Wheels of Freedom

12 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineDecember 28, 2017

Photo: The Tatra 813 Kolos was purpose designed to pull the 40-wheel P50 semi low loader. With a load capacity of 80 tonnes the rare Czech makes light work of transporting a Russian ZIL amphibian truck. The 43-year-old truck has permanent 8×8 drive and runs  standard in low gear.

A good paying and steady job is what most young adults want. Not so 32-year-old Willem Engel from Alkmaar. He invested his hard-earned money in an old Tatra 813 army truck, rebuilt it himself and drove it all the way to Africa.

As a teenager Willem was a big fan of Truck Trial. In Europe, the 8×8 drive Tatra has become renowned for its unparalleled off-road capability in this tough sport. The Dutchman says: “In my eyes the Tatra was the largest toy truck money could buy. It looked like a Tonka on steroids!‘ After finishing school, Willem started work as a motorcycle mechanic. At 21 he obtained his truck driving licence and worked for a time as a temporary driver for various transport companies.

Photo: On a recent trip through the Sahara Desert the off-road performance of the big 8×8 came into its own!

“On one of my international hauls I passed by a survival centre in the UK where a whole range of unusual vehicles were parked up. The outfit did not seem to be in business any more but the fleet looked okay. There were jeeps, buses, trucks and even army tanks. But I was most interested in a big Tatra 4-axle truck that sat in a corner. It appeared to be once used by the East German Army. The truck was ‘rustic brown‘, or better said, ‘all rust‘. But it looked more or less original. It was just the kind of all-terrain behemoth I had dreamed of as a young lad,‘ said Willem. 

A few months later, he crossed the North Sea again with a rented Scania and semi low loader to collect the rare machine.

“The Tatra did not really want to leave the UK,‘ he laughs.“Because the clutch did not work and all air lines were rusted through. We had a heck of a time to get it on to the trailer. The fact that the Tatra has a tare weight of a whopping 14,000kgs did not help either!‘ With only 640 kilometres on the odometer and 108 operating hours, the 1974-built military truck was, in theory, still new. “The biggest problem was that it had stood idle for many years. That does not do much good to a vehicle,‘ said Willem.

Two years went by before the Tatra‘s new owner mustered up enough courage to start a rebuild. “Because everything is heavy and oversized on the Tatra you can hardly work on it by yourself. You simply need some extra hands. At the time I had just changed jobs and was working in a steel construction firm.

The owner of it kind of liked my project and offered to help me in the weekends. And so did some friends who I promised a free off-road ride once the truck was fully operable again.‘

The first thing was to detach the cargo body. “The chassis is made of extremely thick steel and did not need any repairs. The cab, however, was a different story. Rust had eaten up several panels. I decided to leave this for the time being and concentrate on the mechanics. Once the clutch, fuel, and air lines were repaired I took the 8×8 to a nearby wasteland to see how it performed. The Tatra has permanent all-wheel drive and runs standard in low gear. You can also switch on cross locks and diff locks. Believe me, it walked over any hump and through the deepest hole. That was a real kick! For me the truck‘s performance was more worth than its looks,‘ said Willem.

Photo: Looking forlorn in dull green. The 8×8 Tatra was found in the UK.

Photo: The large crew cab is fitted with only six bolts to the chassis and thus can be easily detached with the help of a forklift.

Because repairing the cab was too costly and tiresome, Willem approached a Tatra dealer in the Czech Republic.

“This way I managed to find a good-as-new cab, complete with doors, windows, and floor, and a full interior with seats, dashboard, heater and even a fire extinguisher!‘ On the mechanical side, new air lines and hydraulic pipes were installed, the brake and steering system reconditioned and all the lighting renewed. And two new 300-litre fuel tanks were fabricated in-house. When all this was finished, the dull-green defence vehicle was sprayed a more pleasing yellow.

“I am using it for leisure and do not want to be associated with the military. When we took it a few years later down to Romania I immediately noticed the difference. In some East- European countries they still use these Tatras and a few times people asked if we belonged to the army.‘ After a long trip of 6000 kilometres the old military rough profile tyres were completely worn. So they were changed for 1600×20 Michelin sand tyres. Willem says that the heavy truck now also runs much better on the road. The Tatra enthusiast can talk for hours about his king size Tonka and the adventures that he and his girlfriend Mirjana have experienced with the truck so far. However, not everything always went according to plan, he recalls.

Photo: Willem and girlfriend Mirjana with their adventure-plus ride – the mighty Tatra. Like the Tatra, Mirjana also hails also from Eastern Europe.

“During one trip in southern Europe oil consumption went up to three litres per 100 km. That forced us to stop at every fuel station and buy all the engine oil they had in stock! Yet, we came to a halt on a desolated mountain road. Negotiating with hand and feet we were lucky to obtain two litres of chainsaw oil in cola bottles from some road workers. It was just enough to get us moving again to the civilised world.‘ Two years later oil consumption became so bad that the adventurous Dutchman regularly went on the road with a pair of 60-litre oil drums in the cargo body! “Of course this was getting out of hand a bit,‘ he admits. “So I decided to pull the engine apart. But, just like was the case with the cab, a new V12 diesel could be bought for less money in the Czech Republic than it would cost to have the old one reconditioned in Holland. Through my earlier contacts in the East I found a brand new air cooled V12. The only snag was how to get the block that weighed a cool 1,200kgs into our hired van. After a lot of pushing and pulling with a forklift we managed and thus we had a Ford Transit with the biggest engine in Europe!‘ laughed Willem.

But the truck is used in the first instance as a mobile home.

Photo: Out for a romantic afternoon drive in their V12 8×8 ex-military go-anywhere vehicle…why wouldn‘t you?

“After driving all over Europe we took it last summer on a Long trip to North Africa. For the occasion we had mounted an old army radio unit with sleeping accommodation on to the back of the Tatra. Accompanied by a local guide we ploughed through soft sand for days in plus-35 Celsius. It was just amazing how well the big 8×8 performed in this harsh environment. Luckily it finally proved reliable too! Our next trip is planned to Siberia. In winter…!‘

Photo: Due to the ‘significant other‘ in the cab, any conversations occur via headset intercom, courtesy of the aviation industry.

Go anywhere, with almost anything!

The Tatra 813 Kolos, as it is officially known, was a purpose designed truck/tractor for military/defence applications. From 1967 it was offered in combination with the Transporta P50 semi low loader that featured five axle lines and 40 wheels. Gross combination weight was 120 tonnes. The Tatra has a tubular chassis and independent wheel suspension, which makes it a formidable off-road vehicle. Pulling power is also awesome thanks to the 19-litre V12 diesel that pushes out 360hp and the 2×5 gearbox plus transfer case. Once in a while it is used in combination with the trailer to haul a real load, such as heavy equipment for a collector of military wagons.