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)

News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

    £26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003