Like many teenagers, Joe Šlarko dreamed of having a car, but going for a drive in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s was a privilege largely reserved for government officials and their chauffeurs.
“Most people couldn’t afford a car,” Joe says. “People who tried to purchase one had to buy a ticket and then wait for years. The tickets became a currency that was bought and sold.”
Joe wanted to see what life was like outside Communism, so in 1968 the 20-year-old took his chance, escaping on a 24-hour visa to Vienna. “I thought the regime would be gone in a few months and I’d go
home. Instead they were there for decades. I was given three years’ jail in absentia and came to Australia because it was so far away.”
While freedom allowed Joe to splurge on a succession of big American cars – a Hudson Super Wasp, Dodge Phoenix, Pontiac Parisienne, Chevy Bel Air and a Mercury Cougar – he yearned for the Tatra and Skoda cars of home. The innovative Tatras featured aerodynamic styling and an air-cooled rear-engine layout.
It started with a Skoda
In 1982, Joe discovered a Skoda Felicia convertible for sale not far from his Melbourne home. “It’s an economical, strong car that’s easy to repair,” he says. “A new Felicia cost a bit more than the top-model Holden. We’ve driven it to Adelaide and my wife uses it to do the shopping. It’s our freedom machine.”
After the Czech regime fell, Joe returned to visit relatives and he has since brought some air-cooled V8 1960s and ’70s Tatras to Australia.
Two of these fast, comfortable cars – a 603 and a 613 model, built for transporting VIPs – were subsequently bought by Charlie’s Auto Museum at Arthurs Seat.
Then Joe heard about a rare 1952 Tatraplan 600 owned by a farmer near Ballarat, one of only 50 imported new into this country. He bought it and it’s also on display at Arthurs Seat.
“It was Tatra’s plan for the future. It’s got a flat-four, air-cooled engine, ‘suicide’ front doors giving very easy access and all-independent suspension,” he says.
“The Tatras and Skodas remind me of what I dreamed of having when I was a kid … now the dream is real.”
Story: Tony Lupton
Photos: Shannon Morris
Published: RoyalAuto April 2017