Curbside Classic: Tatra T-613 – Elvis Drank Slivovice Instead of RC Cola with His Clam Chowder and Moon-Pie

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Some things in life just go together, like Abbott & Costello or George & Gracie.  It seems so natural, just like sunshine and blue sky.

Other things just don’t seem as natural, like going to a nice restaurant in Boston and ordering fried green tomatoes for an appetizer or seeing a Tatra where Elvis parked his Cadillac.

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Yes, Virginia, this is a Tatra with Massachusetts plates parked curbside on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.  What makes it even better is this in front of Sun Studios, about 100′ away from where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash recorded their first songs.

Something about this Tatra in this location is so wrong yet so right, rather like driving from the starboard side (or the port side, depending upon your locale).

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One thing I have learned at Curbside Classic is that the more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t know as much as you thought.  This is healthy.  In the immortal words of Jefferson Davis Hogg, another famous southerner:  “If a man don’t grow, he dies!”

The Czechoslovakian Tatra can trace its roots back to Schustala and Company (and the company has an awesome video, here).  It was founded by Ignác Šustala in 1850, initially producing carriages and couches – which do go together quite nicely if you think about it.  The firm would venture out further when they began manufacturing railroad trucks in 1882.

prasident source:  www.ntm.cz

In 1897, the company produced its first automobile, the Präsident, under the brand name of NW (Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau).  It was the first automobile produced in Central Europe and Tatra is the third oldest vehicle manufacturer in the world behind Mercedes and Peugeot.

Tatra has a formidable history of innovation, with 1906 designs for both an overhead camshaft valve train and a hemispherical combustion chamber.  Nine years later, in 1915, Tatra would be one of the first to build a passenger car with four-wheel brakes.

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The legendary T77 passenger car was introduced in 1934.  Paul has a fabulous article on Hans Ledwinka’s revolutionary work here.

All Tatra production would be within Czech lands by 1945 with the state taking ownership of the corporation in 1946.

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In 1956, Tatra introduced the T-603 passenger car.  Might it have been the first post-war Cadillac?

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From looking at the picture at the top of the page, you can see this Tatra wasn’t exactly a loner on the street as there was a conglomeration of various cars I will show some other time.  This one stood out like a grasshopper in a tequila bottle – there simply was no missing it amongst the Ford F-1s and Chevelles.

Instinct told me this green cruiser was European and was not a run of the mill puddle jumper.  Discovering it was a Tatra T-613 didn’t immediately ring a bell about its name, yet there was the realization of “holy cow, you’re in a hurry, grab some pictures and forget the rest of this stuff!”  A quick peruse on the old iPhone an hour later – after it was gone – told me what had been captured.

The T-613 series was introduced in 1973 with the concept originating five years earlier.  Italian designer Vignale penned the shape you see.

The Tatra T-613 was aimed for whomever had the coin to ante up – as long as the coin was coming from government and corporate honchos.  This dedicated government work didn’t mean the T-613 was a wheezy, underpowered oaf that would huff and puff to its destination.  Far from it.  The T-613 was equipped with a 3.5 liter V8 engine with dual overhead camshafts and two carburetors each having two throats.

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Seeing the car from the rear made me wonder if something was even more out of the ordinary with this Tat, Tot, T___; well, let’s just say the name didn’t immediately stick with me.

This unfamiliar European car was indeed out of the ordinary as this Tatra sports an air-cooled V8 placed in the rear.  The more I’ve learned about this car, the more intriguing it is; that’s a natural reaction.

While the engine is in the rear, Tatra’s T-613 technically wasn’t rear-engined, either.  With four cylinders ahead of the rear axle and four behind it, the T-613 has been accurately described as being a “semi mid-engine.”

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For anyone thinking the United States had cornered the market on eccentrically colored interiors during the 1970’s, think again.  It was certainly flourishing in Czechoslovakia.  While the thought flashed through my head to describe this interior using an adjective that starts with “br” and rhymes with “foam”, I won’t because it isn’t.  But some of you may now be thinking the very same thing.

Note the handle between the seats; during this era, every Tatra was equipped with a four-speed manual transmission.  The location of the gear shift is beside the driver more than in front of him.  I cannot help but wonder if this ever posed a problem for operators or if it was simply a matter of familiarity.  Rowing gears beside your person does seem a bit unnatural.

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This car is an online veteran and is much more distinctive than a baby blue ’57 Thunderbird sporting a Continental kit.  When researching what constituted a T-613, I found an article about this very car at hooniverse (here).  While I was not fortunate enough to snag a ride in it, I did find it curbside by divine coincidence.  With 11,000 made from 1974 to 1996, one isn’t likely to stumble into very many in the United States.

A few hours after seeing this car, I saw it again.  The owner had it parked in the parking lot of one of those twenty-four hour pharmacies that litter the urban landscape.  As I passed, he was opening the door to climb inside and was grinning from ear to ear.

Grinning while driving this car seems as natural as can be.

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