Insight: Škoda's sporting history

Bohemian Rhapsody

Its Fabia R5 might be one of the success stories of contemporary rallying, but Škoda’s competitive edge is no modern phenomenon. The Czech firm’s sporting pedigree can be traced back to a time when Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were still on the run, in 1901…

Maranello and Mladá Boleslav: both are touchstones on motor sport’s landscape, yet one is famous the world over while the other is known barely at all. The less celebrated of the two, though, has been active for rather longer, established in 1895 by Škoda’s forefathers Václav Laurin and Václav Klement. Six years later the Czech pioneers committed to enter one of their motorcycles for a race, on public roads between Paris and Berlin from June 27-29. On his single-cylinder L&K, factory rider Narcis Podsedníček was first in class to reach the finishing line – but got there before official timekeepers were in place. By the time he’d returned, a De Dion rider had taken the flag and completed the appropriate paperwork to claim victory. Podsedníček had to settle for a moral triumph, but the Central Bohemian firm’s competitive foundations had been laid, 10 years before the Indianapolis 500’s inauguration and 46 before Ferrari commenced manufacture.

L&K began building cars in 1905 and within a couple of years was achieving notable results in hillclimbs, with well-known racer/designer Otto Hieronimus among those at the helm. Although that boosted the company’s reputation, rivals were already diversifying to embrace agricultural machinery and new-fangled railways. By the mid-1920s L&K’s portfolio had become too narrow, sales were slow in the First World War’s slipstream and fellow industrialist Škoda stepped in with a rescue package. Cars carried both companies’ logos for the next few years, although the L&K eventually receded. It is retained today as a trim level for the most opulent Škodas.

The original L&K factory site exists still and is home to the Škoda Museum, which first opened in 1968 and moved to the current site in 1995. Tucked just behind, within a warren of functional outbuildings, you’ll find the HQ of Škoda Motorsport, which has built about 100 examples of the successful Fabia R5 rally car, and a number of workshops dedicated to reassembling the company’s past. Alongside are a number of depositories in which many a restored Škoda nestles alongside the carcasses of projects that will one day regain their former splendour. “As things stand,” says Michal Velebný, head of the restoration division, “there is already enough work here to keep us going for the next 60 to 70 years.”

Motor Sport was recently given a guided tour, in the company of former works driver John Haugland, the Norwegian who was a serial class winner on international rallies throughout the 1970s and 1980s. First, though, we were taken to an old Russian military airstrip, for a passenger ride in a Fabia R5 (alongside current works driver Jan Kopecký) and to try two active heritage vehicles, the 1100 OHC sports-racer of 1957 and a 130 RS of the type that made Škoda the winning manufacturer in the 1981 European Touring Car Championship. While we were there, it was perhaps symbolic of the sport’s regional popularity that somebody else was shaking down a Fabia rally car on an adjacent gravel track.

Small, pretty and very red, the 1100 was built to replace the outgoing 1101 Sport and Supersport models that had been active in the early 1950s, one of the former failing to finish the 1950 Le Mans 24 Hours in the hands of Jaroslav Netušil and Václav Bobek. It looks the epitome of a ’50s sports car, just not one you’d necessarily associate with the old Eastern Bloc. Four were built – two roadsters, which survive, and a pair of coupés that were in period damaged beyond repair, although plans are afoot to bring one back to life.

“For 40 years the chassis was in the hands of a private collector who didn’t want to sell,” Velebný says, “but when he died two years ago we purchased it from his beneficiaries and began reconstruction. It should be ready in 2019. This car was built 60 years ago in the development department and they are helping us recreate the body using old 2D drawings from our archive, but applying modern technology. They have reverse-engineered it to use 3D and we already have a 1:4-scale model, which is the correct shape. We used archive pictures to help us do things properly and hope the end result will reflect reality.”

For all its aesthetic charm, anybody weaned on modern cars might wonder how ever it was possible to race something like this for a long stint. The cockpit is cramped, there is no fore-and-aft seat adjustment and even on a simple course – a long straight with hairpin turns at either end – my right leg was beginning to ache after a couple of minutes, largely because it was bent almost double to reach the throttle. The gearchange – first is across and down, somewhere in the middle of your thigh, with second to fifth in a conventional H-pattern – seemed vague initially, but was actually very easy to use, the drum brakes provided lots of feel but little retardation, the thin-rimmed wooden wheel felt as though it might snap if used aggressively and there were no belts nor any other kind of safety feature, but I could happily have bumbled around all day in it – a brittle echo of the way things were.

The 130 RS served as a reminder of a time when all road cars had drinking straws – rather than tree trunks – as A-pillars. Inside it looked pretty standard, give or take the absence of trim. It has no starter button, just an everyday key, and felt wonderfully tractable through its four-speed ’box – the kind of car you could use for the school run, as well as scooping touring car titles. It was red-lined at 6000rpm and got there pretty quickly, despite having only 1.3 litres.

“The rally version was particularly effective on fast, flowing asphalt,” Haugland says, “simply because it handled so well. With a small engine we obviously struggled against the bigger cars on tight, twisty stages, because we didn’t have the punch out of slower corners, but in terms of top-end cornering speeds it was a match for almost anything.

“People used to think I must be an amazing driver because I was winning rallies in what they assumed was a shit car, but the Škodas were absolutely fantastic. They might not have been as powerful as other things, but they were incredibly well balanced.”

That also applies to the modern R5, in which Kopecký and I were able to conduct a civilised conversation while he calmly performed one-handed donuts to illustrate the car’s manoeuvrability – it looked far more dramatic from outside than it felt from within.

Back at the museum, coach parties – including some from the UK – were starting to gather for official tours while we went for an informal stroll. Although primarily automotive, the collection also provides a record of social evolution, not least a 1910 L&K limousine that had the chauffeur out front, largely unprotected against the elements, while the privileged cargo benefited from roof and glass. Passengers, though, were perched on textile upholstery while the driver had leather – an arrangement that might puzzle those with contemporary perceptions of luxury.

And the company’s cars were right-hand drive well into the 1930s, by which stage the government was contemplating a change to match most of mainland Europe. “That was planned for autumn 1938,” Velebný says, “but then Hitler arrived and accelerated things a little bit…”

Sporting exhibits in the museum included the 200 RS, which looks like a widened, slightly squashed 130 RS and featured a prototype 2.0-litre engine, quite a leap in 1974 for a firm that at the time had a 1.3 ceiling, the 1950
Supersport racer and various rally cars, plus examples of the Popular and Rapid such as those that competed on the Monte Carlo Rally in the 1930s. One of the depositories is also open to the public and showcased two F3 cars from the 1.0-litre era (powered by a Škoda 1000 MB-derived engine that fell a few bhp short of period Cosworth opposition), a Metalex-built single-seater for a 1970s Škoda-powered one-make series in eastern Europe and the Tudor, a handsome 2002 coupé concept that never went into production – an odd one, that, as it would look stylish if launched next week. There were also some interesting military prototypes, knocked on the head because the government was ordered at the time to buy stock from Russia, and a few beach buggies developed by engineering apprentices during the 1970s. These were canned for the simple reason, apparently, that the country is landlocked.

What was it like for a western European to work for Škoda during the Communist regime? “It was fine for me,” Haugland says. “I was told my job was to focus on driving and testing, not to get involved with any politics. That’s what I did, just kept my head down. There were never any problems with travelling – I had to get a visa every time, but picked them up from the Czech embassy in Oslo. That’s where I collected my rally budget, too, so the people there were used to me. I was in and out all the time and they often offered me a beer or two while I was visiting.

“People have often joked, though, that it’s a bit suspicious for me to have started driving for Škoda at about the time the Russians moved in to the former Czechoslovakia and stopped at about the same time they moved out!”

The other museum depositories are not usually accessible, but Motor Sport was allowed in to look at an assembly featuring rally Favorits, Felicias (also available as a race-spec pick-up), Octavias and Fabias – “Some of the early front-wheel-drive prototypes were built in the same factory as my rally cars,” Haugland says. “The story goes that they hadn’t been told whether to install the engine transversely or horizontally, so ended up tossing a coin…” – plus my personal favourite, the Škoda Spider I sports-racer.

“That’s from 1972,” Velebný says, “and it was done almost without any drawings. It was built for fun by racing drivers Václav Bobek and Miroslav Fousek. They took the platform from a standard Skoda 100, added a 1600 engine and guys from the development department handcrafted an aluminium body. Later they uprated the engine to 1.8 and 2.0 litres. It was used from 1972 to 1976 in circuit races and hillclimbs.”

Missing, sadly, is one of the most elegant Škodas not seen in The West – the 733 Spider II.

“That was designed properly and they even did some windtunnel testing with a 1:5 model,” Velebný says. “It was a very nice monocoque car finished in the middle of 1975, but it appeared in only five events. The last one was a hillclimb, live on TV and so quite a big deal. The driver who started ahead of the 733 made his ascent, crossed the line and then reversed back to the finish to see what time he’d done. A few seconds later, the Škoda arrived and smashed into the back of him – the front half of the car was totally destroyed and never repaired. The remains were sold and are still in the hands of a collector, so there’s a chance it will be born again.”

His team certainly has the patience, knowledge and craftsmanship to undertake such tasks.

We are not allowed to relate everything we saw, nor were we permitted to take photographs in some restricted areas – one of our hosts had been with the company for five years and even he hadn’t previously been through certain locked doors. What we can say is that Škoda retains a remarkable inventory of its own past and that, eventually, some of the hidden treasures will be restored and available for inspection.

The Iron Curtain was long since torn apart, but a few of its bygone secrets must for now be kept.