SKODA: The Forgotten Years

Dark satantic mills wasn't in it. The first time I went to the Skoda factory at Mlada Boleslav in 1962, the communists were in charge, the cars were terrible and the factory was a ramshackle collection of timber-framed old buildings that all seemed to be on different levels. A lot of the 10,000 workers, who produced 200 cars every day, were women. Nothing wrong with that but a lot of the others were prisoners out on parole. Nobody could be sacked; even gross dereliction of duty only meant demotion, and the factory was plastered with pictures of President Novotny, Lenin and workers marching shoulder to shoulder clutching spanners. Red Starred exhortations to work for the glory of the CSSR might have been so much wallpaper, compared to the effect my official guide had on account of his position in the local ice-hockey team. Drab cars, drab place, and even if you had enough crowns to pay the hefty deposit adding your name to the Mototechna state car sales organisation, you still had eighteen months to wait for one of the spindly Felicias or Octavias. These were front-engined throwbacks to an earlier age, with swing-axle suspension and wobbly handling. The transverse leaf springing at the front was replaced with coil springs before Skoda went over to the rear-engined1000MB in 1965, which was an effort to copy a Renault Dauphine - not a good start. Astonishing to think they carried on making the wretched things until 1977.

Well it's not like that now. Last time I went, the factory was a model of what a car factory should be. A smooth-running production line with a horde of mini-factories feeding in bits made by outside suppliers at the appropriate moments. A lot of the workers were still women but the proportion of paroled prisoners was smaller.

It is quite easy to forget Skoda's astonishing industrial past. The Prague-born authors of the book (reviewed above in The Sunday Times, 15 November 1992) gave a splendid and well-researched account, going back to the long-established firm of Laurin & Klement, which Skoda took over in 1925. It detailed Ferdinand Porsche's connections with the armaments side of the company in the 1930s, one photograph showing Porsche at the wheel of one of his failures, a military cross-country tow truck, which churned to a stop on a muddy hillside during tests attended by Hitler. Pressed into service by the Nazis, the Skoda factory was bombed by the American Eighth Air Force. In the closing days of the war the fleeing Luftwaffe attacked it again to try and prevent its expertise and facilities falling into the wrong hands. Skoda's takeover by the Volkswagen Group, spiritual successors of Dr Porsche, was documented in the closing chapter of a book that was an important contribution to the history of the European motor industry.

This is not a Skoda. This is the wonderful Waverley, the world's last sea-going paddle steamer, in the Kyles of Bute. photo Eric Dymock