120 Years of Skoda

Skoda is celebrating 120 years since its foundation by Václav Laurin and Václav Klement. It is half a century since I first visited AND A lot has changed.

THE MOTOR March 20 1963

CAPTION SAYS: Skodas leaving the works at Mláda Boleslav. The banner above the gate is the nearest thing to advertising in Czechoslovakia. It publicizes the Twelfth Party Conference.

THE Czechs have words for it. Most of them are unpro­nounceable and not all of them polite, but the English which sums up Czech motoring (for the Czechs, that is) is Drab. Petrol is expensive and poor, roads are indifferent although compara­tively traffic-free and if you can’t afford a Skoda (nobody can afford a Tatra) and haven't the influence to get a foreign car, the only alternative is one of the miracles Czechs keep running years after they would have found an honourable resting-place in a Western motor museum. An old car movement would have splendid material in Czechoslovakia, but little enthusiasm; keeping antiques running is only fun if you don’t actually have to.

            One of the proudest men I met in Prague runs a Mini. He claims it is the only one in the country and brought it out of its garage specially for our visit. He has to get all his spares straight from Longbridge and pay for them in British currency, and he only uses his car at week-ends or during the summer. Heavy tax on petrol and no annual car licence encourages this sort of “week-end” motoring and his enthusiasm for his car was prodigious.

            As a government official dealing with foreign journalists, he whisked us about Prague in a chauffeured Tatra when we weren't using the Standard Vanguard Six which had taken us there. Requests to drive a Tatra were repeatedly turned down because these cars, I was told, were not for export so couldn’t possibly be of any interest to me. The only ones in Britain belong to the Czechoslovak Embassy in London and even in Prague, they are exclusively for Top People. Judging by the number I saw in the streets of Prague however, I would reckon the “classless society” to be in severe imbalance. The ratio of Tatras to other cars suggests a Top Heaviness of Top People.

            It took a Top Person and (I fancy) a hefty bribe to persuade the taxi insignia off the side of a Tatra 603 and let me drive it down the new motor road south from Prague beside the Vltava River. This is one of the network of roads planned to cover Czechoslovakia although so far the only one to have struggled off the drawing board.

            In the end I drove two Tatras, the second one belonging to a government department but both, unfortunately rather long in the tooth. The specification is the best thing about them, including coil spring independent suspension ail round and an air-cooled V-8 engine at the rear. The monocoque body is extremely roomy but the styling, even in its latest form is now rather old-hat.

            The wheel arches intrude on the front compartment quite a lot and the driving position is therefore offset. Although the Czechs call it a luxury car, the trim is somewhat Spartan to cosseted Westerners but it looks robust enough and is certainly practical. Even allowing for the suspension, which had taken a long beating from the local pavé, the ride is a bit soft and wallowy, and a pronounced oversteer limited cornering speeds and ob­viously inhibited the official driver who accompanied me on my second outing. My interpreter could barely keep pace with his voluble Czech, and translated about three minutes of non-stop instruction with, “I think he wants you to go slower”.

            The rather wretched petrol curtailed the car’s performance and produced loud pinking from the 2,545 c.c. (75x72) V8. A Czech motoring paper claims a top speed of 105 mph, which seemed a little optimistic after driving the car which has a claimed power output of only 100 net bhp at 4,800 rpm, and an all-up weight of 29.75 cwt. I would doubt its ability to out­perform our Vanguard Six which certainly handled better. Understandably, with linkage which has to go down the steering column then find its way to the very back of the car, the gear- change is rather sloppy. Describing the synchromesh, which is applied to all four speeds was nearly beyond a non-technical interpreter who concluded that, “the gears change but are not demolished.” I had to agree that they changed and they certainly had not been demolished in the course of 160,000 km. (around 100,000 miles), which one of the cars had covered.

            Standard equipment on the Tatra includes a radio and heater and there is a large, deep luggage compartment in the front. It is generally quiet but the gears whine and the fans circulating air past the cast-iron cylinders (which have machined fins) whirr quite noisily. Valve operation is by pushrods, there are two carburetters, and light alloy is used for the cylinder heads and manifolds. The rack-and-pinion steering is light considering the weight of the car but rather lifeless. Stopping the Tatras from speed was something of an adventure which took a heavy pedal pressure and most of the width (and a good deal of the length) of motor road, although both cars were due for overhaul.

            The Czechs quite sincerely believe that the Tatra 603 is at least as good as anything in its class in the world. While it seems strongly built, and overcomes some of the drawbacks of earlier models, which had poor rearward visibility and meagre luggage space, the mountainous oversteer persists. With decent petrol and a little more youth than the ones I diove it would probably be quite fast but still rather stolid and ungainly. I enjoyed Czech food (the Moskva Restaurant is a “must” for visitors) and Prague Ham is excellent, but the rather indigestible, heavy dumplings on which the workers grow portly, always made me think of Tatras.

            The general isolation from international motoring thought makes the Skoda quite acceptable in Czechoslovakia. It also has independent suspension all round but is something of a relic too. The ride is stiff and bouncy and the interior cramped. More progressive ideas will not prevail at Skoda until 1964 when the new factory opens alongside the present one at Mláda Boleslav. Hampered by scattered buildings and (surprisingly in a country with a famous machine tool industry) a great deal of antiquated plant, production is laborious. But the shape of prototypes I saw at the works would indicate that after 1964, Skodas will matter more. [They showed me a rear-engined car duly introduced in April 1964 with the engine at the back, swing-axle suspension, certainly inspired by the Renault 8 and perhaps developed with French advice. Editorial policy of The Motor in the 1960s permitted me to drop hints but not break confidences about forthcoming models like the 1000MB (below).]

            Personifying the more liberal thought in the second generation Skoda executive, was the man who showed me the factory. He has worked as a Skoda service representative in Burma and Australia and was one of the few Czechs I met (and they included several prominent motoring writers) who knew foreign motor cars at first hand. There is apparently a tendency for promotions to result from personal worth nowadays rather than party or idealogical prowess. Like any motor industry executive anywhere in the world he is very proud of a slightly non-standard car from his own factory, but unlike a Western counterpart, his car spends most of its time in its garage at home. Private motoring, even by people connected with the industry, is officially con­sidered something of a nuisance.

            A large number of the 10,000 workers who produce some 200 Skoda cars every day are women. Everybody works without fear of sacking; even gross dereliction of duty can only result in demotion which, as Skoda executives themselves admit, makes difficulties. The factory is dominated by pictures of President Novotny, Lenin, and rather idealistic Workers clutching spanners and marching Shoulder to Shoulder. Red Starred exhortations to work harder for the Glory of the C.S.S.R. might all have been so much wallpaper compared with the galvanizing effect my guide had, appropriate to his position in the local world of ice-hockey.

Payment by Czechs

            If you were a Czech with enough Crowns for a new car, you would go along to Mototechna, the state car sales organization and have your name added to those of several thousand of your countrymen who have had the idea (or the Crowns) first. Mototechna would offer you a Skoda for 38,000 Crowns (£1,900) or a Tatra for 75,000 Crowns (£3,750), looking for a deposit on the first named of 20,000 Crowns (£1,000) with the balance when the car is delivered in something like a year or eighteen months’ time.

            If your taste were to run to a foreign car, there are limited numbers of Wartburgs (East German) Warsawas (Polish-built versions of the old Russian Pobiedas) Moskvitches or Volgas (both Soviet but the latter imported only for the nebulous upper class). Your smelly petrol at about eighteen shillings a gallon is brought from Russia by pipeline but a compression ratio is the same in any language. You might also buy a Hillman Minx, Renault Dauphine, Fiat 600, or Simca Etoile out of the import quota at a price inflated about five times from that in its country of origin. The surprising thing is that there are enough Czechs with the kind of money to produce such long waiting lists. Clever ones can by-pass the waiting list by managing some hard currency to pay for the car, so once again the upper class wins over the poor worker with his own, home-grown cash.

Changed days (below) celebration of 2014's millionth sale.

            Mototechna also handle quality used cars. Second hand cars (which include those well-used antiques) can be sold privately after three years and Mototechna guarantee new and used vehicles. Enlistment in the state-run insurance organization, which is compulsory takes a premium of around £12 per year.

            Official estimates put 25 per cent of car-owners into motoring clubs where the emphasis is not so much on sport, but collective servicing at home. Interest in sport centres on motorcycling but there was a good deal of speculation when I was there in Decem­ber, before the South African Grand Prix, on the destination of the World Drivers Championship. Graham Hill and Jim Clark mean something to the Czech enthusiast and my opinion was frequently sought on the future of Stirling Moss.

            Several Formula Junior racing cars have been built recently and there have even been some meetings at Brno, scene of several “Internationals" since the war. The Juniors have been mostly Skoda-based but some, like the space-frame, rear-engined car built by a Prague team under Eng. Hausman, editor of Svet Motoru, use a Wartburg gearbox and differential. Clubs, rather than individuals build the cars but sport is another aspect of domestic motoring which leads rather a threadbare existence.

            The Czech motorist is pitifully isolated but burning with curiosity. A Belgian drove into Prague when I was there with a Mark X Jaguar and as soon as it was parked it immediately became invisible behind a crowd at the kerbside. Government planning insists that a traffic problem will not be allowed to develop and that roads must come before cars but this is scant comfort to the would-be motorist. Particularly since road development is so obviously slow. But there is plenty of interest and even enthusiasm for motoring as the Czech reputation in the two-wheeled world indicates. Although the production part of the Czech motor industry looks like dragging its feet for some time to come, the development of new models at Skoda is along promising lines. Isolation from the rest of the world's motor cars will remain something of a problem to the enthusiast, the motoring press, and even the industry itself, but more progressive ideas may well prevail in the future.

            Last December, a British firm of consulting engineers were being employed to dismantle an enormous statue of Stalin which, for nearly ten years dominated the Prague skyline. And after de-Stalinization . . . ?

The rest, as they say, is history. Captions to The Motor pictures below...

Crossed Czech. Prague policemen became very angry with the Vanguard Six when it failed to observe a local crossroads custom. Traffic turning left at cross­roads wait in the right-hand lane until all is clear, then cross. We had re-written half the rule book before discovering this and had altercations with some formidable pointsmen.

Dated Czech. A pre-war Aero climbs a snowy Prague street. This is typical of the carefully-preserved “oldies” with which Czechs often have to make do.

The headlights of the Tatra 603 are behind a glass panel in the front. Later models have four. Intakes at the back gulp in air to cool the 2.5-litre V8 engine. The roomy and practical interior takes six people easily, but Tatra drivers have to sit offset because of the large front wheel arches. The gearchange is on the right of the steering column.