The Tatra 603 is a large rear-engined luxury car which was produced by the Czechoslovak company Tatra from 1956 to 1975. It was a continuation of the series of Tatra streamlined sedans which began with the Tatra 77. In Socialist Czechoslovakia, only high-ranking party officials and heads of factories were driven in 603s; the car was also exported to a number of other countries.
Tatra was the manufacturer of luxurious automobiles in the Czech lands. Austro-Hungarian emperor Charles I used a NW type T; the Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk drove the twelve-cylinder Tatra 80 while his successor Edvard Beneš drove the streamlined Tatra 87. While the T87 was manufactured from 1936 to 1950, the post-war T600 may be considered the first car of the new political order. The T600 was much smaller and used an engine of only four cylinders, making it the descendant of the T97, the small pre-war Tatra. Production of the T97 had been stopped by the Nazis in order to cover its resemblance to their KdF-Wagen (which later became known as the VW Beetle). Czechoslovakia had a Socialist government from 1948, and its economy was later subject to some regulation by the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), consisting of eastern European socialist nations. After production of the T600 ended in 1952, COMECON decided that Tatra would manufacture only trucks, while luxury cars would be imported into Czechoslovakia from the USSR.
The Tatra designers, however, continued their work on a new car in secret. In 1952 a group of designers led by František Kardaus and Vladimír Popelář began the secret development of a new car called Valuta, while officially devoting their time to development of a new three-axle bus T400. In 1953 the socialist government became frustrated with delays in delivery of Soviet cars as well as with their poor quality and they ordered development of a new luxury Tatra, thus giving legitimacy to the team's previous work. The new car was to have a 3.5-litre air-cooled eight-cylinder engine, and it was to be ready for production by the end of 1954. While the chassis was almost ready due to the work on Valuta, the engine remained an issue. Even in their secret designs nobody had anticipated such a large engine. Engineer Julius Mackerle proposed a "temporary" solution of using the already developed 2.5-litre T603 engine in the new car (it was already successfully used in Tatra racecars and Tatra 87-603), while the larger one was supposed to be ready in the next 4–5 years.
The first driveable T603 was completed in 1955. A number of body designs were tested in wind-tunnels. In the end the one proposed by František Kardas and fine-tuned by Vladimír Popelář and Josef Chalupa was chosen for production.
Three versions of the model T603 were manufactured successively between 1956 and 1975. These cars are designated T603, T 2-603 and T 3-603, though the 3- was not an official designation used by Tatra.
The T603-1 is easily distinguished by its three headlamps enclosed beneath a clear glass cover.
In 1962 the 2-603 was launched. Four headlamps were mounted within a long oval grille and the dashboard was changed. The rear track was increased by 55 mm and the engine was modernized.
In 1966 the car gained power brakes, while in 1967 other changes were added: for example the windshield's height was enlarged by 66 mm.
The unofficial -3 (or Tatra 2-603 II) omits the grille and places the headlamps flush with the car's front fascia. The car got disk brakes on all four wheels and was officially changed to a five-seater for legal reasons (from 1968 the safety belts became obligatory for passengers on front seats).
In 1973 the T603 became the first Czechoslovak car with contactless thyristor ignition.
To complicate matters, as model T603s were returned to the factory to be exchanged for "new" model T603s, the older cars would be disassembled and rebuilt to the current styling. These cars were then returned to use as "new" T603's. As a result, most T603s are of the later -3 styling, regardless of their original production date.
The Model T603 was allocated only to senior members of the political and industrial establishments. About a third of T603 production was exported to most of the central and eastern European countries allied to Czechoslovakia at the time, as well as to Cuba and China. Sales to private individuals were not normally possible, although a few T603s appear to have been privately owned in East Germany. During the car's twenty-year production run, 20,422 cars were built, mostly by hand. To the west of the Iron Curtain the car was mostly unknown, though some were used by Czechoslovak embassies in western capitals, and for a brief period some were exported to Canada and the USA, following on the success of the rear-engined VW Beetle. The model T603 was replaced by the T613 in 1974.
Originally the Comecon issued a provision limiting Czechoslovakia to production of no more than 300 luxurious cars per year. Tatra was making more of them, though. This became an issue in 1957 and 1958, especially considering that East Germany produced its own luxurious car, the Sachsenring P240. The Comecon decided that the two countries must reach a deal to choose which country would continue production to supply the other. In 1958 the Ministries of Interior of both countries took part in trials, which East Germany's Minister of Machinery personally attended. The 603 won, and subsequently East Germany's higher communist officials were able to drive the T603, while the lower ones had to drive imports from USSR.
The first model of 603 was characterized by three headlamps. Originally the three headlights were under a single piece of glass, but later three-piece glass was used. There was a large luggage compartment under the front bonnet, under which was the spare wheel. The spare wheel was in a separate drop-down bin opened from inside the front boot, thus making it possible to reach it without taking out luggage. At least one prototype had a two-piece windscreen but production cars had single-sheet 'screens of two different heights and three curvatures during the long production run. The interior featured enough space to seat six occupants. To gain enough space for the middle occupant in the front seats the shift lever was on the steering column, rather than on the floor. The front seats could be folded down to make a large bed. Behind the rear seats there was a deep storage area, initially covered. The rear was characterized by a large two piece window making it the first rear-engined Tatra with good rear visibility.
An independent petrol-burning heater is fitted under the front seat.
Low volume production levels and the resulting lack of production automation meant that "one off" adaptations were relatively easy to accomplish.