By Brian Earnest
Danny Barnett has had about 35 years to rehearse his answer to the inevitable question: “What is that?!” He hears the inquiry almost every time he takes out his strange, yellow, bulbous European sedan.
For years, he would happily oblige inquisitors with a lengthy history lesson on the background of his 1966 Tatra 2-603. These days, he keeps his replies a little shorter. “I try to give them the Reader’s Digest version now,” he laughs. “’It’s from Czechoslovakia, built in Eastern Europe, rear engine, blah, blah …When people start to yawn, they are getting bored and I’ve gone on too long!”
There was a time when Barnett was asking that same question. He was a car guy and together with a friend started seeking out and buying old Hudsons around Las Vegas and countless Nevada back roads. The Hudson “fixer-uppers” were his passion until he spotted a Tatra pictured on a cigarette card in a book. “I had never heard of it. Here was this car with a dorsal fin and shaped like a zeppelin, engine in the back… It was just so different. We decided to make it our goal to see if we could find one and buy one. Over the next few years, we found a few Tatraplans that needed a whole lot of work and weren’t running. Well, I didn’t want to wind up with something I couldn’t keep running or needed a ton of work. In those years, Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain and you couldn’t just go to a local parts store and buy parts!”
Barnett wound up passing on the few Tatras that he found, but patience paid off. In 1984, he found out about a car that was scheduled to be sold at a Dean Kruse auction in Las Vegas. It was a white 1966 2-603 that had been in the United States almost its entire life. The demand for such a car was pretty low, Barnett figured, so he hoped he might have a shot at landing it for a bargain price. “I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “The car had been advertised for sale a few months before, so I knew about it. But it didn’t sell. Those were the days when hardly anybody knew what it was, and when I went to the auction I knew exactly what it was! … It went up, and they had a turntable and everything, and it was bid up to $1,850 with no sale. Well, I was still interested in it so I followed the guy out in the parking lot. I told the guy I would really like to have it. He said, ‘I’ve got $2,500 in it. If I could get my $2,500 back, I’d be happy.’ And I thought, ‘Bingo!’ So I drove home in a Tatra that day and I’ve had it ever since.”
According to the story Barnett got on the car, the Tatra had been imported new to Los Angeles in 1966 by an expatriate Czech named C.J. Coffee, who sold Jawa and CZ motorcycles at his shop in Southern California. He received permission from the Czech government to purchase the car and export it to the United States. He apparently watched the car being built at the factory in Koprivnice. After he shipped it to the states, he would park it in front of his motorcycle shop in L.A. to attract attention. He also drove it to Seattle once back in the day. In the mid ’70s, Coffee retired and moved to Prescott, Ariz., and eventually sold the Tatra to a collector, who in 1984 put it up for sale. “I was delighted to become the owner of this wonderful unusual car, and thought it was funny when spectators at car shows had no idea what it was, and even other car collectors couldn’t believe that they actually manufactured cars in Czechoslovakia,” Barnett says. “People are still surprised to watch me open the rear deck cover [and unveil] the 2.5-liter air-cooled hemi V-8! I have been asked if it is a Chrysler Hemi, and at one recent display, a fellow collector asked me how hard it was to adapt and install the motor in my car. He couldn’t believe it when I told him it is the way in came from the factory.”
One of the first rear-engined cars to enter production, the Tatra was also one of the world’s most progressive vehicles, pioneering unibody construction and streamlined design. Evolved from the Schustala wagon factory, which dates to 1953, the company formed at Nesseldorf entered the automobile business in 1897, when Czechoslavakia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. An experimental “Prasident” vehicle, powered by a two-cylinder engine, led to production of 10 motorcars in 1899. Each had a different name, but by 1901 the Nesseldorf name was adopted. A 3.3-liter Model S with an overhead-cam engine appeared in 1906, and six-cylinder engines came into use by 1914. By that time, the cars also had independent suspensions and four-wheel brakes. After World War I, when the nation of Czechoslovakia was formed, the town of Nesseldorf adopted a new name, so the name of the car produced there was changed to the Tatra, after a mountain range where the cars underwent testing.
The Type 11 that arrived in 1923 had advanced features such as air cooling, swing axles and a tubular backbone-style chassis. It was powered by a horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine. By the 1930s, the model lineup had ranged from three-wheelers with one cylinder power to a limited-production V-12. Meanwhile, the company had become no less renowned for the manufacture of trucks and railway locomotives.
In 1934, the car that put Tatra’s name in the history books arrived. The Type 77 fastback sedan was powered by a rear-mounted V-8 engine and had styling cues similar to the Chrysler Airflow, but with a personality all its own. It was capable of speeds near 100 mph with its 3389cc 75-hp engine. Design features included triple headlamps. A similarly shaped T87 model came later, along with a smaller 3-liter overhead-cam V-8.
The 1930s also saw a smaller rear-engine prototype built that would bear a strong resemblance to what would later become the Volkswagen. In 1967, Tatra won a lawsuit against VW for patent infringement and was awarded 3 million marks.
Ownership of the Tatra company was nationalized under the communist government following World War II. The next big development proved to be the development of the T600 Tatraplan — which was similar in looks to the prewar sedan, but with a four-cylinder engine. By 1957, the T603 had arrived with a rear V-8 instead of a flat four. Two years later, the body got a facelift and a more potent V-8 was added. In 1969, a total of 250 cars were produced by Tatra, but that was a small part of the company’s total output, which was about 4,000 vehicles. Trucks made up the bulk of the Tatra business, and automobiles from the company are a rare sight today, particularly in the United States.
“Tatra is still in business making heavy-duty diesel trucks,” Barnett points out. “Car production ended in 1997 with the Tatra 700 series.”
Stranger in a Strange Land
“My car is the second series, or 2-603. It has a 2.5-liter air-cooled rear engine, with a four-speed trans-axle with column shift,” Barnett notes. “It also features power drum brakes. In 1967, Tatra introduced four wheel disc brakes, and electronic ignition. The engine produces 99 hp, and with the extremely aerodynamic body, built like an airplane fuselage with even the under body completely smooth, it can cruise at 60 to 70 mph, no problem. It is a real comfortable cruiser and easily holds up to six passengers. The radio even has a short-wave band on it. I guess during the Cold War, you could get Radio Free Europe on it while you were driving along. It also came with an accessory hand crank to start the car if the battery died, which many East Bloc cars had up through the 1980s. Also, about the same time my car was built, the Tatra factory workers assembled a 603 sedan for Fidel Castro. It is the only 603 ever to have air conditioning. I assume it still exists in some government garage or warehouse in Havana.”
Barnett wasn’t quite sure how challenging it would be to restore an offbeat, Communist-built car from the 1960s when he finally got his hands on one, but he didn’t back down from the challenge, either.
Not long after he got it, Barnett started working on the exterior of the car, which was made easier by the fact that it was void of rust. He scrapped the white paint in favor of a striking Marigold Yellow, which makes the 603 stand out even among fellow Tatras. “You could have it any color you wanted, really. These cars were mostly reserved for political leaders, factory executives, people like that,” he says. “The chances for an ordinary Czech to get one in those days was very remote.”
Over the years, Barnett said there has really been no part of the car that has gone untouched. He re-did the interior and all the seat upholstery not long after the body and paint were done. Then came a methodical overhaul of all the mechanicals, including the air-cooled V-8 in back.
“I put a lot of work into it. I also am very lucky to have a good friend and also a Tatra owner, Ken Ufheil of Plano, Texas, who as a master mechanic with many good connections in the Czech Republic and the old East Germany, is able to get parts to keep my 603 roadworthy,” he says. “Recently, my car made bearing noises in fourth gear, and Ken found an elderly gentleman in Chemnitz, formerly Karl Marx Stadt, East Germany, who rebuilds those trans-axles! The cost air freighted to Las Vegas was very reasonable, $2,500. There are vendors in the Czech Republic reproducing parts for these cars now, too, and a restoration service at the factory, which does any Tatra car you want to have restored.”
Barnett, not surprisingly, has become a well-known member of the small community of Tatra owners enjoying their cars in the United States. Among the car owners he has rubbed elbows with is Jay Leno, who owns a 1947 Tatra 87. He says his proudest and most memorable moment with the car came in 2014, when he displayed the Tatra at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey, Calif.
Slowly, but surely, he says the surviving Tatras have become more well-known in collector circles — and more valuable. He recalled a time when surviving 603s would regularly change hands for prices in the $1,500 range. Nice examples now go for $50,000 or more. “Those early cars, the Model T77s, they only made 100, 120 of those. I’ve heard they change hands now for over $1 million, that’s how rare they are,” Barnett notes. “Then the T87s that came after that, they are very iconic and those are going for in the neighborhood of $250,000 now, and I remember you could pick them up for $15,000, $20,000 30 years ago.”
You believe Barnett when he says he has never been tempted to sell his beautiful yellow sedan. He knows he’d probably never find another one to match it, and the car has become too much a part of his identity to part with. That hasn’t stopped a few people from trying to convince him otherwise.
“There are a couple of guys in Europe … that are really seriously into the Tatra collecting hobby,” he says. “A couple guys in Holland and one in Germany, and they know my car quite well. A couple of them actually came to the United States on holiday and actually came over to my house and wanted to take a look at my car. The thing that always impresses them and blows them away is this car was manufactured in ’66 … crated to the United States, and basically the car has never been out of the southwest United States its whole life. It’s never had any rust on it, and in Europe, these cars can rust very badly. One guy just couldn’t believe it. He says he’s never seen one like it.
“So there are some guys who would like to have it, but I love the car so much and have so much fun with it. I’m sure they would take very good care of it back in Europe, but I don’t know — I don’t think it would happy back in Europe. My car likes it out here in the dry.”
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