Esoteric Classics

To start, let us review the Tatra marque and why it is starting to get popular in North America. It is the third oldest existing car manufacturer, after Mercedes Benz and Peugeot. Details about its history and products can be found on line, so I will not repeat those here.  

It is notable 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 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.)

The streamliners can be divided into two groups – the “people's cars” credited with influencing the VW (V570 prototype and T97) and the luxury limos aimed at an exclusive clientele (T77, T87 and T603). The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is a good bellwether of which cars have achieved a level of recognition as classics or collectibles. 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 T97, T600 and T603 to the concours audience. As such, it also gave Tatra more exposure to North American collectors. A nicely-restored T77, brought over from the Czech Republic, was a featured car at the 2014 Concours.

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 consisted mainly of small front-engined cars intended for the mainstream market. There were a couple of exceptions, headed by the T80. This was 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. 

The pre-war models, T77, T87 and T97, have already settled into the 6-figure USD market. The T97s are very rare so their market is harder to establish, but the T87s have exceeded the USD quarter-million mark. The T77s are also very rare. With no recent public sales record for prime examples, a good educated guess would put them into the USD 7-figure range!

The post-war models, T600 and T603, are a bargain in comparison. The T600 draws its lineage from the T97 and the T603 from the T87. Although both designs are obviously modernized. The smaller 4-cylinder T600 retains the classic fin but the T603 features a lighter, more efficient hemi V8 and four-wheel disk brakes in its last series. Although the T603 has already breached the USD 6-figure mark in its home country, the prices in North America are still lower. There is a good reason for this. To the East European baby-boomer car collector, the T603 is a ’57 Chevy, Hemi Mopar, ’63 Corvette, pony car, muscle car and Cadillac Eldorado, etc. all rolled into one! This was the car he’d see as a boy in parades or carrying VIPs, but one his parents could never buy.

The T613 replaced the T603 in the mid-1970s. It was styled in the late 1960s by Vignale, so it has that era’s angular shape. Tatra was still innovative and competitive with Western marques when this model was introduced. It was powered by a 3.5 L DOHC air-cooled V8 with its centreline ahead of the rear axle. As such, it was the only limo produced in recent times with this configuration. The motor itself matched the sophistication of period Western exotics such as Ferrari, Maserati, etcetera. The T613s are still relatively new, so they have not yet been sought out by collectors outside their home country. There, the last fuel-injected series and the Special are already difficult to find. There is only a handful of T613s in North America and they are the true bargain Tatra.

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 Tatra passenger cars' 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 T613 and disappearing forever into the night. Actually, these stories are embellished as such “prisoners” would be scooped up in a Volga as Tatras 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!

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.

Hopefully the above provides a further insight into the Tatra marque that is not generally available on the web. I grew up in Czechoslovakia when the T603s and later the T613s were in their prime. So I have some personal memories from that era. My aim is to cover these two Tatra models on this website. As time allows, I will also try to post technical information from my own experience of working on these cars.

Thank you for looking and reading!