Here’s A Detailed Tour Of One Of The Last Big, Rear-Engined, Air-Cooled Cars Ever: The Tatra T700

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After reading Jason’s article on a Stephenson-style imagined history for Tatra’s T615, I hurriedly ran out to the museum’s T615 and T700 and thought…what if I showed the Autopian community the future that Tatra actually gave us? So, let’s snap back to reality (ope, there goes gravity). Here’s a quick tour of The Lane Motor Museum’s (that’s where I work) 1996 Tatra T700, one of the last 75 passenger cars to come off the line in the factory in Příbor, Czech Republic.

First, a bit of background. The Vignale-designed T613 was introduced in 1975, and after the fall of Communism across Europe in the late 1980s and early 90s, the 613 was thought to be too primitive to attract Western buyers. Tatra was evaluating two approaches to a new, proposed Project T-625: a front-engined, water-cooled sedan, or a more traditional, rear-engined, air-cooled option. Unfortunately, Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 left many state-supported industries without clear direction – Tatra included.

With Project T-625 shelved, Tatra enlisted British designer Geoff Wardle to freshen the T613 into the T700. The prototype was produced at the Příbor factory in 1995, and it was introduced to the public in 1996, in six variations. You can see the differences between the T613 and T700 in the image below; notice the smoother lines and a revised front end:

More changes were evident in the engine. The first fifteen T700s were built with a fuel injected 3.5 liter engine, but the last 14 cars were even more special, with a displacement of 4.3 liters, forged crankshafts, and chemically treated cylinder bores. These last few passenger cars Tatra produced rewarded the driver with 230 HP and 360 lb. ft. of torque. It was said that a “regular” car might take 3 ½ hours to cover the 350km from Prague to Kopřìvnice, but the over two-ton Tatra T700 was able to cover the distance in under 2 ½ hours! I suppose that after the fall of communism, the newly formed Czech Republic didn’t have any kind of highway patrol officers, because that sounds like Tatra engineers were haulin’ ass!

While my personal opinion is that the earlier T603’s have a throatier exhaust note, this short video does give you an idea of what an air-cooled V8 sounds like. My apologies that I couldn’t shoot the video and rev the engine at the same time.

Much of the rest of the exterior was basically carried over from the 613, as you can see here:

Let’s head inside, where I think the interior has a quite a few nice touches.

Look at this lovely wood steering wheel. I don’t know if this standard equipment, as I’ve see alternate plastic 1990s steering wheel, but I just love the feel of it.

The automatic climate control works….okay. It’s in Celsius, of course, so if you’re an American driving a T700, every time you want to get comfortable, you’ll have to do math, just as your high school teachers warned you about.

It’s got a fairly smooth five-speed manual. Pull up on the ring to get to reverse.

Center mount window switches, hand-brake, and power mirror controls, next to a singular, very-European, “cup holder”.

[Editor’s Note: Rear-engined Tatras are some of my favorite cars, but that may be one of the worst cupholders I’ve ever seen. It’s got just enough depth to lull you into a false sense of drink security, but I guarantee that first turn will end up with your crotch lavishly soaked with piping hot Fanta or whatever you people drink – JT]

The front seats are very comfortable, nicely bolstered with fabric inserts, but oddly, with manual adjustments. My US market 1995 Jaguar XJ6 had power seats. [Ed Note: Nice flex, Rex – JT] Again, most likely a carryover from the 613.

Auto-dimming rear-view mirror with map lights, with a view of the overly upholstered headliner.

The rear seats are comfortable as well, with manual rear pull-up sunshades and 1990s-standard door ashtrays.

Also an interesting feature, this reading lamp for the rear passengers. It very much looks like something that was bought at the local Czech version of Staples as an afterthought. There’s a toggle switch on top of the lamp. [Editor’s note: This is absolutely absurd. Did Tatra really not route the wiring underneath some pillar trim and have the light be integrated into the headliner? Is it really a flexible-neck reading lamp just exposed like that?? Good lord that’s a hilarious afterthought. -DT]. 

Behold the cavernous frunk:

We at the museum have always thought this is either one of the last 75 T700s off the line, because of the 4.3 liter engine option, but the VIN plate, located over the front left headlight buckets, lists the last three digits of the VIN as “003”.

So, this particular T700 is either of the first, or one of the last. The registration (in Czech) isn’t really clear, so some more digging needs to be done.

A much-needed front axle redesign was on the drawing board when Tatra pulled the plug on passenger car production. Heavy commercial and military trucks are still produced by the factory (the museum has a 1994 T815 Rollback too) but sadly no one will never know what interesting passenger cars might have come from the inventive minds of Tatra. Well, except for the Bishop of Automotive Arcana.

Hopefully you enjoyed this look at the rare Tatra T700, the last of the great air-cooled wonders from your favorite Czechoslovakian automaker.

BONUS: Wait, there’s more!

In addition to the T700, I grabbed a few shots of our Polski Fiat 126 Bis’s engine under its cargo area, as well our Fiat 500 “Camioncino”’s engine placement, to highlight their engine packaging that Jason mentioned. [Editor’s Note: Rex is referring to my love of cars with their engines set under the floor, at the rear, which I do indeed love. – JT]

First, the Polski Fiat 126 Bis:

…and now the tiny pickup Fiat 500 Camioncino:

 

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43 Responses

  1. Love these stories from the Lane! I’ve been a V-8 RWD muscle car guy all my life but I’ve always had a soft spot for the quirky, small, and just all around different stuff from around the world. I made sure to visit the Lane when I was in Nashville for the day a few years back, an absolute must see place! I only had about an hour to wander around and it wasn’t nearly enough time, I hope to get back some day.

  2. “that first turn will end up with your crotch lavishly soaked with piping hot Fanta”

    That’s a feature, Jason. You haven’t lived until you’ve had at least one lavish crotch-soaking. Piping hot Fanta is optional, though. Choose the most appropriate luxury beverage for your region/situation.

  3. I genuinely wish Tatra had been able to get a foothold here in the US as to my eye and interest this looks like it would have made a fantastic alternative to a BMW 3 series for those of us with a quirkier mindset. Like the fact that I would love to find a Citroen C8 here for my wife to float around in. Not saying it was a better car, just something I’d like to have seen succeed at least a little.

  4. These last Tatras are such alternate-universe machines. If we’re being honest, no way would this have stolen significant sales from BMW and Mercedes, but it’s nice to think of what could have been. It’s possible it still could have sold significantly in the less competitive former Soviet bloc countries. It was always going to be the last gasp of the air cooled rear engine sedan, though. Hopefully I’ll soon be able to make it up there to see it.

      1. The cupholder action in the 9-5 is like automotive ballet and a thing of beauty. At least for our small SI system compatible European cups and bottles the holder is more than sturdy enough.

        1. Yes, its beautiful in action and a miracle of packaging and whatnot… but it doesn’t actually… work in practice. I can cram a plastic water bottle in there and it’ll stay but anything taller and its game over.

    1. I see your Saab 900 and raise you the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky passenger cupholder. Not the one in the waterfall, the one in the footwell.
      What’s even worse is in 2009 it was the *only* cupholder as they removed the ones in the waterfall for some reason.

    2. BMW has had some very strange ideas about cup holders as well. The e38 7-series had this overly-complicated and mostly useless thing that sprung out of the space in front of the shifter, and the e90 3-series sedans had these strange things that popped out of the trim band in front of the passenger, with the driver-side one coming out in a graceful yet precarious arc to get the beverage closer to the driver (but it was still very much in the passenger’s “space”). Both designs were overly-fiddly and seemed prone to breaking, while also not really being successful in keeping the drink from spilling. I *really* don’t understand the e90, because the e46 that preceded it had perfectly fine/functional cupholders in the center console (okay, so the second one was under the arm rest, but for single-occupant commuter duty it was fine.)

  5. Great article about an obscure car. I love it. I’m like everyone else here, wishing we could know what they would have made if they were still in business today.

    But I think that “cupholder” is merely a coin cup for parking meters and similar things.

  6. I remember reading reviews of this car at the time, in CAR Magazine and maybe Performance Car as well. I recall that they were generally positive but like others have said, wouldn’t steal a significant amount of business from ze Germans.

    Interestingly the car I remember seeing in the magazines was the same reddish color as this one!

  7. Man, that Tatra is all sorts of awesome…one of my favorite cars!

    Though the 500 and 126p ARE my favorite cars, so loved seeing them tacked onto the end there! I’m not as big on the water-cooled 126p BIS compared to the air-cooled 126p though….the BIS was known to have a lot of head gasket issues…it’ll be an air-cooled 126p for me thanks! I’ve been saving up and REALLY hope to get one of my own in the next few years if I can finally find a house of my own….stupid housing market 🙁

    The 500 pickup is extraordinarily rare! Guessing it’s just a modified Giardiniera estate that was converted in some sense?

      1. Pretty well done though! I’d love to have a stock 500 along with a 126p, but 500 values are significantly higher. You can get a later (1994+) 126p EL or ELX in really good shape from Poland for pennies in comparison! 🙂

  8. A high school friend of mine had a Fiat 126BIS with that water-cooled 2 cylinder engine.
    He was the cool kid on the block, most of the other Fiat 126’s back then were the air cooled ones without the rear hatch trunk area.
    Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me but I clearly remember the valve cover saying ‘Lancia’ on it.
    It was much, much better than the regular air-cooled (Polski) Fiat 126p. Way less noisy than the air-cooled 650 engine, and it could maintain highway speeds too.
    Oh and since the 650 came up, that was a bit of an oddball engine too as the 2 pistons were moving up & down at the same time but they were on the opposite stroke of each other. It had a very typical engine sound.

  9. I’ve never seen this in-depth of an overview of the T700 – my takeaway is that it’s an interesting car with some clever engineering, and decent performance, but the age of the design is painfully obvious and there seems to be a lot of unpolished looking details. My recollection is that these were extremely expensive in the 90s, every bit S-Class and 7-Series money, and, as much as I’d want to back the Tatra, it’s kind of obvious why they weren’t able to convince many people to buy one over the Germans

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