There is more to Austria than Schubert, Strauss and Strudel!

by James Kraus

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Sobiesław Zasada and Kazimierz Oińsky on their way to a class win at the 1965 Rallye Monte-Carlo in a Steyr-Puch 650 TR II

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.

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The Steyr-Puch 500. The only differences in bodywork from the Fiat were a raised roof, a larger rear window and revised engine lid.

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 Steyr-Puch 500 Powerplant. Note complex valvetrain

The Steyr-Puch 500 Powerplant. Note intricate valvetrain

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.

Steyr-Puch 650 Monte-Carlo exhaust. The upper flanged pipes are for sending and extracting heat to the intake manifold.

Steyr-Puch 650 Monte-Carlo exhaust. The upper flanged pipes are for sending and extracting heat to the intake manifold.

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.

Walter Poltinger and Ernst Merinsky, 650 TR, Rallye Monte-Carlo, 1964

Walter Poltinger and Ernst Merinsky, 650 TR, Rallye Monte-Carlo, 1964

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.


Walter Roser and Gerhard Tusch, 650 TR, Rallye Monte-Carlo, 1964

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.

Sobiesław Zasada and Kazimierz Oińsky, 650 TR II, Rallye Monte-Carlo, 1965

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.


650 TR II, Sobiesław Zasada, Polish Rally, 1966

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.

5 thoughts on “There is more to Austria than Schubert, Strauss and Strudel!

  1. I thought I was quite well versed on cars of this era, yet I was completely unaware of this Austrian wundercar !

  2. I want one ! Desperately ! A magnificent article about a car that is by no means a mystery, apparently, but about which I, too, was completely unaware. It had to be on Auto Universum, where else? The article is also a trip down memory lane: Zasada, Van Lennep of Le Mans Porsche 917 fame… To imagine that such wonderguys raced in such a small, but apparently powerful, car…

  3. Not to forget one of the greatest artists in driving the Steyr Puch 500, 650 T and 650 TR was Johannes Ortner from the Austrian city Villach. He started at first driving very successfully the 500 privately before he was engaged by Steyr Daimler Puch in Graz for driving the works Puch’s. His first works car was a 650 T from the first day of production, SOP was on 2nd of may 1962.

    The greatest success with this car was 2nd overall place at the International Austrian Alpenfahrt of 1964 – belonging to the European Rallye Championship – first ranking was Paddy Hopkirk in his Austin Healey 3-litre. Hopkirk was the winner of 64 Monte Carlo Rallye, whereas he was riding there the Austin Mini 1275, this car’s first victory in the Monte.

    The second works car of Johannes Ortner was a 650 TR (SOP december 1963/january 1964) produced on the 18th of december 1964. First event Ortners with this car was the Monte in january 65. Carlo Abarth – always again present at the car races at the airport in Aspern, Vienna; the home city of Carlo Abarth – accompanying his cars and his drivers to these races realized the talent of Johannes Ortner acrobatically driving his Puch’s as well
    in Aspern.

    So, Abarth offered Ortner to become a works driver in Torino. The ultimate climax in Ortner’s driving carreer was winning twice the European Mountain Championships in 1970 and 1971 for Carlo Abarth on his, at that time, unbeatable racing machines.

    Both works Puch’s 650 T respectively TR still exist and are part of the unique exhibition in the Johann Puch Museum in Graz:

  4. Thought I would leave my calling card: I am the Steyr Puch Representative in the USA for Robert Prokschi Sales of Wollersdorf Austria. I have a full line of parts to service these cars and have a full machine shop to build the engines. I also manufacture the crankshaft bearings and special racing parts for the heads.

    Looking for a 650T or 650TR? – I import these very rare models for sale in the USA. It is also possible to convert your fiat 500 to a Puch engine. I stable the only factory works prototype ever made in full race trim (has a very long history.)

    Leonardo Castiglione

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