Skoda’s come a long way
PAUL HUDSON DRIVES THROUGH 120 YEARS OF CZECH CARS
I have a fresh take on those tiresome old Skoda jokes. It goes: “How many Skodas does it take to make a motoring journalist excited?”
In my case, the answer is seven — the number of historic Skodas I was fortunate to drive during a celebration of the company’s 120 years of business.
The story began in 1895 when mechanic Vaclav Laurin and bookseller Vaclav Klement started designing and manufacturing bicycles under the name Slavia in the Czech town of Mlada Boleslav, which remains Skoda’s base.
They added engines before making their first car in 1905, gaining a reputation for innovation, including early overhead-cam engines. A merger with the Pizen Skodova company in 1925 led to expansion under the new Skoda banner.
In 1990 after the collapse of communism Skoda became part of the Volkswagen group.
I concentrated on the oldest Skoda known in the UK, a 422 from 1929, and a Favorit hatchback from 1991, the last car developed entirely by Skoda before becoming part of VW, with a few other Czech curios thrown in.
The 422 has a 1195cc four-cylinder engine developing 22bhp (16.4kW) and was produced from 1929-32 on a ladder-frame chassis with a wooden frame covered in steel panels.
It’s from another world, with an arcane starting ritual and you have to let the revs drop to almost nothing before attempting to change gear. The steering is ridiculously poor and the car wanders alarmingly at anything above walking pace. Yet it was very popular in its day and played a part in making car ownership more accessible in its homeland.
Next up was a 420 Popular from 1940. It was produced from 1934 and survived in production for 12 years. It’s extremely vague in all respects apart from the three-speed gearbox, which demands a level of precision I don’t possess to achieve smooth changes.
Much more enjoyable was the amazing looking 1201 Station Wagon from 1958, all sleek and rounded. It’s like a Czech take on the American dream, with wide, comfy bench seats front and rear and beautiful chrome and alloy detailing. Only a recalcitrant column gearchange spoiled the experience.
Skoda still makes an Octavia, but I tried an original version from 1964. It also has American-inspired styling, with small tail fins adorning the spacious four-door body.
Despite the reverse-pattern gearbox it is lovely to drive, with a really crisp feel and an excellent ride thanks to coil-spring front suspension. Like many of its older brethren, the steering is a joke.
Next was a real gem, a 1000 MB (standing for Mlada Boleslav). Produced from 1964-69, it introduced the rear-engined layout that cash-strapped Skoda would use for 25 years. Costing the equivalent of $1350 when it was launched in the UK in 1965, it has a 988cc, four-cylinder engine with 42bhp (31.3kW).
Skoda 1000 MB
This 1966 car feels more taut than a 50-year-old car has any right to and responds eagerly to all the major controls (apart from the steering). It too is supremely comfortable.
A 1977 110R coupe followed. Its swing-axle rear suspension makes it tail-happy, particularly in the wet, but I imagine that’s what made it so popular with the rallying fraternity.
It’s extremely austere when compared with the 50s and 60s cars, the interior festooned with black vinyl. In the back is a 1107cc four-cylinder engine with a mighty 62bhp (46.2kW).
Bringing the story (almost) up to date is the Favorit, an ultra-conventional five-door hatchback with front-wheel drive. Skoda UK’s example is the fabled one-lady-owner car, bought a few months ago with a genuine 4000km on the clock.
The over-riding impression is of comfort, with plenty of grip despite occasionally alarming body roll. It also feels very small and narrow compared with a modern small hatchback, with great vision thanks to the narrow pillars, although the brakes are spongey and the steering redefines vague. Not without its charm, however.
Skoda has come a long way since, now making a million vehicles a year after starting with seven employees 120 years ago.