Classic Cars

Classic Drive: 1989 Tatra 613-3

A rear-engine fullsize sedan fit for the KGB

If you’re from the Western world, chances are you’ve never heard of Tatra. And no, it’s not the sort of thing you throw when you’re hungry and need to eat a Snickers. Rather, Tatra was founded in 1850 as a manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages in Kopřivnice, Czech Republic, which at the time was part of the Austrian empire. The company became famous in the 1930s for streamlined cars like the Tatra 77, which was the world’s first production car designed specifically with aerodynamics in mind.

The 613 was the automaker’s third post-war project. Development began in 1968, when the Tatra 603 it was to replace had already been around for 12 years. While the earlier models are most known for their bulbous and aerodynamic profile, reminiscent of those streamlined shapes from the 1930s, the 613 was Tatra’s first radical departure from these signature designs.

Italian firm Vignale penned the sheetmetal, and while the 613 might not look much more than a Czech toaster oven on wheels today, in 1968, it was aesthetically ahead of its time. Designed to convey senior Soviet bloc officials in comfort and luxury, this Tatra is no proletarian Lada. Its 117.3-inch-long wheelbase is just 0.6-inch shorter than that of a 2017 Lincoln Continental, and its 197.6-inch overall length is roughly the same as that of the 2017 Buick Lacrosse.

Build quality is exceptional. That was a necessity, given its intended clientele. The doors just glide on their hinges. The handles click while unlatching and clack solidly upon close, like those on a BMW or Jaguar of equal vintage.

The cabin is spartan, even by 1989 standards, and especially for a car initially conceived as a luxury sedan. This particular 613 was built as a staff car for the KGB and thus means serious business. Whether in the front row or in the rear the seating position is very upright, and although the seats appear basic, they are surprisingly plush to the touch. The dashboard sits low and the steering wheel is oddly angled with zero adjustability — supposedly to avoid impaling the driver in a front-end collision. The driving position overall resembles that of a light-duty van, but the tall profile allows a very spacious cabin with excellent outward visibility.

The switchgear, however, isn’t wanting for odd Soviet-bloc engineering. The headlight toggle is next to the key tumbler, the horn sounds off by pushing inward on the indicator stalk rather than on the wheel, and some warning lights are placed where you’d otherwise find switches for auxiliaries on the bottom-left of the dash. Despite seeming misshapen, everything else is normal for any car in a simplistic, form-following-function manner.

1989 Tatra 613 3 cabin 04

Options? There’s climate control, a radio…and that’s pretty much it. Of greater interest is the heating system, which was crucial for operation during brutal Russian winters. Because the air-cooled 613 doesn’t have a liquid cooling system to draw heat from, it has two separate gasoline heaters fed by the engine’s main lines.

Unlike today’s gargling V-8s, the Tatra’s aft-mounted 3.5-liter mill claims its beast factor from just how mechanical it sounds (like a Porsche flat-six on steroids) rather than its exhaust note. It lazily but smoothly rumbles at idle. Under wide-open throttle the sound permeates through the cabin and from behind, but it isn’t overwhelming. Throttle response is surprising, the dual-carbureted V-8 revving quickly through its range. The transmission is a synchromesh four-speed unit with fourth as overdrive, amply matching the DOHC V-8’s 200 horsepower. (Later fuel-injected models churned out up to 240 hp.) Shifting, like the seating position, again brings to mind a utility van.

An all-Tatra design, the engine was mounted at the rear, continuing the company’s longest tradition. It was innovatively mounted further forward than those of earlier Tatras to curtail its infamously tricky handling, made notorious during the Nazi occupation, when many a German officer met a premature end behind the wheel of one.

Given this car’s origin, it’s in impeccable Concours d’Elegance condition, with official records from the KGB proving its spotless maintenance history. All in Russian, too. As such, it fires right up without hesitation.

Because of this particular Tatra 613’s status as a show car and a Greenwich Concours participant, seat time was limited to exploring a large private complex. Handling is unsurprisingly mixed, given the 613’s late 1960s origins. Even in this 1989 model, power steering is absent, so parking lot maneuverability is challenging to say the least. At speed it becomes lighter, with a vague on-center feel, but that can be attributed to the small steel wheels and the thick-sidewall tires meant for duty on Russian roads.

1989 Tatra 613 3 front end 02

The suspension is about as modern as it gets. With MacPherson struts up front and a fully independent setup at the rear, the 613 travels over bumps like a firm and compliant W126 Mercedes. Show the 613 a curve and much like a Citroen CX, it leans but somehow grips with composure and long suspension travel.

Though my seat time was brief, it was enough to showcase the Tatra 613’s unique nature. The model’s rarity and this KGB-spec example’s significance alone speak for the car’s intrinsic values as a major piece of Cold War history. Now that Russian and US-relations are once again in the spotlight, it’s a must-have for any collector. Just imagine the crazy stories this car could tell, if Tatras could talk.

1989 Tatra 613 Specifications

EXPECT TO PAY N/A
ENGINE  3.5L DOHC 32-valve V-8/200 hp, 195 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION
4-speed manual
LAYOUT
Four-door, five-passenger, rear-engine, RWD sedan
L x W x H 197.6 x 70.9 x 59.1 in
WHEELBASE 117.3 in
WEIGHT
3,700 lb (est)
0-60 MPH
8.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 120 mph (est)

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