By on February 7, 2020

Today’s Rare Ride has a checkered history, as it served as quiet shuttle for secret police and terrorist spies alike. Let’s find out more about this rear-engine Czechoslovakian V8 luxury car.

Tatra is one of the world’s oldest builders of vehicles. Founded as a business in 1850, it grew into a car manufacturer in 1897. From that time until 1999 it built interesting and usually luxurious passenger cars for civilians, as well as military and commercial trucks. It still builds trucks today, though it leaves behind a long history of creatively engineered cars — like this 2-603 II.

The original 603 entered production in 1956 as new entrant to the brand’s streamlined sedans, a series that started with the 77. Debuting in 1934, Tatra’s 77 is considered by many to be the world’s first aerodynamically-designed production car. Continuing the 77’s rear-engine, rear-drive format, the 603 was developed in secret.

The communist Czech government decided Tatra would build only trucks after 1952, but engineers and designers had other ideas, starting work on a new sedan in secret. A year later, after the luxury cars the government ordered from the USSR were slow to arrive, the government changed its mind about Tatra’s business. Czech officials ordered Tatra to start work on a new luxury car, meaning employees could safely reveal their homework.

The first 603 was a full-size 199 inches long, powered by a 2.5-liter air-cooled V8 (99 hp) of Tatra’s development. Given its size and company provenance, 603s were assigned solely to senior leadership of the Czech government and its industries. The sedans were also exported to Eastern Bloc allies and other friendly places like Cuba and China.

A development of the 603 arrived in 1962, thoughtfully called 2-603. Mostly visual refresh, it used the same power as the first generation. The dashboard was revised, carry-over engine upgraded to 104 horsepower, and the rear track was widened. Ultimately, the second 603 turned into the 2-603 II in 1968. The unique front end was rearranged once again, disc brakes appeared at all four corners, and it was declared that the 603 should hold five people instead of four.

Tatra muddied the timeline of its 603 a bit with its production schemes. Cars were returned to the company after becoming well-used in order to be exchanged for new 603s. Often, instead of replacing the car entirely, Tatra’s factory did a sort of restomod. They tore down the used 603s, then built them up again with contemporary styling. The cars were then returned to their high-ranking owners as new. This recycling meant few 603s made it out of history with their styling intact; most look like the final 1968-onward 603. The early Fifties design remained in production through 1975.

Our Rare Ride was built late in the 603’s story. A 1971 example, it was delivered to the Ministry for State Security — the Stasi — in East Germany. Immediately put into diplomatic use, the Stasi assigned it to their friend, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a group the United States and Israel considered terrorists until 1991. The 603 lived a covert life, wafting spies between East and West Germany, and served the PLO through 1980. Eventually it was restored and shipped to Chicago. It awaits sale in sinister black over bordello. Price available upon request.

[Images: seller]

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25 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1971 Tatra 2-603 II, East Germany’s Stasi Transport...”


  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I saw this ad in the Hemmings the other day. I’ve seen a couple of 603s in the past – one in a museum, and a daily driver – and they weren’t as nice as this one.

    • 0 avatar
      Sobro

      Lane Motor Museum here in Nashville has a 1964 model along with 21 other Tatras.

      https://www.lanemotormuseum.org/collection/cars/item/tatra-t-603-mkii-saloon-1964

  • avatar
    redapple

    REar engine air cool V 8 .

    Interesting.

    I first learned of Tatra trucks thru their entries in the Paris – Dakar.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    So ;

    How do they drive ? .

    Tail waggers like 911’s or what ? .

    Looks very nice to me .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      EGSE

      They had a rep for sudden snap oversteer at the time Adolf added Czechoslovakia to his collection. As they were considered to be upscale cars (Hitler loved them), high-ranking German officials often drove them and enough were killed by the handling that the Wehrmacht issued standing orders forbidding their officers driving them. They were designed by Hans Ledwinka and an inspiration for Ferdinand Porsche who used the layout for what became the VW Beetle. VW paid out 1 million DM in 1965 as the result of a lawsuit. Ronnie Schreiber had a good article in TTAC about it.

    • 0 avatar
      OliverTwist78

      Hello Nate,

      One of my old classmates in Texas had a couple of Tatra 2-603 II (1965 and 1968) for a several years so I rode in one many times. He had a large garage near the small airport, and we often drove on the service road next to the runway. The 603 was fairly stable despite the rear-mounted V8 engine. We also tried to make the tail wag at various speed, but it didn’t have the sudden oversteer and spin round like 87 and 97 (the death cars that killed Nazis left and right) due to wider track than its precedessors. The acceleration was bit on the slow side.

      When it was my turn to drive, my friend had to post the shifting pattern diagram on the dashboard as to ensure I selected the gears correctly. The gear selector was on the column like many American cars, but the shift pattern is reversed with 1 and 2 closer to the dashboard and 3 and 4 closer to the driver. I had to be very careful not to slip into R by accident because it didn’t have any mechanism preventing this.

      http://www.curbsideclassic.com/wp-content/comment-image/791589.jpg for diagram

      • 0 avatar
        dukeisduke

        Oh, I know what you’re talking about. That was Aero Country Airport in McKinney, right? A friend of mine kept some cars (not museum pieces) in a hangar at Aero Country, and we would work on our cars out there, sometimes very late at night on the weekends. This was in the mid to late ’80s.

        I remember seeing a black 603 driving around sometimes, coming from a hangar in the back of the airport (toward the north end of the airport). You had to be careful driving at that end, because the driveway along there was the also a taxiway.

        There were lots of cool stuff at Aero Country, like an AT-6 Texan, and also some famous acrobatic pilots hangared there.

        • 0 avatar
          -Nate

          Thank you gentlemen .

          In 1976 I was living in Guatemala, C.A. and on a remote dirt road was over taken and passed by an early Tatra with the nose all bashed in….

          The only time I can recall ever seeing one .

          -Nate

        • 0 avatar
          OliverTwist78

          I had to look up Aero Country Airport in Apple Maps and instantly recognised it. Yes, that’s one! He rented a space on northern side of Waco Lane (since that building had larger grass yards between concrete driveways).

          Gee, what a small world!

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    What a bizarre automobile, great find, Corey

    The perfect car to take Melania for ride in country ;-)

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    a 99hp V8? Woah – sounds like they need some Screaming Eagles American know-how! ;)

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      that’s air cooling for you. more HP=more waste heat, and there’s a limit to how effectively even ducted forced-air cooling can get rid of it. The cylinder head temps of an air-cooled engine would make your eyes water.

      • 0 avatar
        ghostwhowalksnz

        Porsche did fine with rear engine air cooled 6s until fairly recently
        “The 993’s flat-six produced over 400 horsepower in some variants, and remains one of the most powerful air-cooled engines ever fitted to a production car.”
        That sort of power doesnt suit this type of car.

        The reference to the Stasi, should also mention the East Germans mostly used Volvos as their standard executive/party official and police level car. Trabis just werent up to it and VW, BMW or Mercedes was out the question

        • 0 avatar
          EGSE

          I think JimZ is referring to aircraft engines which operate at high outputs for 99% of their running hours (correct me if I’m wrong Jim). A ball to the wall climb would go above 400 F on the CHT gauge. Talk about high pucker factor. Unless you’re running a car at Daytona or on a dyno there’s absolutely no comparison to everyday aviation use.

        • 0 avatar
          Johnstone McTavish

          Flat 12 Porsche 917 wasn’t exactly hamstrung in the power stakes by being air-cooled at 1600 bhp

    • 0 avatar
      conundrum

      What Tatra needed was a displacement greater than 150 cubes.

      The Corvair aircooled flat six of 140 cubes had 80 gross SAE horsepower when introduced in 1960. No more advanced, and almost certainly not as well made as this proven engine, but with a Rube Goldberg cooling fan drive to surprise and delight America. Those Corvairs were really slow, but an extra 15 Public Relations horsepower was discovered soon afterwards for a bit of extra customer cash. Still slow as sin. A Volvo with 1.8 liter B18 and 90 hp would eat them for a snack. Those were my university days from 1963 on, so got to see the general crud on offer when it was three years old or so, bought by students. Had my obligatory scary ride in an original Corvair sedan – once was enough, thanks – the six turns of steering from lock to lock meant that a driver with the ability to flail their arms like a windmill was a necessity when things got a bit out of shape. 15 psi front tire pressure, 26 rear. For Nader, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. The ’65 on was a sophisticated beast with better rear suspension than BMW got for decades.

      And of course, the original Corvair had the same rear suspension as this Tatra and the Beetle – cheapo swing axles for that occasional wild ride into the boonies just when you weren’t expecting it. The only dumb thing about the Tatra compared to Western norms of the late ’50s was that whacko styling about which it was easy to make fun. Still is.

      Big aircooled truck diesels were common in West Germany until recently. Deutz Diesel engines. And of course Tatra made air-cooled diesels for trucks. Pretty stout stuff from all accounts in my past hour of trawling the web.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        My one owner 1961 Corvair 700 series basic stripper two door with power glide slush box belied that statement about power .

        It ran quickly even up steep grades like the grapevine on I5 .

        It never over heated nor tossed the fan belt, I didn’t use cheapo fan belts, I’ve forgotten the brand (Dayco or Gates) but the Corvair revolutionized fan belts for all cars .

        Yes they spun out and flipped easily so it’s O.k. to fear them but don’t be dishonest, just say “I’m afraid of dying in one of these death traps, no need to make up B.S.
        .
        Yes, I read Ralph Nader’s “unsafe at any speed” book when it came out in the 1960’s and know the whole sordid story .

        He feared VW beetles too….

        -Nate

  • avatar
    JimZ

    “Czechoslovakia”

    one way to feel old is to realize that people born after that country ceased to exist are now pushing 30.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    I saw a T87 in a (non-car) museum and it was stunning. I always thought the 603’s were kinda weird, but not in a cool way like a Citroen DS. They are still very interesting cars.

  • avatar
    Greg Hamilton

    The earlier Tatras were the inspiration for the Tucker automobile. My father had an older Tatra and when Berlin was surrounded by the Soviets he had to sell it and leave via the airlift. He was in the U.S. Army.

  • avatar
    amca

    I’m noticing in the rear bumper there’s hole neatly aligned with engine to stick a crank into for a hand start. How many other ’71s had that?

  • avatar
    truthbob

    Hooning about in your Tatra with your girl and best Stasi buddy, even getting some air:

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