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.
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.
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.
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.