By on September 10, 2010

Looking at the VW EA128 concept instantly brings to mind that ultimate and final expression of the rear-engine sedan, the Czech Tatra T613. Introduced in 1974, it was a direct descendant of the T603, which in turn replaced the T600 and T87, dating back to the thirties (my Tatra history is here).

The T613 was styled by Vignale of Italy, and had 3.5 and 4.3 liter DOHC aircooled V8s out back. As with all big Tatras, they were built in small numbers for the party bigwigs and industry bosses. After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Tatra tried unsuccessfully to export, and compete with the German luxury brands.

This picture shows the extended version, with a highly luxurious rear compartment. Like Porsche, Tatra developed the rear-engined formula for long enough to overcome most of its quirks, but it was essentially a living fossil, although much loved and coveted by the loyal Tatra fans.

The T613 finally petered out in 1996, replaced by a less-than-successfully face-lifted version, the T700. Built only in very small numbers, it lasted until 1999. The direct lineage to the T77 of 1934 makes the big Tatras undoubtedly one of the longest continuously built cars. Just think: a dozen years ago, you could have bought a new Tatra instead of…

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34 Comments on “The Ultimate Rear-Engined Sedans: Tatra T613 And T700...”

  • avatar

    Why do I see a very stretched Renault when I look at this??

    • 0 avatar

       If you were to mention this to the Czech party bosses, they would have categorically denied any resemblance whatsoever!
      It was the ingenious work of the people!
      In fact, the wheel itself was a product of the revolution, later copied by the west!

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Do forget that Tatra had an air cooled 8 cyl engine in production in the 1930s!  That’s advanced technology (rear engine too!)  I know it would never fit but that would be a cooler conversion for a Porsche than an LS-X.

  • avatar

    Fascinating cars!

  • avatar

    So Paul…this does seem to show rear engine cars could be something special.
    Perhaps you are right about not being a success commercially.

    Do you happen to have any information on how they drove or lasted? Air cooled, could that be changed to water cooled today?

    Where they were built…if that had any bearing on quality.

    I personally still like the rear engine model and theory.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Tatra was tuck with the rear engine format, regardless of its pros and cons. These were limited production cars, and there was no way Tatra could afford to retool for a different configuration.
      They were fine cars, for the most part, and very well (hand) built. But they became increasingly obsolete in terms of the safety, smog and convenience features of more modern designs. But that would have happened to them if they had a conventional front engine too.

    • 0 avatar

      The rear engine layout seems like it could have lots of benefits.  You get RWD with space efficient packaging and no transmission tunnel, extra weight over the driven wheels, and for safety you don’t have to worry about the engine intruding into the passenger space in a front end collision.
      I’m sure having the majority of the weight of the car towards the back does present some interesting handling characteristics (I’ve never driven a rear engine car) but Porsche seems to have solved most all of those with the 911, so why isn’t anyone else doing rear engine today?

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Rear engine design lives on in buses and large motor homes.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a real mixed bag.  Although the rear engine allows for a low and flat floor inside the passenger compartment, cargo capacity is always compromised.  It’s difficult to build a rear engined station wagon (the ones that exist, like Corvair Lakewood, have a very high load floor).  Up front, trunk space is limited by the need to allocate space to steering components and turning wheels.  And, with a bungee cord you can always carry something that doesn’t quite fit in a rear trunk, but you can’t really do that up front.  Rear engined cars are also harder to heat and air-condition.

    • 0 avatar

      Smart ForTwo is still using rear-engine technology….

  • avatar

    Car and Driver had an article on the Tatra T700 in their December 1998 issue.  They referred to the car as “the best air-cooled, rear-engined V-8 sedan in the world … and also the worst.”  With all the weight in the back the car was a real handful when taking corners at speed.

    • 0 avatar

      I read that article and fell in love with the car. Its an obsession that continues today, 19 years later. I would *love* one. The novelty of it, learning how to drive properly it given its different characteristics, the sound and the style. It charms me.

  • avatar

    A significant problem of air cooled engines is controlling temperature in the face of emission reduction.  Raising engine temperature is one of the techniques for reducing emissions.  And raising the temperature is one of the last things you want to do with an air cooled engine.  I believe this was also a factor in the end of the VW Beetle (air cooled).

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly…I was going to post that as a reply to NulloModo’s post above. Emission control was a factor in Porsche’s decision to abandon air cooled engines.
      Rear engined cars have some definite advantages when it comes to packaging, and there is some merit to having the heat of the engine behind you. But in addition to different handling characteristics there is the additional complexity and less direct feel of the throttle and shifter.
      Add in air cooling and there are other issues. Direct air cooling requires a bit more attention to engine cleanliness than water cooling, but in my opinion one huge disadvantage is noise. As I’ve said before, I’ve owned Corvairs and love them, but I feel one reason air cooled engines didn’t catch on is because the water in conventional engines (and the additional block mass) tends to dampen the engine’s noise.
      However, I still look forward to the day I once again hear six air cooled cylinders making their wonderful “rat-a-tat” cacophony right behind me.

    • 0 avatar

      Not quite. The aircooled fuel injected VW engine passed European Emissions until 2004.And that without the thermostat installed.

  • avatar

    I love the look of the early, Vignale designed T613-1 (First picture)
    A coupe was also developed but it did not enter production.
    It should be noted that Tatra’s all wheel drive trucks are still in production. They are as wonderfully strange as the cars, with air cooled V engines, and fully independent suspension via swing axles, front and rear

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Having grown to love Ledwinka’s overcooled engine designs in my Pinzgauer and Haflinger, I have a strong desire to own one of Tatra’s sedans, although the lack of any known support networks or groups in the US has dissuaded me from actively pursuing acquisition. The stretched 613 limousine is especially tempting.

  • avatar

    I remember reading that German army officers were banned from riding in or driving Tatra cars during World War II because of their treacherous handling.

    All of these cars, especially the stillborn VW projects, reinforce my theory that the demise of the Corvair had more to do with the general loss of interest in rear-drive configurations than anything Ralph Nader did. Hanging the engine out back just proved not to be a very good idea.

  • avatar

    I’d rather have a Tucker, or even a Corvair. Tatras were the sort of terrible cars that could only result from vile politics. Celebrating them is foolish. We should look at them as a cautionary tale, one that we’re hell bent on repeating.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d say that you are wrong. From what I gather, the Tatras was probably the most well made cars of the entire eastern bloc. It had the highest quality of any East European car, including the entire Soviet Empire. And that meant a lot. I’d say that the only reason the car wasn’t exported to the west in any higher numbers was the fact that the Russians didn’t want to be outshoned.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Some people just can’t help going political in any conversation. Have you ever even seen a Tatra with your own eyes, let alone driven one?

  • avatar

    These cars have nothing to do with “vile politics”.  They were first designed in the 1930s and kept in production till about ten years ago.  The Czech government was a democracy until 1939.  Sniping about “vile politics” is just stupid.

    • 0 avatar

      Cars of the ’30s that sold in the dozens would not have stayed in production for 65 years in a free country. Maybe when you’re done studying history you can look up what stupid means. You’ve answered any questions I might have had about what would cause people to praise this product of planned desolation though.

    • 0 avatar

      The communist era in what is now the Czech Republic represents only part of the history of Tatra.  Tatra was founded almost 100 years before communist rule and has now outlived the Iron Curtain by more than two decades.
      The Tatra T603 (ie, on which the T613 and T700 were based) was designed during the communist era.  As the article points out the car was meant for party and industry leaders.  That said, the other side of the story is that Tatra tried to market the T613 and T700 in the West after the fall of communism.  For obvious reasons these cars were not a commercially successful.  However, these car do represent Tatra’s efforts to move out of the communist command economy and in to a democratic free-market economy.

  • avatar

    I love Tatras – although I much prefer earlier models.

  • avatar

    These are interesting looking cars, but I prefer the more bubble-like Tatras. I first saw some in Czechoslovakia in 1966, and next at the Oct 1993 annual classic car show in Rockville MD. I was quite shocked to see any in the US, and somewhere, I think I’ve read (probably here) that you can count the number in the US on two or three hands (Paul?).
    The T700 looks influenced by Saab.

  • avatar

    Thank God for Western democracy and capitalism; political and economic systems that allow me to spend my hard earned bucks on whatever the h*ll I like without paying a word of heed to angry narrow minded folk like CJ…

    Tatras kick arse – esp the 603, while the 613 ain’t so shabby either. This company has put out some absolutely fantastic and genuinely interesting production cars; testament to the ingenuity of the human spirit, with designers and engineers creating boarderline works of art in repressive conditions. Way to go Tatra!

    I’d love to own one, but own a couple of rear-engined Skodas instead (plus a BMW Bavaria) – not nearly as funky as a 603, but still tons of fun to putter about in!

  • avatar

    I traveled frequently to Czechoslovakia in the early 90’s  One of the factory managers I visited had a green one.  My great regret is to never have driven or ridden in one.  The enginers were aluminum finned beauties. Like an Alfa motor but in the back.

  • avatar

    There are definite shades of Tatra in the latest Skoda Superb.

    Tatras are still seen working as taxis in Prague and are about ten times nicer to travel in than a London Cab.

    It’s a pity that car design is reaching more of a consensus with each passing decade, It’s a bit like aeroplanes you need to take a very good look to spod the difference between an Airbus and a Boeing. The world needs wacky cars like Tatras and big Citroens.

  • avatar

    This article had nothing to do with Politics. Why the communist sniping? And the Czech Republic was a democracy right until 1948. The Communists did actually win the 1946 election(fairly) but their behaviour  towards the general population, as well as mismanagement, would have caused them to certainly lose the 1948 election, so they seized power.

    Oh, btw, the Citroen 2CV was in production from the 1940’s until 1990, and I think was built in France until 1988. Oh wait, France is a Communist country too. DERP.

    Anyway, I really like the Final Tatra’s, and I’m really glad they stuck with the rear-engined layout. The Czechs had some very good and innovative cars, despite the limitations of their economy. Hell, they are better than 80’s GM’s and Chryslers.

    VW ripped off their whole design philosphy(and the Beetle) from this company, and all Tatra got was about 3 million dollars in a lawsuit settlement. 

  • avatar

    I think you got all that right, except I do’nt have any knowledge about whether VW ripped off the beetle. Here’s more on the 2cv

  • avatar
    Andy D

    VW settled  with  Tatra’s engineer back  in 1961. The  bug’s engine  is a direct steal  from  the  Tatra pancake  4

  • avatar

    Just for the record, Tatra cars were never their sole product.

    They started out as a maker of horse-drawn vehicles and produced their first car in 1897, making them the third-oldest active automaker after Daimler-Benz and Peugeot.

    The big cars we know about. The T600 Tatraplan was supposed to be their mainstream postwar model but the Commies decided to have Skoda build it, thus freeing Tatra to concentrate on trucks, buses and railroad equipment. Neither company (by then both nationalized) liked the idea and the T600 soon fell by the wayside.

    And yes, Tatra started building big cars again because Czech officials were dissatisfied with the Soviet crap. Apparently it’s hard to find production numbers because many of them were reconditioned and put back into service.

    Tatra continues to build all-wheel-drive trucks.

  • avatar

    Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that Tatra would one day be considered a classic in the West. They were  widely used as cabs (and still probably are) and above all official company cars in Czechoslovakia. Czech technology used to be among the very best in the world. A friend of mine used in his job Czech wood working machinery built in the late 1800 (189-something) in a Sheraton hotel in Toronto just a few years ago.

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