Sedan Ramblings - Reviews, comparisons and all things sedans
Two Cars That Shook the World
... or at least shook themselves to pieces
a.k.a. Eastern Europe's Fastest Sedans (07/07/04)
by Traian Popescu
Long before Karl Benz earned a patent in 1885 for creating the predecessor to the Mercedes SL65 AMG and Porsche 911 Turbo, another Karl, also Prussian, was working on a different kind of revolution. Touting socialism and the abolition of private property, Marx probably wasn't the kind of guy who would have much cared for Benz's invention. In fact, he'd likely have viewed it as another bourgeois contraption meant to widen class divisions and bring technology to the wealthy at the expense of the poor, or some other big words to that effect. Not that Benz would have been a die hard Marxist either. I mean, if nobody was rich, who would buy his car? Fast forward a good century or so and the brainchildren of both Karls are in full swing. Eastern Europe has gone Red and the automobile has replaced the dog as man's best friend. Fortunately for this article, out of this unhappy marriage of Karls were born a couple of really neat sedans! Read on for the Eastern Europe's Fastest Sedans.
The year is 1960. Stalin has been dead seven years, the KGB are loosening up a little and the Soviet Union is experiencing somewhat of a thawing. After the Gulags and all that business, it's hard to go any way but up. With Brezhnev still four years away and small but significant economic reforms already underway, it's no wonder some citizens are beginning to naively mistake communism for some sort of democracy. But old doctrines die hard and good party-men never think for themselves: any peep of protest out of you and suddenly your grocer is a secret police spy and you're in the back seat of a GAZ-13 Chaika, sold-out to a well-armed pair of austere KGB goons. Welcome to socialism - Soviet-style! And trust me, those really are automatic pistols in their pockets - they're not just happy to see you.
Things only get worse from here I'm afraid: if you're lucky you'll end your days in some barren, exiled Siberian village with an old maid named Maria and a bowl of cold borsch at supper on Fridays. If not, St. Peter is always accepting applications. If you're into cars, however, this will really be a treat! In fact, you'll be gushing to know that you're handcuffed to the finest automobile the Gorky Automobile Works (GAZ) has to offer: comrade Molotov likely drives one of these (as well as a number of other second-in-command Party members), but he's been deemed a bad Communist and stripped of power, so you'd do best not to bring that up. Lenin might not have approved of the capitalist-sourced Chevy Belair design or the Ford engineering know-how that brought the company to life in 1929, but he drove a Rolls Royce so he's not one to comment.
Blasting through the grey-green countryside dotted with battered, solemn villages and burgeoning, collectivized industries, the Chaika's warbling V8 must stir up quite a bit of uneasiness among bystanders and edgy dissidents-in-hiding. 195 hp at 4400 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque at 2300 rpm from the GAZ's 5530cc, ohv, four-barrel carburetted V8 is no mean feat and the next Soviet car down the ranks, the Volga, has half the cylinders and a third the power. Another little snippet that you'd be wise not to share with your easily-provoked hosts is that even with all those numbers, the Chaika still needs a leisurely 20 seconds to reach 60 mph, wheezy even by 1960 standards. But by that time, you'd be well on your way to the 100 mph top speed. That's Moscow to Leningrad in four hours to you, comrade, but presumably something would likely break long before that.
In all fairness, by 1950s' North American standards, the GAZ Chaika is hardly an oddball. The Detroit-inspired sheet metal, torquey V8, smooth shifting 3-speed automatic (available with push-button shifting! - the predecessor to SMG, as any devoted Soviet will tell you), the supple and floaty suspension and the handy amenities such as power windows, fog lamps and radio would make any petty-bourgeois Yankee smartass feel right at home. Don't bring that up either. What might come as a surprise is that the GAZ-13 will stay in production for another 21 years, for a total run of 3179 cars between 1959 and 1981, including a handful of convertibles and station wagons. But it's still only 1960, remember, and you're not supposed to know that.
In fact, all you need to know right now is that you're just a fun-loving, Pravda touting, die-hard socialist. "Go Reds go, comrades!" Just keep saying that and you'll be alright. In fact, forget you even read this article.
TATRA T700 / T700 GT
You gotta feel just a little for the poor Czechs. Here they were in 1918, finally enjoying a bit of freedom and democracy, and they can't even go more than twenty years minding their own business before Hitler's troops march in and do a disappearing act on the Sudetenland, Bohemia and Moravia and later their democratic republic, not to mention the Tatra T97, for fear it would compete with the Fuhrer's pet project, the nifty VW Bug. Then came the whole Communism business, then another kick in the shorts in 1968 and finally, in 1998, the halting of T700 production at Tatra's Koprivnice factory, following a takeover of the company by SDC International. Which is all a terrible shame really because the T700 at the time was the crown jewel of all Central and East European car production.
Its roots date back to the T613, whose inauguration took place as far back as 1973, presumably a happy moment during an otherwise pretty gloomy spell in Czechoslovak history. The T613 was quite an incredible car on its own merits: through five different revisions, until production halted in 1996 and the T700 took over, it became a truly potent and distinctive luxury sedan worthy of all the attention the international press heaped upon it (testing whatever models some defectors had managed to smuggle out of the Soviet block, presumably).
For a short while, the T613 was even in direct competition with the ominous GAZ Chaika among the Politburo kingpins, which was hardly a match. Small wonder. Who needs equalitarianism when you've got wood trim and leather upholstery, to which the T700 added options for a PC with colour monitor, fax and cell-phone, Recaro seats and any other office furniture you elected.
The T700's design was only a reworking of the (somewhat tidier) fifth generation T613-5, and was futilely updated again in 1998. Even the T613's air-cooled 16-valve 90º 3495cc V8 was carried over in its traditional rear-mounted layout, which made for snappy Porsche 911 manners and a lot of confusion as ex-BMW owners searched for their luggage in the engine bay. Best of all, with the claimed 200 hp at 5750 rpm and a torque peak of 221 lb-ft at 4000 rpm you'd see a genuine 230 km/h (143 mph) and the 62 mph standing-start dispatched in (a more leisurely) 10.8 seconds. If you're of the opinion that that sort of acceleration prowess is more suited to the petty proletariat than fast-talking manicured executives, then Tatra's 4360cc, 237 hp option might be for you.
There is also a one-off, spank-me-hard-red GT version that's shed about 300kg from the standard car's 1840kg and is sleek and low to the ground and shod in a set of racy-looking alloys, but its drool-inducing, 300-odd horse V8 mysteriously vanished in favour of the more tepid base 3.5L unit. How can you not feel sorry for the Czechs? They finally get an M5-competitor going and someone promptly goes off and steals their engine! Fortunately, the bodywork and suspension modifications are still in place and, if you're still interested, the neutered GT is currently for sale!
Unfortunately, very few Westerners found either flavour fitting of what was essentially an updated version of a Commie spin on their German limousines - no matter how lovely or innovative they were. In 1998, as the curtains closed on the T700, 100 years of Tatra car production had come to an end. It was a typical Czech story: a bold venture, turned surprising success story, ends tragically under extraneous circumstances. So if you're feeling sorry and are looking for a quirky, satisfying sedan that oozes individuality, buy a Tatra and give it a good home. If not for yourself, do it for the Czechs.
A note on accuracy
Solid, accurate information on the Tatra T700 and all its variants is beastly hard to get a hold of and usually contradicts half a dozen other 'accurate' sources. All of the figures mentioned here have been obtained from the most trustworthy sources I could get a hold of and are accurate to the best of my knowledge, meaning I do not guarantee them in any way.
© Traian Popescu , World's Fastest Sedans (http://www.fantasycars.com/sedans/), 2004.
Thanks to the Tatra Gallery for the photos of the T700. Thanks to Robo Somora of Tatra Portal for information about the T700. You can find the T700 GT for sale here. Thanks to Oldtimer.lt for the first GAZ-13 photo.
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