The field had narrowed down from hundreds of sketches to 20 scale models to four full-size mockups. None of the four motivated Tatra’s design staff to continue with their task – replacing the company’s flagship T603 – but one engineer’s after-hours inspiration buoyed their spirits and, decades later, the most sporting of his designs is slated to become a running and driving car.
Introduced in 1955 and put into production two years afterward after an order from central planning to resume production of luxury automobiles, the T603 maintained its predecessors’ rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, streamlined body, and air-cooled engine. That engine, however, switched from the T600’s flat-four to a brand-new overhead-valve V-8 more suitable to the larger T603, which actually lost a couple inches in wheelbase but gained 20 inches in total length.
Restricted to use by high-ranking government officials, first by decree and later effectively by price, the only time an average citizen saw the inside of one, as David LaChance pointed out in the July 2010 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, “came after a 3 a.m. knock on the door.” Over the T603’s 18-year production run, Tatra built just north of 20,000 examples, all four-door sedans, over three iterations.
But that’s not to say Tatra didn’t make at least a couple attempts to replace or radically revise the T603 during its run. The first attempt came in 1961 with the T603A, a sleeker sedan more in line with contemporary American designs. Proposals for a four-door sedan with a GM-reminiscent roofline and a station wagon/ambulance were built, the former with a smaller but more powerful version of the T603’s V-8 and revised rear axle design. Though neither got the green light, both still exist.
A second attempt started in early 1963 when Tatra officials charged Ivan Mičík, based in the company’s car-making Bratislava factory, with developing a T603 replacement. Though Mičík solicited design proposals from multiple sources, the task of combing through those proposals and shepherding a handful of their selections through the design process fell to a group of three other men in Tatra’s Bratislava works: Pavol Hudec, Marián Ziga, and Ján Cina. Cina, according to the Slovak Design Center, had just joined Tatra the year prior to work on T603-based minibus and pickup designs and carried a mechanical engineering degree from the the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava and Brno University of Technology.
By the end of the year, as the Slovak Design Center tells the story, a deadline to choose a design was looming and Cina’s team had winnowed the list of proposals down to four – one of which had a cantilevered rear window, another of which seemed to blend bullet ‘Bird and Rambler elements – all sedans, none of which Mičík particularly liked.
Rather than give up, however, Cina reportedly spent the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s holed up in a Bratislava apartment coming up with a fifth T603X design. Cina took the narrow quad headlamps from the T603 Mark II and pushed them out to the extremes of the grilleless front end, but then pinched that front end to bring them a little closer together. Though the headlamp pockets resemble those from the Corvair, they also predate the Corvair’s design by a year or so. Another Corvair design, however, the Giugiaro-designed and Bertone-built 1963 Corvair Testudo, appears to have greatly influenced the rear half of Cina’s design, particularly the convex fastback slope that comes to a clamshell dividing line with flush taillamps underneath.
“Johnny, that is just what I was waiting for!” Mičík reportedly told Cina after seeing his designs.
Cina sketched out three variations on the design – a station wagon, a four-door sedan, and a two-door coupe on a shorter wheelbase – the latter of which shared the same fastback roofline. While the coupe made it into scale-model form in at least a couple variants and even on to one full-scale mockup, it was the sedan that progressed on to the full-scale working prototype stage with the designation T603X5. According to Garaz.cz, the T603X5 sedan, smaller in every dimension than the T603, also bumped the V-8 to 122 horsepower, improved on the T603’s aerodynamics, added disc brakes all around and employed a new rear axle designed for better stability at speed.
The T603X effort proved all for naught; Tatra dismissed it as too small, so it continued refreshing the T603 until replacing it with the T613, and only the T603X5 and a handful of scale models remain, on display in the Tatra Technicke Muzeum in Koprivinice. However, according to the Slovak Design Center, the T603X’s flawed design process did lead Tatra officials in the late 1960s to turn to outside help, specifically Vignale, for the T613’s design.
What purpose Cina’s coupe design would have served remains unanswered. Tatra had produced two-doors and coupes prior to the T603 and even built a prototype sports car, the JK 2500, in the early 1950s, but from the late 1950s onward its passenger car lineup consisted entirely of four-doors. Even a Vignale proposal for a T613 two-door got shot down. After all, what Czech of means to purchase a Tatra would be caught dead climbing into the rear seat of a two-door vehicle or even behind the wheel?
To give the coupe another chance, a group of designers associated with the Slovak Design Center have pulled all existing photographs, blueprints, models, and other materials related to the coupe, combined them with the recollections of the designers and engineers involved with the project – including Cina – and set out to re-create the coupe, this time as a running and driving full-size prototype, just like the sedan.
In March, the team completed a 3D rendering of the coupe both to flesh out the design and to prepare the molds necessary for the car’s construction. According to the design center, quarter-scale models were due to be completed mid-year, after which the design center can proceed to full-scale fabrication.
For more information about the project, visit SCD.sk.