Rare Rides: The 1971 Tatra 2-603 II, East Germany's Stasi Transport

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

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]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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