by James Kraus
I am not alluding to a certain well-known California actor and former politician, but a rather a more mechanical manifestation of Austrian muscle: The Steyr-Puch 650 TR II; a giant and gem among 1960s microcars. The TR II was a Fiat 500 injected with corticosteroids, human growth hormone and EPO; yet entirely legal.
The venerable firm of Steyr-Puch first began building their version of the Fiat Nuova 500 under license in 1957. Production began in the town of Graz, Austria, shortly after Fiat began their own production of their all-new rear-engine 500. While incorporating the Fiat’s monocoque structure and front suspension, the Steyr-Puch 500 utilized an in-house Steyr-developed powertrain and rear suspension.
While the Fiat 500 engine was designed to be as inexpensive as possible to manufacture, the Puch engine was incredibly lavish in design and execution, with a sophistication that put many larger and more expensive cars to shame.
The Fiat Nuova 500 engine was a straight-forward inline-twin with a long crankshaft unsupported by a centre main bearing, a centrifugal oil strainer and minimal oil-cooling achieved by simply passing cooling air across a ribbed sump.
In contrast, the Puch 500 was a much smoother-running and more costly horizontally-opposed boxer twin with a extremely short, rigid crankshaft, an oil system with full-flow filtration via a disposable Fram filter, and a generously-sized tube-and-fin oil cooler. These attributes were quite conducive to sustained high-rpm capability and provided scope for substantial future power increases.
The valve train in particular was quite elaborate and lavish for such an economically priced vehicle. A single central camshaft operated intermediate rockers acting upon sharply angled pushrods, which terminated at the centre of each cylinder head. These pushrods in turn activated the valves via opposed conventional rocker arms. This layout allowed for the use of hemispherical combustion chambers and generously large valves. Quite obviously, the engine designers were under little or no pressure to contain costs.
In 1962, Puch introduced the 650 T, with a larger 643 cc engine. In 1964, the high-performance 650 TR was launched. This car was a delight to drive and received rave reviews, but was merely a precursor to the ultimate Puch; the 650 TR II. The TR II made its debut in 1965 with displacement upped to 660 cc; a dual-throat Zenith 32 NDIX carburettor, sodium-cooled exhaust valves and a 10.5:1 compression ratio.
The exhaust was sent forward to a pair of unusually large-capacity silencer/heat exchangers (for cabin heating) – one for each cylinder. Due to their size, these were actually located forward of the rear axles. The available Monte-Carlo exhaust featured lower restriction silencers and twin outlets.
In lieu of the Fiat 500’s motorcycle-like dog-clutch gearbox, the Steyr transaxle utilized Porsche-type synchromesh on the top three ratios. Added to the standard Fiat 500 speedometer and low-fuel lamp in the cockpit were gauges for fuel level, oil pressure and oil temperature. A leather wrapped three-spoke sport steering wheel was fitted and an 8000-rpm tachometer was available as an option.
The TR II produced an extremely high specific output for a 1965 production car of 63 Hp per litre (1.03 hp/ci.) In the world of small cars, this was superior to the BMW 700 CS, on par with the original Fiat Abarth 750, and exceeded only by the 970 and 1071 S Mini Coopers.
Further to its advantage, the Puch was over 100 kg lighter than a Mini Cooper or BMW 700. The Puch outpowered its fiercest identically-bodied rival, the Fiat Abarth 695 SS by a small margin and accelerated to from 0-60 mph on par with larger and more prestigious cars such as the Lancia Fulvia 1.2 GT Berlina.
Enthusiasts were not slow to realize the potential of the 650 TR and it was immediately put though its paces, most successfully on the rally circuit.
In 1965, the TR II entered battle with Sobiesław Zasada and Kazimierz Oińsky notching an early Category 1, Class 1 victory and amazing 18th overall in January at the Rallye Monte-Carlo, finishing ahead of many more powerful machines including all surviving Volvo and Mercedes-Benz entries.
In 1966, with top-six overall finishes in the Rallye Die Fiori, the Polish and Gernan rallies and the Acropolis, the 650 TR II brought Polish ace Sobieslaw Zasada the Group II European Rally Championship.
The 650’s also acquitted themselves well in other forms of motorsport. Hans Liedl drove the TR to class victories in the German Hillclimb Championship in 1964, 1965 and 1966.
On the track, Gijs van Lennep won the Group 2A Touring Car Championship in the Netherlands in 1966 and 1967 against a field of pursuing Honda S600s and BMW 700s. A superb driver, he later switched to Porsches, winning Le Mans in 1971 at the wheel of a 917K, The Targa Florio in a 911 Carrera RSR in 1973 and Le Mans again in 1976 in a 936.
The TR II received the final iteration of the Fiat 500 body with its larger windscreen and front-hinged doors in 1967; two years after Fiat switched over. The final TR II’s were built in 1969. The smaller-engined Steyr-Puch’s continued to be built until 1973, at which time the engine found itself installed in license-built Fiat 126’s. In 1975, Puch withdrew from the passenger car market and the storied engine went out of production.
Due to the licensing agreement with Fiat, few of the high-performance TRs were exported, and today the car remains fairly unknown outside Austria and Germany except for keen enthusiasts of vintage motorsport.