A square-cut diamond: Sales of the Tatra in the old USSR have collapsed. Could it sell here? Phil Llewellin meets its importer

Testimonies to Tim Bishop's passion for off-beat vehicles include one of the last two-stroke Trabants - 'Far more interesting than the VW-engined version' - a brace of Austin Champs, one of only three right-hand-drive NSU Spiders with the wankel rotary engine, a Steyr-Daimler-Puch Haflinger, a Morgan Super Sports and several of the 'bubblecars' that were popular in the Fifties. While working for Saab in Sweden, he astonished locals by driving an ancient double-decker bus.

The 40-year-old engineer's taste for unconventional transport may have been inherited, because the Morgan is a reminder that his maternal grandfather won races and broke records in a similar car in the Twenties. Mr Bishop's own exploits include driving home from Leipzig in a mind-boggling contraption called a Velorex. Made in Czechoslovakia, this seriously basic three- wheeler has a tubular steel frame, a canvas 'body' and a 350cc engine.

All of which helps to explain Mr Bishop's interest in Tatra, the fascinating, but little-known, Czech manufacturer, whose first car was built in 1897. The marque's history is crammed with innovative vehicles. Hans Ledwinka, the erstwhile technical chief, deserves to be remembered as one of the motor industry's greatest engineers.

Mr Bishop has devoted almost three years to making the big, fast, rear-engined Tatra T613/5 suitable for the British market. Price varies because each five-seater is built by hand for a specific customer, but pounds 30,000 is typical. In view of the opposition in that price bracket, the target of 25 sales in the first year is nothing if not realistic.

'There will always be motorists who want a car that says they're a bit different,' Mr Bishop contends. 'The Tatra will appeal to a select band of people who appreciate its unique engineering and its rarity. In addition to a good, value-for- money car, we're offering the sort of exclusivity and service one associates with Aston Martin. Customers will deal with us on a person-to- person basis.'

Launched in 1975, the big Tatra used to be a potent and coveted status symbol for senior Communist officials. Mr Bishop likens it to a five-seater Porsche 911, the common factor being a powerful, air-cooled engine slung between the rear wheels. The Tatra's 3.5-litre V8 comes with a catalytic converter and produces a maximum of 220bhp. Performance claims include 0-60mph in 7.7 seconds and a top speed of 138mph.

The ability to cruise at more than 120mph was proved on Germany's limit-free motorways when Mr Bishop and I drove a pre-production version of the 'British' car to and from the Tatra factory in Koprivnice, near the fledgling Czech Republic's border with its Slovak neighbour. We covered almost 2,000 miles and made two overnight ferry crossings in three days, so the trip was also a good test of the car's comfort rating. There were still teething problems, but the overall impression was favourable.

The Tatra is hardly sleek and elegant, but the square-cut saloon attracted considerable attention long before we took ship from Sheerness to Vlissingen. It was styled by Vignale - one of Italy's top designers - but a shape that passed muster in the Seventies now looks distinctly out of date. Mr Bishop and his colleagues have updated the appearance by lowering the suspension (which also enhances the handling characteristics), fitting alloy wheels and developing a 'body kit' that makes the front, in particular, more attractive than the home-market version.

Mr Bishop worked for International Automotive Design, Saab, Jaguar, Rover and TVR - often in a consultative role - before going it alone in 1989. His company was established to design catalytic converters and the engine management systems that go with them.

It was in this capacity that he first contacted Tatra, which had been confronted with the collapse of the guaranteed Eastern bloc market. In 1990, just over 300 cars were exported to the USSR. The total for 1993 will be about 35. Those figures from a factory that has a theoretical capacity of 1,600 cars a year with a break-even figure near the 350 mark.

The managing director, Zdenek Kalinec, gave a wry smile when I said that the current scale of his business - about 200 cars a year - made even Rolls-Royce look like a manufacturer for the masses.

'The initial contract was to develop a catalyst system that would make the engine acceptable in western Europe and elsewhere,' Mr Bishop recalls. 'Fifty years of virtual isolation from reality behind the Iron Curtain has left the Czechs with no sales and marketing skills, but I was very impressed by the 613. Six months into the project I became convinced that there was the potential to do a 'whole car' for Britain. Convincing the Czechs of that potential was quite a task, but they eventually agreed to give us a car we could convert to right-hand drive and re-engineer in other ways.'

Mr Bishop's transport for his first visit to the Czech Republic in 1991 was an old Tatra 603, which he had acquired several years before he had anything other than an enthusiast's interest in the company. It was an illuminating experience.

'We were halfway between Prague and Brno when the engine blew up in the biggest possible way,' he recalls. 'It was the morning of April Fools' Day. We spotted a scrap 603 in a yard by the road, went to the nearby house, knocked on the door and, to cut a long story short, were eventually offered a rebuilt engine for only pounds 100.

'The price was discussed over the sort of working breakfast you don't get in England. Would you believe, home-brewed vodka and chocolate cake]'

Tatra (GB) Ltd, The Old Forge, Fosters Booth, Towcester, Northamptonshire NN12 8JU (0327 830438).

(Photograph omitted)

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