1962 Tatra 603 – Project Profile

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By Chris Pollitt

The wonderful thing about the world of classic cars is that no matter how long they have been your passion, no matter how many classics you have owned, there is always something waiting in the wings that will knock your socks off with its weirdness. A case in point would be the car we’ve chosen here, namely a 1962 Tatra 603. A car so utterly bonkers it will leave onlookers utterly speechless. 

The Tatra brand originates from Czechoslovakia and over there, they do things differently. This is the country that, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s gave us rear-engined cars like the Skoda Rapide and Estelle. It gave us the three-wheeled Velorex in the ‘50s, a car that had a body made from taught fabric (no, really), while Tatra itself has made a name for itself with weird cars, but also mammoth, multi-axle military vehicles that would make Everest look like a speed bump. The Czech automotive industry is a law unto itself. It’s not a country that has ever looked at the wider motoring world for ideas and advice. Instead, it just giddily built its own creations, akin to a child with some Lego, some Meccano and a lot of glue. And for us, their ultimate automotive expression is this, the Tatra 603. 

What is it?

The Tatra 603 is a large, luxury car that was built from ‘56 through to ‘75. And when we say large, we really do mean it. The 603 is over five meters in length, and has a wheelbase of nearly three metres. It wasn’t the company’s first stab at a luxury car though. In fact, the 603 was the evolution of the 77, the 87 and the 600. No, they were not good at naming cars. But, ignore the numerical nomenclature and instead look at the wonderful, but ultimately weird lines of the 603. It looks like a slightly deflated airship on wheels. Some cars of the era could be accused of being too square, but not the 603. This machine was a chaotic coming together of curves. Admittedly, it’s an acquired aesthetic, though we think it looks brilliant. 

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The best bit of a Tatra 603 is not, however, the looks of the thing. No, what really makes this car stand out is the engine. Powering this big old beast is a 2,545cc V8. And not just any V8. This one features hemispherical combustion chambers, like a Hemi Cuda or a DeSoto Firedome. It’s a bona fide hot rod. Oh, and this V8 is air-cooled. And, it’s in the back of the car, not the front. Mad as a box of frogs or what? 

The engine, while undoubtedly strange, was actually incredibly reliable. The Tatra 603 wasn’t a car the general public could buy. Instead, it was the designated transport of industry bosses, government officials and dignitaries. As such, it had to work flawlessly, and it did. The 603 was exemplary in ride, power and comfort terms, and as such, was extremely popular with those who could get their hands on one. And now, thanks to these old cars falling into private hands, you can get one, too. 

Why is it a project? 

Sadly, the advert is light on detail. However, from the pictures it would be safe to say the car has been sat unused for a while, as the paint and chrome both look to be pretty aged. However, on the positive side, the car seems to be largely complete. This is pleasing given that you can’t exactly pop into a Tatra dealership for parts. That said, there are plenty of online resources for these cars, as they do have a small UK following. Then of course there is the following they have on home soil, that should be able to yield parts if needed. 

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The other good news is that this particular 603 is up and running. The vendor states that the engine was restored “a few years ago” and that the car is driveable. If the engine were dead or in bits, we wouldn’t suggest this as a project, but as it runs, that’s half the battle won. 

The interior looks to be present and correct and in reasonable condition, the body while faded looks to be free of any significant corrosion or damage, and all the chrome and glass seems to still be in situ. With any luck, this project would just be an exercise in refreshing, rather than having to do a nut and bolt rebuild. 

Five things to look for: 

1) Engine

Yes, the engine runs and that’s great. But is it dropping oil? Does it run without sounding like a washing machine full of grit? Does it stay cool? This all needs to be checked, as repairing such a rare lump will be problematic. 

2) Trim Condition

The external trim seems to be all present and correct, if a little on the tired side. How tired is it? Can it be saved by a specialist re-chromer? If not, replacing it is going to be hard work. 

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3) Chassis

The body of this old 603 looks to be in reasonably good condition, and the one image of the chassis paints a pleasing picture. However, you still need to have a thorough check for corrosion. 

4) Suspension and Brakes

The 603 is suspended on swing axles out back and more traditional MacPherson suspension up front. It’s all basic engineering, and any specialist worth their salt should be able to rebuild it, but still worth checking. 

5) Paperwork

Yes, we’re a bit of a broken record with this, but imagine buying this, shipping it back from Prague, only to find out you can’t register it on UK roads. A cursory check can avoid this. 

What should you do with it? 

This is an exceptionally rare car on UK soil, so the right thing to do would be to restore it to original specification. It’s so weird and wonderful it doesn’t need any additions or modifications. Just clean it up, splash on some new paint, get the interior looking ‘dignitary ready’ and then enjoy the big, old bus. 

This is a car that’s built to be used, and it’s built to be driven. Get it back to a presentable standard and you’ll have a car that the whole family can enjoy, and one that will stop classic car show attendees in their tracks. You’ll be the talk of every event you attend in this beast! 

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