The Czech Republic based Tatra was founded in 1850 as Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft, a wagon and carriage manufacturer. In 1897, they became the first company to produce a motor car in central Europe, the Prasident. They are the third oldest car maker in the world after Daimler and Peugeot. The name was changed to Tatra in 1919 after the Tatra Mountains. Their specialty was producing technically advanced luxury cars ranging from air-cooled flat-twins to fours and sixes. Production of Tatra cars ceased in 1999, but the company still produces a range of primarily all-wheel-drive trucks.
By Daniel Vaughan | Aug 2010
The Tatra Company was the traditional producer of state-of-the-art luxurious vehicles in the Czech lands. A large rear-engined luxurious vehicle produced by the Czechoslovak company Tatra, the T603 was a continuation of the Tatra series that began with the Tatra 77. The 603 was the vehicle of choice for senior high-ranking political officials and heads of factories in Communist Czechoslovakia. Around a third of T603s were also exported to various other countries including the central and eastern European countries that were allied to Czechoslovakia at the time, along with Cuba and China.
Possibly considered the first car of the new political establishment, the post-war T600 was much smaller than the streamlined Tatra 87 and used only a four-cylinder engine. Zdeněk Kovář delivered the design and mockup of the Tatra 603 and the enthusiastic Tatra designers began their work on the project in secret. A new car called Valuta was developed in secret by a group of designers in 1952 led by František Kardaus and Vladimír Popelář, though their official capacity was to design a new three-axle bus T400. The communist government grew frustrated with delays of Soviet cars, and their poor quality in 1953 and ordered development of a new luxurious Tatra vehicle. This order gave legitimacy to the teams earlier secret work.
The Tatra T603 was first debuted at the 1956 Brno Trade Fair. Its dramatic styling and engineering drew many interested looks and it was first shown to an international audience at the Cortina d'Ampezzo winter Olympics. In 1960 the T603 was shown in New York, but politics kept it from being sold in Western Europe.
The six-seat model was be ready for production by the end of 1954 and powered via a 3.5-liter air-cooled eight-cylinder engine. Though the engine remained an issue, the chassis was nearly ready due to the work done on Valuta. Such a large engine wasn't anticipated even by the secret design time. A temporary solution was proposed by engineer Julius Mackerle to use the already developed 2.5-liter T603 engine in the new car, while the larger one would be ready in the next four to give years. The 2.5-liter T603 engine was already being successfully used in Tatra racecars and the Tatra 87-603.
In 1955 the first road ready T603 was completed. After a variety of body designs were wind tunnel tested, the one chosen was the one proposed by František Kardas. This design was fine-tuned by Vladimír Popelář, while Josef Chalupa was selected for production purposes. Compared with that of the T87 the bodyshell of the T603 was advanced, though its streamlining and proportions were borrowed from the pre-war car. The T603 had welded monocoque construction with four doors, and seating for three in the front and rear. The engine was housed behind the rear wheels with a four-speed transaxle and swing axles, like the T77, T87 and T600. At the time this was considered to be quite an advanced suspension system, also used by Porsche on the 356 and Mercedes Benz on the Gullwing 300SL.
Between 1956 and 1975, three versions of the model T603 were successfully manufactured, T603, T 2-603, and T 3-603. The 3- wasn't an official designation used by Tatra. The T603-1 was easily recognizable by its three headlamps hidden beneath a clear glass cover (which eventually became three-piece glass), with the central headlamp linked to the steering which made it possible to turn this lamp with steering. Under the hood was a large luggage compartment and underneath this a spare wheel.
The spare wheel was housed in a separate contained that could be opened from underneath which made it possible to reach without taking out luggage. At first the windshield was made up of two pieces of glass, but soon a single glass sheet was used. There was room for seating for six in the T603, thanks to the shift lever placed under the steering wheel instead of the floor. The front seats were easily folded down to create a large bed that could be used by up to four people comfortably. A firewall was housed behind the rear seats, along with a second luggage compartment and another firewall, in a layout that was already used already in the T77 to bring the engine noises to a minimum. The first rear-engined Tatra with good rear visibility; a large two-piece window took up much of the rear view. The interior of the T603 featured independent heating.
'One off' adaptations were quite easy to create due to low volume production levels and the resulting lack of production automation. The T 2-603 was introduced in 1962 and this model featured four headlamps mounted within a long oval grille and a revamped dashboard. The T 2-603 featured a modernized engine with a rear track increased by 55 mm. In 1966 the 2-603 received power brakes, and the following year other updates included the windshield's height being enlarged by 66 mm.
The Tatra 3-603, or Tatra 2-603 II was introduced without a grille and headlamps that were placed flush with the car's front fascia. The unofficial -3 received disk brakes on all four wheels. The body design was changed completely to encompass seating for five as safety belts became obligatory for passengers on front seats in 1968. To reduce pedal effort brakes were given a vacuum servo, and in the late 1960s, disc brakes were fitted. The ignition system was changed from points and condenser to a capacitive discharge system to improve reliability, like various racing cars at the time.
The engine of the T603 was V8 overhead valve engine that weighed only 350 pounds which allowed the car to have 47/53 front/rear inter-axle weight distribution when fully loaded. This engine was already in use in the late Tatra 87 and had proven reliability in Tatra racecars or the military light truck T805. The air-cooling system was put into place to cool the most heated parts of the engine in the most effective manner possible. The T603H engine was modified further which resulted in the export model T603HB and the tropical climate model T603HT.
The T603's gearbox was synchronized with four speeds plus reverse. Customers could opt for the 'mountain' gearing instead of the standard ratios. The gear stick was housed under steering wheel to make room for the middle passenger in the front seats. The gearbox was composed of a monoblock with the shaft of the rear axle. The suspension was made up of swing axles in the rear with MacPherson suspension in the front. The TG03 featured coil springs used with hydraulic telescopic shock absorbers. At first a double-circuit hydraulic brake system was utilized before a single-circuit was implemented.
The steering was rack and pinion that was mounted on the front bulkhead with a central drop link, with large finned drum brakes all around before they were replaced by disc brakes. Julius Mackerle was the chief engineer for the Tatra, the same who worked for Hans Ledwinka before WW2. Powering the first T603 was the newly developed 603 engine by Jiri Klos with a 2,545cc air-cooled V8. The engine specification was advanced with a single center camshaft and hemispherical combustion chambers. It developed 75 bhp in its 'military spec', but in the new T603 saloon it produced 95 bhp at 5000 rpm.
The T603 became the first Czechoslovak vehicle with contactless thyristor ignition in 1973. Model T603s were shipped back to the factory to be exchanged for 'new' model T603s. The older models would be disassembled and rebuilt to current standards and styling before they were returned to use as 'new' T603's. Because of this, regardless of their original production date, most T603s are of the later -3 styling.
Though it was rare, T603 sales to private individuals did happen infrequently in East Germany. Fidel Castro is though to have owned a white T603 with air conditioning. A total of 20,422 models were built, mostly by hand, during the T603's twenty-year production run. In 1974 the Tatra T 613 replaced the T603.
From 1957 through 1967 the Tatra T603 took part in 79 races, 24 of them international. The car resulted in a total 60 first, 56 second and 49 third positions. The production vehicles with minor modifications participated in most of the races, but later on more heavily modified models began to emerge, most notably with ejector cooled engine. Three vehicles took place in the Austrian Alpine Cup in 1959, and all of them finished were decorated. Alois Mark achieved first position in his class and only month later he won best foreign driver and received 3rd position overall, behind two Mercedes cars in the 31st Rallye Wiesbaden. The T603s were decorated with golden ribbon during the closing beauty and elegance competition.
In 1960 Tatra wanted to take place in Rally Monte Carlo, but official Czechoslovak institutions were challenging this. The Sport association wanted their own drivers behind the wheel in T603 vehicles rather than company ones, but it officially banned participation of both Tatras and Škodas. This made the Moravian company reasonably upset, especially after the Škoda was allowed since the Škoda was already exported to western markets. Only one Tatra T603 took part in the 1963 Liège-Sofia-Liège competition, but was damaged after a tire crash blew it out.
In 1964 three Tatra T2 603s enter the 3,790-mile long Spa-Sofia-Liège race. One of the T2 603's finished first in its class, and overall fifteenth place. One T603 crew gave up during the race, and another dropped out with a mechanical failure. 97 vehicles took part in the race, but only 21 arrived at the finish line.
At the Marathon de la Route in 1965 three crews with Tatra 2-603GTs took part in the race. The race began in Spa, and the main part of the race happened in Nürburgring. Following nearly 82 hours of mostly heavy rainfall, the Tatras placed second and third position in its class, being third and fourth overall. The third vehicle suffered a malfunction and did not see the end of the race. The Tatra team was the only team in the GT category, which used serial production tires during the race.
Three crews once again took part in the 1966 Marathon de la Route, but this time they entered the B5 category, which allowed them to modify the cars. Gaining first position for the team as a whole, the Tatra gained 1-2-3 win in its class (3.4.5 overall). One of the cars hit a deer and suffered damaged headlights, which led to penalization. The same crew also had issues with fuelling, and with a tire, which dropped them to 22nd position, but by the end this very crew took 5th overall.
Three Tatra T603 crews with the updated 1968 model took part in the 1967 Marathon de la Route. Unfortunately bad weather during the final two nights caused only 13 of 43 cars to make it to the finish line. Two of these cars were 603s, which took 3rd and 4th position in class (4th and 5th overall).
The Tatras took part in a variety of national competitions, and usually took pole positions. Sources:
By Jessica Donaldson