Not many people got to have Tatra 603s. They were usually reserved for people who had status on the other side of the Iron Curtain. People the leadership wanted to impress. Yasser Arafat was one of those people, and this was allegedly his car.
I found it for sale on Hemmings a few days back making my regular rounds to see what kind of interesting stuff is on offer right now. I’ve always been a devotee of the rear-engined regalia the company used to put out before abandoning cars entirely for the truck sector, so I tend to scroll through the drop-down menus to ‘T’ and have a gander at what kind of Tatras people are trying to sell. And this one? This one certainly caught my eye.
Aside from being a very tidy example of one of my absolute favourite cars out there, the owner had included some information about its provenance that got me wondering. Allegedly, this car, a 1971 603 in the usual black, was given to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, or PLO, by the Stasi, the East German secret police, for use as a limousine for dignitaries visiting East Germany.
When it belonged to them, Yasser Arafat is purported to have used it extensively. There’s even a story about the car from the New York Daily News about the car from another time it was on sale back in 2015.
Now, much of that story seems to check out at first glance. Tatras like this one were long favourites of dignitaries of all sorts. Back before World War II, German officers were known to be keen on Tatras, though their rear-engined arrangement meant they were difficult to handle and not infrequently killed their occupants when oversteer got the best of their drivers.
After the war, as Czechoslovakia (and Tatra) came under Communist control, the cars retained their prestige and many leaders of second-tier Eastern-Bloc states had them, Castro for one.
In East Germany, the mighty 603 was among the options available to the ruling cadres alongside a number of other interesting choices like stretched Volvos and Citroëns. Though the country may not have had much in the way of consumer choice for most, at least the car-spotting options for us nerds were head-and-shoulders above the black Suburbans and Escalades we get to see these days in DC.
So if all of that is the case, and Yasser Arafat, as a leader of the PLO, was a dignitary that the East Germans would likely want to have around and lavish what luxury they had available, what’s got me suspicious?
It mostly has to do with some Cold War inside baseball that might not be clear to most casual observers. The thing here is that the PLO is not the unified ideological front you might think, and it certainly wasn’t back then. Rather it was more of an umbrella organisation with member factions of various ideological streams. Years of institutional change brought round largely by the Oslo Agreements of the ‘90s changed the shape of the PLO when it gave up violent resistance, giving Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction a lot more influence than it once had.
Before then, Fatah was just one of a number of factions jockeying for influence over the Palestinian community both within the Occupied Territories and in the Palestinian diaspora in the Arab world and beyond. And, despite the reputation Arafat may have developed, he and Fatah were long considered moderates compared to much of their fellow PLO members. More radical (and more violent) groups like the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) positioned themselves far to the left of Fatah, and far closer to Eastern-Bloc countries like East Germany, particularly their security services.
Groups like the PFLP and DFLP, though members of the PLO, were sworn enemies of Arafat and those around him. On the other hand, they were very friendly with the Stasi and other non-state groups in their orbit like the Red Army Faction, or RAF, in West Germany. Though I haven’t seen a direct link through the Stasi between the Palestinians groups and the others, their cooperation around the time this Tatra was made available to the PLO resulted in some of the most deadly terrorist attacks perpetrated in the name of the PLO.
The cooperation between these PLO factions and the Stasi largely took the form of training and material support which required enough meeting and greeting with the powers that be in East Berlin to justify a car like this for the PLO motor pool.
What this all has me thinking is that though it may be true that Arafat did use this car at some point, it’s more likely that his sworn enemies were using it far more often than he was, and that the same seat he rode in could have been occupied by someone plotting against him. I mean, attempts were made on his life by his enemies to the left.
In any case, the ad does include a photo of paperwork that attests to the car’s use by the PLO, and the ad claims that the car was used as a “spy courier car” between East and West and was involved in a number of PLO missions. Whether the seller means diplomatic missions or something more sinister was not elaborated upon.
Now, that shouldn’t suggest that the car has any less of a story even if its connection with Arafat is probably rather minor. Far from it. At the end of the day, this is still an air-cooled V8-powered, communist-built, streamlined limousine owned by a spy agency and loaned out to terrorists. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a car with a better story than that. If you’ve got one, you better send it my way.
As for the car itself, it appears to be in spotless shape but not much else is written about its condition in the ad. It has a listed mileage of 500, but mileage is a difficult indicator of wear for Tatras, which could be remanufactured at the factory even long after they were sold. The car is located in Chicago, Illinois and is for sale on Hemmings here.