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
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
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

    SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

    SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

    Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

    £85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

    Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

    £55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering