to feature a 220 hp 3.5-litre Alvis 6-cylinder OHC engine?

  4. A pretty good summary of Tatra’s T603 and T613 – most attempts tend to pick up on widely published myth and inaccuracy – and I’m grateful for your name checking our website as a source. I guess that ‘Moravian Rhapsody’ wouldn’t have worked as well, for a title, but despite having had a Prague office and an associated Tatra CKD tram factory in the capital (as well as a design centre in Bratislava, Slovakia) this isn’t a Bohemian company. Just for absolute accuracy “the T603 employed a lightweight 2.5 litre hemi-head V8 mounted over its swing-axle rear suspension” isn’t correct. Its engine is cantilevered behind the transaxle, like most rear-engined cars …it’s the later T613 that has its engine between the rear wheels, still not actually unique since the Stout Scarab preceded it with this arrangement pre-WW2. A lot of Tatra folk refer to it as ‘semi-mid-engined’, but it’s actually less mid-engined than that front-engined Bristol. There were just two running 603 X-5s produced, a saloon and an estate car-shaped ambulance, and both survive in the excellent company museum in Kopřivnice where Daniel’s colour shots have been taken. If anyone’s interested in a less well documented and earlier Tatra, my cover feature on my own T97 was published in The Automobile, May, 2018. The next issue of the magazine, out in a couple of weeks, carries a major feature of mine on the Mercedes-Benz ‘Heckmotoren’ of the ‘thirties, as a further rear-engine avenue. I submitted my last sub-edits this morning.

    1. Hello Ian and thanks for your comment. I had intended to fine-tune the piece before it went live, however, owing to personal circumstances quite beyond my control, I was unable to. Therefore I had intended to revisit the legitimacy of a number of things including the location of 603’s engine, so thanks for the clarification.

      I did check whether Bohemia was an appropriate connection, and while technically not, it allegedly was in pervious times, I believe, which I felt gave me licence. Titles are hard to come by sometimes (that one might not have lasted the final draft, but will have to stay now).

      I’m sure your piece on the T97 will be most interesting. I will look out for it.

  5. The fake front grille of the later Tatra 613 Special was a improvement and should have appeared earlier on, along with being carried over to the later Tatra 700.

    The Tatra T603 X-5 prototypes does look like it would have had the longevity to remain in production like the 613/700 in a similar manner to the Porsche 911, though could have done with a bit more work.

    1. Fake grilles are a horrid affectation on anything, and I much prefer the honest absence of artifice on the two 613s I’ve had. Tesla is wise to avoid them on its electric cars.

    2. Hi Bob. Yes, the T603 X-5, in an alternate reality, would have made a very nice Porsche Panamera.

    3. It is admittingly a subjective matter. Quite a large number of rear-engined cars do not need fake grilles, others look all the better for it (Skoda Estelle / Rapid, Suzuki Whizzkid, etc), a few are badly executed such as the water-cooled Brazilian VW Type 2 while a number such as the Fiat 126 and Fiat 133 simply look like they were signed off for production before they left the styling department.

    4. Yes, fake grilles are a subjective issue …but the Skoda Estelle, Simca’s lovely 1200S Coupé, Renault’s 5 Turbo and numerous other rear and mid-engined cars have front-mounted radiators. My Tatra T613-4 Mi Long M95 has a understated grille under the bumper for its air-con evaporator, but certainly doesn’t need any black ribbing above it.

  6. Here’s a great photo of the T603 X-5 engine installation. The novel shape of the lid means that access is much better than is usually the case with rear engined cars (as anyone who has ever skinned their knuckles removing spark plugs from a VW Beetle can attest!)

    1. “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” -T.S. Eliot

  7. The original T613 as designed by Vignale had a nice ‘fastback’ rear roof. Unfortunately, the rear headroom was found wanting and was raised for the production model

    This is 0-00-29, the second italian prototype

  8. I’ve always wondered, what really were the propositions for a private individual behind the iron curtain to buy a Tatra during the cold war? Say a person with some money stashed, that for some reason wanted a Tatra, and had the means to buy it, but weren’t part of the apparatchik?

    1. Ingvar, in practice, the Cold War Tatra cars weren’t sold to private buyers, but allocated to establishment departments and to other Communist-bloc countries, despite prices being published and the cars being kept compliant with Western type approval standards. The late Fidel Castro is reported as having had the only T603 fitted with air-conditioning, a white car. One exception that I have encountered is a fairly early T603 owned by Danny Barnett in Las Vegas that I understand was part of a small fleet, bought new for some sort of limo hire initiative. I suspect that the proprietor must have had some influential contacts in Czechoslovakia. Redundant used Tatras were often sold on to the taxi trade and often prized by gypsies, but after the 1989 Velvet Revolution they were symbolic of authoritarian times and not much valued by anyone, particularly as their petrol consumption was significantly more than the ubiquitous Škodas. I could have bought a complete T87 for no more than £2,000 in 1992, and we picked up a three-year-old T613 for £3,000 GBP, unaware that a fleet of new ones was standing behind the Přibor factory, a cancelled order from North Korea that could be had for $6,000 US apiece. After the revolution, the company upgraded the T613 for a Western audience, the development work done by my friend Tim Bishop, half an hour away from my home, and with styling tweeks by ex-Saab Geoff Wardle, but was not prepared to support a serious sales effort. The cars were BMW 7-series priced and there was no dealer network. We bought our T613 Mi Long M95, one of the last fifteen 613s, in Germany at two years old for £6,000 GBP and had a 4.4 Litre engine built by the Bordovsky brothers at Tatra Servis for another £5,000GBP …eight Porsche 911 piston/cylinder/con-rod sets and a bespoke forged crank. I’ve written many magazine articles about all this over the years.

    2. Thanks. They were exported at least in the fifties, there were a number of Tatraplans in Sweden. And I have seen some 603:s, not only ex-embassy cars and not only recent imports that made me believe at least the 603 was exported to the west in the fifties/early sixties to get some hard currency in the east. But I haven’t seen anything newer than those.

  9. Maybe it’s 21st century thinking , but it’s surprising that Fidel was the only Tatra user to have air-con. Used to Batista-era American cars, I suppose.

    Even the Baltic Comecon nations can get pretty warm in summer. At least the other extreme was covered, with imported Eberspächer petrol-fuelled heaters.

  10. He wasn’t the only one. At least one of the italian prototypes of the T613 had Air-conditioning. An automatic transaxle based on the Borg Warner type 35 was also tried at the time. If I recall correctly, power assisted steering was tried as well
    Later on, the T613 Spezial was produced with both Air-conditioning and power steering but the automatic transaxle, upgraded to type 65 spec, was installed only on the parade cabriolets built for the military.

    1. I was specifically talking T603, not Tatraplan that was widely exported, or T613 that, yes, included air-conditioned versions. The GM auto boxes fitted to about five parade cars were not rolled out, as they were a US product and required hard currency to acquire. The power steering fitted to the LWB T613 Specials was the ZF rack derived from the NSU Ro80, while the last cars had a modified Opel Vectra power rack. mounted under the car, rather than behind the dash inside the car as originally specified.

  11. Thanks for a very interesting article and knowledgeable comments about Tatra.
    To Ingvar:
    A number of Tatras may have been sold in the 60s in Sweden. In 1967, however, the brand lacked a Swedish general agent, according to the annual compilation “Stora Bilsalongen 1967”, published by the Swedish car magazine Teknikens Värld. However, there is some information about Tatra 2-603. The price in what was then Czechoslovakia corresponds to about 17,000 Swedish kronor, according to the magazine. Two other cars on the Swedish market in 1967 can give an idea of the price: Skoda 1000 MB cost SEK 10,350 and the new Volvo 144 with manual transmission cost SEK 19,400.
    The sale of Tatra in Sweden was probably not a success, as the 1968 edition of “Stora Bilsalongen” states that Tatra 2-603 is no longer marketed in Sweden.

  12. Many thanks Eóin for a fine article. Also to Ian for some useful snippets. I really must get the finger out and finish my Special…

  13. Ah, the 613. I’ve always found its design extremely charming, at least in the first version, along with two others: T613-2 and T613-S (Special). My only misgivings with it were the extremely thin A- and B-pillars, along with the trailing edges of the rear passenger doors. I also believe its layout would lend itself very well to a fully electric large family car that would not be a crossover or a vulgar SUV.

    1. Hi Konstantinos. Any EV that isn’t another bl**dy crossover would be very welcome indeed! Those unnervingly (or delightfully!) thin pillars are, I suppose, a function of the age of the design. Is it beyond the ability of current materials and design technology to incorporate the expected levels of crash safety into slimmer pillars than are now the norm, or is a question of cost that forces them to be so obstructive?

    2. These days, cars are crash-tested at speeds far higher than was the case thirty or forty years ago. The bulkheads, pillars, sills, and passenger space crossmembers need to be as rigid as humanly possible, without resorting to cast steel (which is very rigid, but has no elasticity to speak of). So, thickness is required. Also, we need room for airbags destined to protect the passengers’ heads in side impacts. So, even if manufacturers used the most advanced alloys out there, there’s only so much thickness they’d be able to shave off. Still, I believe a modern reincarnation of the Tatra T613 could be at least a bit like a Tesla Model S in its mechanical layout, and the general body shape we know could be transposed on it.

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