These Are The Vans And Pickup Trucks Tatra Could Have Made From Their Rear-Engined Cars But Didn’t

Tatravans Top

I’ve made no secret of my fascination with rear-engined Tatras, because why would I want to hide my admiration for something so clearly wonderful? I wouldn’t, that’s why. By the mid 1950s, the Tatra formula of large, streamlined, rear-engined, air-cooled V8-powered executive cars had developed into the vaguely Beluga whale-looking Tatra 603. We all know this, you’ve likely had this very discussion multiple times today, with your bootblack or ornithologist or whatever. What you likely did not know, though, was that Tatra experimented with making vans (both passenger and cargo varietals) and pickup trucks using Tatra 603 mechanicals. They didn’t make it to production, but they’re still fascinating, and it’s incredibly important you should know about them. So let’s get on that.

In case you somehow forgot about the Tatra 603, I happen to have a little video handy here where I discuss some of the car’s secrets:

That was edifying, right?

The Tatra 603-based passenger van was known as the 603 MB, and a “low-floor” delivery vehicle was known as the 603 NP, which resembled a small, cab-over flatbed more than anything.

603mb Np

Both of these were developed between 1961 and 1962, by a Bratislava auto shop that was known as Orava before being incorporated into the Tatra organization and renamed the evocative name “Plant 5.” This group was told to develop some light commercial vehicles using the drivetrain of the Tatra 603, a move that I suspect was likely inspired by seeing the success of similar commercial vehicles developed from automotive drivetrains, like Volkswagen’s Type 2 Transporter or perhaps even the Fiat 600 Multipla.

Visually, I think the Bratislava team came up with something really quite striking-looking. The proportions of the van are especially interesting, with a large wheel-to-body-height ratio that gives it a low, aggressive stance, something that is by no means expected in a light commercial vehicle.

603van1

It’s cool-looking, right? Visually, it doesn’t really have that much in common with its drivetrain donor car, the Tatra 603, but it has an awful lot in common with another Tatra vehicle, the Tatra 805 military truck, which donated its entire cabin to the prototype people-carrier:

3waycomp

You can see some details like indicators taken from the 603, along with a similar level of chrome trim and refinement; this was a Tatra after all, a car for the more-equal-than-others party members and not, say, a Skoda or something.

You may also notice a pretty large grille up front, which should give a clue about how the Tatra 603 drivetrain was used in the commercial versions. Where the normal 603 put its air-cooled V8 at the rear, behind the rear axle, the 603 MB dragged the whole assembly up front, sticking the engine behind the front axle and the gearbox in front of that (same orientation as it was at the rear, just moved to the front axle instead of the rear) and now the front axle was driven (making this Tatra’s first FWD vehicle).

This front-mid arrangement seemed to work well for keeping the rear of the van extremely open and flexible, but the rather tall V8 did take up a lot of room in the cab area, as you can see in this pic of the interior, where a pair of rear-facing seats flanks the massive, upholstered tower that hides the engine:

Drivetrain

Here’s some other pictures showing the engine access:

Engineaccess

This layout did offer some other interesting design and packaging choices, like the fact that the 603 MB has to be one of the vanishingly few van designs that uses a hatch-and-tailgate type of rear access:

Mbrear

I’m not sure why tailgates are so rarely seen in vans – maybe because it makes loading more difficult, especially in urban, street-parking environments. You can also see the Tatra 603 taillights in this picture, along with those curved corner windows and skylights that are reminiscent of those 23-window VW Microbus Sambas.

The open rear floorplan design is especially evident in the 603 NP, which is really something of a chassis-cab vehicle, ready to have all sorts of custom rear bodywork – ambulance, food truck, bookmobile, book ambulance, mobile cat breeder, whatever – placed on that vast flat plain.

Truck

Look how low that bed height is! Without a differential or anything like that underneath, Plant 5 engineers were able to make a very low, easy-t0-load cargo area there, which would also likely prove very useful with some sort of enclosed body on there as well.

For a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which was the Byzantine state-run management of Tatra, the idea of a 603-based commercial vehicle line never made it past these two prototypes, which seems a shame, because with a bit of development, this really could have become a very useful family of passenger and cargo vehicles.

VanafterlifeThe passenger van survived, having its 13 (!) seats removed and was pressed into test/instrument vehicle duty, later getting a restoration in the 1990s and now lives in the Bratislava Transport Museum.

These prototypes are fascinating examples of variations on an already fascinating car, hinting at a broader, longer life that could have happened, but didn’t. These 603 derivatives are also interesting in that they’re a real bridge between the two faces of Tatra – the one that made luxurious, rear-engined large sedans for Communist party bigwigs, and the other, that’s still active today, that made large military and on-and off-road trucks.

(Images: Wikimedia Commons, Tatra, Bratislava Transport Museum, Autickar.cz, Automobilrevue.cz)

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17 Responses

  1. The best kind of rear doors you can have on a van are a pair of double-hinged barn doors that can fold all the way around to the outside of the vehicle. They require relatively little space to swing, and they open the whole back of the van right up, no obstructions. That’s what you want in a van, no question.

    The big hatch you get on modern minivans isn’t terrible either, though—takes a tad more space to swing, but not as much as you’d expect depending on how the rear is shaped and where the hinges are. It’s a little more obstructive in terms of cargo access, but on the plus side it’ll help with loading and unloading in the rain.

    Not sure why I’d want a tailgate on a van.

  2. Um, pedantic nitpick here, the 21-window Samba didn’t have those corner windows; it was the 23-window that had them.
    Is it absolutely certain that only the passenger van survived? If the flatbed’s fate is uncertain then people need to Czech their barns…

      1. There’s also A Collection Of Unmitigated Pedantry —a history/pop culture blog which ranges from Ancient Greek & Roman history to video games, Game of Thrones, and a fair bit of Tolkien. The proprietor is know as the Orc Logistics Guy. Want to know how ancient and medieval European(mostly) people fed themselves, produced fabric or iron, or how realistic GoT is? Go check ACOUP.

  3. That van is giving me an inexplicable case of the vapors. It must be the wheel-arch proportions that make it so plausibly modern despite the clear mid-century styling cues. Somebody needs to straight-up rip this off and put it on a modern EV platform (no more engine tower!). Make it so!

  4. I’m glad you included the 805, which was a marvel for off-roading, with portal independent axles front and rear, same 2.5 liter air cooled engine as the 603 and generally extremely slow due to the weight of it all. I owned one and it was true marvel of engineering (sort of soviet block HMMWV). Mine was a radio station one like the one pictured, still had 6 fiberglass poles stored on the roof for the antenna. When my buddy & I bought it we drove it back on the east European autobahn only to be pulled over by the cops and nicely asked to use regular roads if we can only manage about 40 mph. (supposedly we could do 50mph in that thing but the roar of the engine and the two fans just wouldn’t allow us to do that for a long time).

    1. No, they invented the beetle, Rampside and Minibus, Chevrolet conscripted the basic design and made it more GM. Honestly, if GM had used a liquid cooled V8 and directly copied the tatra design otherwise, they might have been more successful.

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