Curbside Classic: Tatra 603 – This Could Have Been The First New Post War Cadillac, Olds, Studebaker, Or?

(First posted 10/17/2013. Pictures of this 603 are from Ebay)   With a little imagination (not in short supply here), this could be the 1949 Cadillac or Oldsmobile. In the mid-late thirties, radical innovations in aerodynamics, rear engines, front-wheel drive, unibody construction and other creative and radical re-imaginings of the conventional car spurted forth like a geyser. The Europeans mostly led the charge, and put some of the most advanced ideas into production, like the seminal streamliner, the Tatra 77 of 1934.

But there was no shortage of creative ideas on this side of the pond either. Every American car company was either exploring new ideas, or being hounded by independent engineer/designers with theirs. The post war era might well have looked different if any of these concepts had been actually put into production. And some of you may want to shoot me for even suggesting a world without the real 1949 Cadillac. The Czechs undoubtedly feel the same way about their 603.

Before we take a look at some of those concepts, let’s first take in the Tatra’s back side, because that’s what inspired this line of inquiry. I was half way through a different take on this 603, when gazing at this picture, from Ebay and posted posted at the CC Cohort by safeasmilk, reminded me of a picture I had seen of some 1940s Cadillac concepts.

Here it is, rear-engined Cadillac models that were an imagining of the evolution of Cadillac, starting with the pre-war production car in the back, and moving forward to the 1960 central-steerer. Isn’t predicting the future fun? The second and third ones from the back closely approximate the Tatra 603.

image: hemmingsblog

Among the many independent US pioneers, Bill Stout certainly stands out (as his hair stands up), and this fiberglass rear-engined prototype from 1944 is a another graphic example of what the American post-war car could have looked like.

The 1947-1952 Studebaker’s long pointy tail was the result of extensive consideration of it being built with a rear engine. And it didn’t end there. Rear engines and streamlining were the hot thing, and just about every manufacturer was toying with it.

Even small independents like Checker, with this 1945 prototype. The rear-engined cars promised large passenger cabins, and noisy engine tucked away in back. We could spend all day doing a complete survey of rear-engined prototypes and one-offs, but as we all know, in the end, nobody bit. The costs and challenges of making a new drive-train location or orientation work properly were deemed to be too great for an industry that had become huge and efficient on the basis of the conventional Model T and everything since.

Of course, the Tucker was the exception, a bold realization and update of the Tatra formula. But since only a few were made, its impossible to speculate whether it could have been a viable commercial success, notwithstanding all the other drama around it.

Even in the case of the clean-sheet FWD Kaiser, just the cost of tooling up a new transaxle turned it back to RWD even after it had already been shown in New York in 1946. By the time GM finally and belatedly bit with the rear-engined Corvair, that format’s limitations were already becoming obvious. And the results were certainly not a happy journey, for GM.

So we’re left to speculate what a rear-engined car like a Cadillac or Oldsmobile might have been like, and the Tatra 603 does a fine job of being a stand-in. Obviously, a Harly Earlized version might have been a wee bit gaudier, but let’s take in the bigger-picture issues, like size, packaging, handling and performance.

Realistically, the Olds 88 probably offers the best point of this rather unusual late-night comparison that may look a bit wacky in the light of day. But here goes: the Tatra 603 and the 1949 88 are within three inches of the same overall length. The Olds 303 (5 liter) V8 had 135 hp to pull some 3600 lbs.

The Tatra’s air-cooled rear V8 is half the size, at 2.5 liters. But with hemi-heads, it put out a healthy 94 or 105 hp, and those are bigger European horses, not gross ones. Pushing 3100 lbs, the Tatra had a similar weight/horsepower ratio, and probably had comparable performance, if not better with its four-speed manual transmission. The Czech Rocket.

The Tatra really shines in its interior space and accommodations.

The floor is truly flat, and the column shifter creates lots of room in the middle to play footsies. Obviously, the front wheel wells are intruding a bit, a perpetual challenge with rear-engined cars.

The rear seat is fit for…party bosses. Yes, the Tatra 603’s whole reason for existence was because the Russian luxury sedans that the Czech big wigs were supposed to ride in never showed up, or were troublesome. In the post-war communist planned industrial policy, Tatra had been told to build only trucks, but fortunately a few engineers couldn’t resist developing a modernized version of the 97/600, and worked on it in secret. When the government changed its mind about the Russian cars, Tatra was given the green light to put it the resulting 603 into production, starting in 1955.

The first generation, built until 1962, had a wild three-headlight front end that echoed the similar treatment on the original Tatra 77.

The Model 2-603, built from 1962 through 1968, had this rather unusual beak. Not many of these first two generation noses are still around, because as the older 603s needed overhauling, they were sent back to the factory where they were also updated with many newer components, interior and the gen3 front end.

The final series, the 2-603 II, was built from ’68 until 1975. And its cleaned up front end now graces many earlier updated versions.

The rear end was less changed, and still pays homage to its predecessors’ dorsal fins.

So how does the Tatra 603 perform on the road, and even more impressively, in the snow and off the road? I couldn’t begin to say it in words as eloquently as this movie short, produced specifically to promote the 603’s capabilities. It’s some of the best 15 minutes of vintage car-porn you’ll ever see; don’t miss it:

So was that a happy journey, or not? Impressed? Now you know why I want one so bad. So now comes Part II of this Tatra 603 CC; where I pour my heart and soul out for one.

As we get older, we tend to start tallying up our regrets, all the things we wish we hadn’t done and those we wish we had. I’m not going to delve into the former category, but not acting on a palpable impulse to go to Czechoslovakia in the mid-eighties and bring home a Tatra (or two) is very high on the list of the latter. Back then, the number of folks in the US who were fully aware of the brand was a small fraction of what it is today. But my lust for these goes back much further, to my youngest years as a kid in Austria, where a Tatraplan in my neighborhood first seduced me. So while I’d like to have bragging rights about owning a Tatra, I’ll have to console myself with bragging rights about wanting one longer than anyone else. How sad is that?

Since I’m stuck with wishful thinking (at least for now), the only question being which one to have. The original T77 from 1934 is by far the wildest one, and undoubtedly the rarest and most valuable. When the sun comes out in May, and my mood is borderline manic, it has to be a T77. Parts? Crazy handling? Fragility? Who cares? I’m flying high.

On a nice warm fall day, when my mood is perhaps closest to equilibrium, make it a T87. The much more pragmatic successor to the T77 was specifically designed to be more practical, and the T87 can still be kept on the road, like the folks who drove one across North America via the Arctic Ocean: quite a travelogue.

But today, like most of the past few weeks, it’s socked in; the hills are enshrouded in fog, and the rain valve is leaking badly. On such a day, my thoughts turn to the T603, and not just because this one is black. There’s just something a bit sinister and moody about these cars.

Tatra 603 Lemony Snicket

Speaking of sinister and moody, the 603 was a brilliant choice for the movie Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, never mind that awesome Imperial limo. Because of copyright issues, there are no videos of it on YouTube anymore. Oh well. If you haven’t seen the movie, do.

Maybe I’ll still get one. I don’t spend time on craigslist or ebay, but a quick search shows that this one sold just three weeks ago for $12,878 on ebay. Hard to believe, but it was adulterated with modern chrome wheels, tires , heavily-tinted windows and a huge subwoofer/sound system taking up the whole trunk. I’m surprised that it wasn’t fully donked with 22s. Tatra: the latest tatas magnet. It just brings home the point that Tatras have gone mainstream. Maybe I don”t want one after all.

On that upbeat note, let me bring this to an (overdue) end by giving you the link to the complete Tatra History here at CC. Now I’ll go watch Happy Journey again, and rejuvenate my 603 lust. It’s not hard.