The Special had many updates from the regular T613 that I will detail in a later section. The most visible differences are that the Special is 15 cm longer and has period Mercedes headlights. The most significant difference from the regular T613 and all production cars of the modern era is that the Special does not have a normal Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). It simply has a serial number equal to its production sequence. (My car is # 93.) From information I was able to obtain, I understand there were only about 100 or so Specials made over its production span.
(See the 1969 Vignale Coupe elsewhere on this website for the Vignale role in the styling of the base T613 line.)
Commensurate with their status, some Specials were also issued with non-civilian license plates – starting with the letters AA. These were essentially exempt from obeying traffic regulations – speed limits and right of way. But they still had to use their high beams and built-in siren while speeding through towns. Exceptions were Specials used to convey visiting foreign dignitaries – these were assigned civilian Prague license plates and had to obey traffic laws.
The best known and possibly one of only two Specials outside the former Czechoslovakia is owned by a Tatra enthusiast in the UK. He is a member of the best Tatra club in the English-speaking world – Tatra Register UK (of which I’m also a member). The club and other independent Tatra sources can be Googled.
His Special is affectionately known as “Vlad” – after the police officer who originally “privatized” the car in the 1990s and eventually sold it to me. The police officer and his contacts were some of my early information sources and we remain friends to this day. I commissioned someone in the Czech Republic to restore it, but not being there to supervise, it took longer and cost more than expected. I gave up and sold it to a collector in the UK without even seeing the results. The next owner eventually sold it to the current owner who is a Tatra expert and who corrected the work that was supposed to be done by my restorer. I’m glad to see that it is now in good hands and getting the accolades it deserves! (Photo while still in my ownership.)
The following presents an introduction to Tatra’s 613 “Speciál”. A unique model produced between 1980 and 1991 and based on the regular T613 line. It stands apart from the regular T613s as it is a very low production variant with a truly unusual history and purpose.
Exceptional Status of T613 Speciál
The T613 “Speciál” (Special) has political, production and deployment implications not shared by any other Tatra. Its historical significance is not yet recognized outside its home country - so there is considerable information to cover. At this point, the Special is even less known and appreciated by Western collectors than the T603 was 10 years ago and the T87 was 20 years ago. Aside from its technical eccentricities of being the world’s only rear/mid-engined air-cooled 4-door limousine, the T613 Special’s mystique lies in its embodiment of bureaucratic stratification in the former Eastern Block.
Before focusing on the Special itself, let us review the Tatra marque and why it is now enjoying such popularity in the West. Please recall that the Czech lands were the industrial heartland of a former superpower – WW1’s Austria-Hungary. As such, between the two world wars, Czechoslovakia was the world’s 7th or 8th strongest economy and per capita, one of the most industrialized countries on the planet. It had 10 car manufacturers and was also a leading producer of motorcycles for the world market (JAWA, CZ). Tatra was the premier car manufacturer and only one of two to survive into the post-WW2 communist era. (Skoda is the other.)
Tatra became recognized as a classic in the West within the last decade or so because of the rear-engined aerodynamic or “streamlined” models. Their influence on the VW/Porsche was a supporting consideration. (Tatra even won a lawsuit against VW after the war.)
These models can be divided into two streams – the “people’s cars” credited with influencing the VW (V570 prototype and T97) and the top-of-the-line luxury limos aimed at an exclusive clientele (T77, T87 and T603) that stood out for their technical innovation. The pinnacle T77 already appeared at Pebble Beach in 2010 and its successor - the T87 - in 2013. The inclusion of the streamlined Tatras as their own class at Pebble Beach in 2014 introduced the T600 and T603 to the concours audience.
2014 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance - part of Tatra Class K
Tatra 613 Speciál - History and Description
Although the Specials were assigned to ministers and served as back-up and escort vehicles to the President, the President’s primary car was either a Soviet ZIL or Chaika. (The last communist Czechoslovak president had a GAZ 14 Chaika.) There were two reasons for this. The Soviets reserved the right to produce the primary Presidential limo for the Eastern Block (after all, they were the Big Brother!) and the ZIL (and Chaika) were very large cars. Where the Special is about the size of a period S-class Mercedes, the ZIL is even bigger than Mercedes’ flagship – 1960s/70s’ Mercedes 600.
As already hinted, the Special breaks many western paradigms about vehicle production. To the communists, cost of production was not an issue. The senior leadership wanted a special limo, so be it – regardless of cost. As the base T613, the Specials were already handmade. Body paint was applied in a number of layers with hand-buffing in-between by a team of women. (Yes, the Women’s Movement had not yet made it behind the Iron Curtain by the 1980s. In fact, Eastern Block women were already “liberated” and free to take on heavy, dirty and dangerous labor so men could focus on more “important” occupations – such as military and police service to fight Western imperialism! :-] ) As such, the base T613, and the Special even more so, likely had more direct hands-on labor than a top Western luxury car.
Ironically, the Special’s interior finish was nowhere near the level of a western luxury automobile. There was no leather or wood, the interior was paradoxically austere for an exclusive official limousine. This was perhaps reflective of the overall communist theme – that frivolous luxury was a monarchist/capitalist relic and that even top officials had to live frugally – at least while in public view! (Except, of course, for the bar compartment in the back seat for the requisite bottles of alcohol!) That said, the cloth seats in the whole T613 line are almost indestructible – I have seen rusted out T613 wrecks, with still usable seats!
The upgraded cosmetics, including wood and leather Recaro seats were added to the post-revolution free-market T613-4/5s and T700s. These cars also had modernized fuel-injected motors and better performance. However, they no longer had the exclusive aura and special “above the law” status of the Specials. They were just another expensive luxury car that anyone with sufficient cash could buy.
A T613 Special would never be made in a western free-market environment. In essence, the T613 Special epitomizes Tatra’s production in the post-war communist era and embodies the negative image that the company was saddled with as a result of being an official limo for the communist party apparatus. The post-war Tatras were likely the only car line ever feared and hated not because of its technical characteristics, but because of its association with the ruling regime – and the T613 Special sat at the top of the heap! As such, it is truly a relic of a strange culture in a now-forgotten era.
My current Special was bought in Canada. It’s drivable and looks good from 20 feet but needs some work to restore to concours quality. For example, the previous owner who imported it, had it painted blue - because he didn’t like the “grim communist black”. Most late communist-era Tatras were black. As far as I know, this is the only Special in North America. It is currently in hiding and won’t be attending any shows until it is ready to properly represent the Specials in its original form.
Although the "show queen" 1969 T603 elsewhere on this site is by far my best, nicest and most desirable Tatra according to public consensus, to me personally, this Special is my prized Tatra. Unlike the T603's curvy lines and crowd-attracting style - especially from the back view, the Special has the aesthetics of a brick. However, it has the 'aura' of an era and events that wouldn't make sense to today's young generation. They wouldn't understand that there once was a car that nobody could 'buy' - the manufacturer wouldn't sell it to you no matter how rich you were. Especially when they now hear about middle-eastern sheiks ordering silver-plated Audis and rappers buying customized Rolls-Royces.
The Specials had dual (duplicate) ignition systems so the car would run even if something failed in the ignition. A reserve electric fuel pump backed-up the mechanical pump for the same reason. This was supposed to be a safety issue if the minister was attacked by "reactionary agents"! A tachograph was installed in the trunk to record trip details. The cars were also outfitted with sirens and portable dome emergency flashers to clear traffic out of the way.
1934 Autosalon - Two Tatra 77s are clearly years ahead of their time!
The T613 line is a limited production hand-made four-door sedan with an air-cooled DOHC 3.5 liter motor and transaxle located in a mid-rear configuration. (Unlike the T603, the T613 has the center-of-mass of the motor/transmission sitting ahead of the rear axle.) It was the only 4-door sedan with this configuration in its era and up to today. The Special is based on the T613 but the wheelbase is extended by 15 cm. However, there are many additional changes that make this a unique model. The body has been strengthened and reinforced in various locations. The interior ventilation ducts are significantly redesigned with different external vents. Air conditioning was added. So were power windows, power door locks and power steering. Today we take most of this equipment for granted, but in the 1980s this was impossible to find in regular Eastern European cars.
Historically, there is a more sinister side to the Tatra marque that Western collectors may not be familiar with but that is deeply imbedded in the public psyche in its home country. Post-war Tatras’ only reason for existence was as official limousines for the government apparatus. As such, they were perceived by the public as an extension or servant of the totalitarian communist regime. They were both feared and loathed as a symbol of totalitarian rule. Even to this day, dark tales are still told about dissidents finding themselves in the back seat of a secret service T603 or a T613 and disappearing forever into the night. That would not happen in a T613 Special – the Specials were reserved for more dignified and distinguished government activities. (Actually, these stories are embellished as such “prisoners” would be scooped up in a Volga as even regular T613s were not used at this level. Only a very special dissident would be picked up in a Tatra.)
Many of the new post-1989 (post-revolution) ministers, who were often former jailed dissidents, refused to be chauffeured in Tatras and instead opted for Mercedes, BMWs and other Western marques. (This seems petty now, but the wounds and memories were still fresh in the early 1990s, so this was an understandable position at the time.) This negative attitude toward Tatra was apparently shared even by the country’s newly-elected democratic president Vaclav Havel. The practical result of this paradigm was that the new leadership ended Tatra’s role as the exclusive supplier of government limousines and turned their back on the company by cutting federal contracts. This makes Tatra the only car in history whose economic survival was sealed by being associated with a totalitarian regime. (ZIL and GAZ (Chaika) and Chinese Hongqi had better luck – as did the survival of totalitarianism in their countries!)
T613 Special Technical Details
Unlike the Soviet and Chinese limos that started life as copies of obsolete American designs, the T613, like all previous Tatras, was an original design that was quite innovative in its design era. The T613 DOHC motor and transaxle matches the sophistication of period exotics like Ferrari and Maserati. This leadership position was finally lost in the late 1980s and into the 1990s as electronics took over engine management and eventually even vehicle dynamics and Tatra no longer had state funding to support their R&D.
Information Sources and Accuracy
I recognize that some information presented above challenges traditional western concepts of vehicle production and deployment. In fact, some of the communist-era practices seem bizarre by our standards. Unfortunately, there is very little information available on the T613 Special in English. Unlike the streamlined Tatras, the Special is almost unknown outside the Czech Republic and Slovakia – where it already has strong collector status.
Much of the English internet chatter about this model often paraphrases portions of my old T613 Special website posted back in 2001. At that time, my sources were various Special owners with contacts in the old bureaucracy that looked after these cars. I was born in the Czech Republic, so I speak the language fluently and made multiple trips to the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the early 2000s specifically for my Tatra search and research. The early trips were specific to the Special as I recognized its historical significance while they were still underappreciated even locally. With my Czech roots, I wanted to posses the automotive pinnacle of that era of my youth - something I could not even get near as a 'proletarian' kid living in a small village. (Let's be honest, isn't that one reason we now want the 'hot' cars of our youth?!) In the early 2000s, prices for all Tatras were significantly lower than today. For example, I recall a very nicely restored T87 on eBay selling for $35,000 US. Even average T603s are now going for about that much, with nice ones about double. T87s have surpassed the quarter-million USD mark. The carbureted base T613s are a bargain in comparison.
Although specific and extensive official information on the Specials is sparse even in Czech, I am confident in the accuracy of my sources. ….. and I only retained information that was consistent among independent providers. Most of the information above dates from that era. Some, such as the Skorpion machinegun holster, is recent but obtained from two separate sources. Neither of my Specials had this, but this would likely be removed from decommissioned Specials – as is done with dedicated police equipment on decommissioned police cruisers.
Specials leading the 1990 Papal Visit
convoy as one of their last deployments. New government replaced them with Mercedes, BMWs and Audis.
Period Photo - not my Special
NO MATTER HOW RICH YOU WERE,
YOU COULD NOT BUY THIS CAR NEW!
... OR EVEN USED WHILE THE COMMUNISTS WERE IN POWER!
Česká Zbrojovka (CZ) Škorpion
This period photo captures the somber "gray and gloomy" feeling behind the Iron Curtain and the Special's heritage and purpose. No wonder post-war Tatras were feared by the general populace!
This must've been some VERY high-powered event with so many ministers or diplomats in attendance. I don't think so many Specials ever met in one location!
Instead of today's colorful carnival atmosphere and crowds of tourists, only secret service agents and Specials stand in front of the famous astrological clock in Prague's Old Town Square.
Please note that Tatra’s passenger car production demise was quite different from an inferior communist-era product dying a natural death in an open market; such as the Trabant. The governments of all industrialized western democracies support their domestic car industry by driving domestic makes. It is still being argued in the Czech Republic that Tatra’s limousine production demise could have been averted if the government retained their exclusive use. Having owned a post-revolution T613-4 Mi Long in the Czech Republic (at the time not yet importable to Canada and still not importable to US) and driven T700s, I can state that these cars are quite fine as limousines. The lack of an automatic transmission is a down-side, but this is only an issue for an owner/driver and not the rear seat passenger – who is provided with extra legroom, leather and other perks easily equal to comparable western products. The Recaro interior option in my T613-4 added $12k to its price – so these cars were also not cheap in the open market.
Interior of 1994 T613-4 Mi Long.
- Heated and ventilated Recaro leather seats
with cloth inserts.
- Built-in mobile phone.
- Real wood veneer.
- Wood steering wheel with centre "Tatra"
badge from T603.
T613 Special Production Eccentricities
The “regular” T613s were already limited production, hand-made limousines reserved only for official use by higher-ranking members of the party and government apparatus – factory directors, senior army officers (general level), city mayors ….. and even the secret service. (Lower level apparatchiks were assigned Russian Volgas.) The base T613s replaced the T603s in the mid-seventies as the communist era government limo. The very top government officials now demanded something even more exclusive and Tatra satisfied this by producing the “government special” – hence the model name “Speciál”.
My current T613 Special - likely only one in North America.
- Interim Mercedes wheels covers have since been
replaced with hard-to-find original Tatra units.
- Repainted dark blue by previous owner,
otherwise, this Special has not been modified.
The steering and suspension were revised. The transmission tunnel under the back seat was raised to accommodate an automatic transmission on the two or three parade cars (for smoothness under low speed). The back seat contains a bar compartment between the two rear passengers. The dashboard is different. Windows are slightly tinted. The most noticeable differences are on the exterior where the Special has longer rear doors. Flag posts were added to the front fenders and escort versions had long antennas for the two-way radio. From the front, the most obvious differences are the square Mercedes Benz headlights with vipers. Mercedes outside mirrors were also used.
From the people’s cars, the communist-era T600 Tatraplan, a contemporary to the VW, is now as popular with collectors as its bigger brethren – the T87 and T603.
The bulk of Tatra’s non-aerodynamic pre-war (WW2) production consists mainly of small front-engined cars intended for the mainstream market. There are a couple of exceptions, headed by the T80. This is a Duesenberg / Bugatti-type classic of which only a handful remain. Until recently, when the streamlined Tatras were “discovered” in the West and the T77 gained prominence, the T80 was regarded as the pinnacle classic Tatra in its home country.
None of the above pre-war classics have the paradigm-breaking exclusivity, political implications and general mystique of the T613 Special. No other Tatra carries the title of “exclusive government limousine” as absolutely as the T613 Special. The Specials were made only for Presidential (escort vehicles), ministerial and internal diplomatic use between 1980 and basically the fall of the Czechoslovak communist regime in 1989. (The last Special was actually produced in 1991 as the company was struggling to find its direction in the new free market.)
What is even more unique about the Special that no other car model line can claim (except perhaps the Soviet ZIL and initial Chinese Hongqi limos) is that no matter how rich you were, you could not buy a T613 Special new – or even used during the communist era! The communists were very secretive and paranoid and viewed these government limos as “state secrets” – and prohibited them from personal or public use. The Specials were maintained in dedicated service centers and were only worked-on and operated by authorized staff with special security clearance. The drivers were specially trained secret service agents who also filled the role of the assigned minister’s bodyguard. As such, the Specials had an under-dash storage holster for the CZ Skorpion machine pistol – the Czechoslovak and Eastern Block’s counterpart to the West’s Uzi. During the communist reign, decommissioned Specials could not be sold off into public ownership. They were generally retained as spare part bins for active vehicles or, in the regime’s final years, handed down to police and fire services.