Driving a Czechoslovakian Small Car

Road-Test Impressions of the Skoda 440

During October it was possible to drive rather more than 400 miles on English roads in a Czechoslovakian small car, the Skoda 440. This car has a decidedly dashing appearance and is unusual amongst modern vehicles in having a tubular backbone chassis with all-round independent suspension, by means of transverse. leaf-springs in conjunction with wishbones at the front and swing axles at the back. The engine is a conventional push-rod o.h.v. unit of 1,089 c.c. In its country of origin it has a reputation for rugged reliability.

The model we tested was the two-door saloon, which is commendably roomy for an 1,100-c.c. vehicle. The front seat is of bench type with separate squabs which fold forward at an angle to provide easy access to the back seat. As the gear-lever is on the steering column and the sides of the body are hollowed out by the small back-seat armrests, it would be possible to accommodate six slim people in the little Skoda if the need arose. The luggage boot is in keeping, being sufficiently large to conceal a grown-up, so that we half expected a bearded spy to jump out and flee across country when we opened the lid. Indeed, a bearded figure did leap out— but he was the Continental Correspondent, who had been proving the generosity of the luggage accommodation! A very good point is that the spare wheel is carried at an angle at the top of the hoot, so that it can be withdrawn without disturbing the contents.

Possibly because of its country of origin, the Skoda is rendered essentially thief resisting. The boot lid is opened by discovering a secret lever concealed within the near-side door pillar, the petrol tank is lockable with the door key, and the quarter-light handles possess buttons to lock them in the shut position. Incidentally, the action of this boot lever is excellent and the lid springs up automatically. Likewise, the bonnet, with conventional knob and catches, is spring-retained in the open position.

The general conception of the car is hardly up to the same standard. The construction is decidedly " tinny," rattles and squeaks intruding, the facia is of metal crudely finished in the exterior colouring, and the cubbyhole, while quite large, has a crude. (unlockable) lid and dangerously ragged edges. The driving position is good, although only the off-side wing is visible to a driver of average height, but the seat squabs are hard and the cushion so thin that even lightweight occupants strike bottom on rough roads. Because the passenger's door defied even strong men opening it from within, the Skoda was at first virtually a one-door model! Later in the test the lock became less stubborn.

The gear-lever protrudes on the left of the steering column on r.h.-drive cars. It is a long but not whippy lever, strongly springloaded to the first and second-gear locations, so that it has to be pushed downwards to engage third and top gear and pulled up before selecting reverse. Apart from the somewhat tiring business of having to overcome this spring action while changing up and when going from top to third and back, there is no particular disadvantage in this arrangement, and it assists a quick change " round the corner," from top to second. gear. Clumsy drivers will forget occasionally to press against the spring action and go into second when hoping for top gear. Bottom gear was at times reluctant to engage, and the lever movements are rather long.

Before going further, two unfortunate aspects of this Skoda 440 may as well be disposed of. The clutch calls for criticism for being very fierce unless engaged with great care, rapid starts being virtually impossible without severe judder from the front-end of the car. A loud squeak came from the pedal when it was fully depressed. Even less pleasant is the steering. This was extremely vague, some six inches of free movement at the wheel being felt not only with the car at rest but in controlling it, which, coupled with suspension characteristics which include a tendeney to wander and even dart about, removed most of the pleasure which we had hoped driving a car of unusual specification and nationality would provide. In addition, the steeringwheel appears to be " oval " when spun, it transmits considerable vibration, and gives a feeling of being quite unconnected with the front wheels. On what is left of the credit side, it transmits back very little road-wheel movement, has mild castor return action, and is light until getting towards full lock. The wheel requires three turns, lock-to-lock, in conjunction with an unimpressive turning circle (33 feet).

The handling characteristics of the Skoda are little better than its clutch and steering. It has no springing in the modern context, the ride being hard, with accentuated up-and-down action over rough surfaces. The swing-axle i.r.s. promotes vicious over-steer, which the aforesaid vague steering is not well fitted to correct. On slippery surfaces the tail wants to come round very quickly on corners and if the brakes are applied the back wheels lock, so that the same tendency is evident on straight roads. In normal usage the brakes work rather well, with a spongy but reassuring feel and adequate stopping power.

For a roomy car of only 1,089 c.c. the Skoda accelerates very well but speedometer maxima on the indirect gears are limited to 20, 40 and 54 m.p.h., respectively. At these speeds the engine is very noisy and normally 40-45 m.p.h. seems sufficient in third gear. There is also noticeable transmission noise. The maximum speed is approximately 68 to 70 m.p.h.

Reverting to the interior layout, the screen pillars are somewhat thick. The facia plan incorporates the lidded cubbyhole on the left and a lift-up lid in the centre concealing the wiring, where a radio would be accommodated, this lid incorporating a swivelling ashtray. Below this centre aperture are a row of knobs controlling, from left to right, a spotlamp, the wipers, the non-self-cancelling direction-flashers, the fan for a very effective heater, and the bright interior lamp. The dual screen-wipers had an unfortunate habit of parking almost in the centre of the screen.

Before the driver is a hooded speedometer graduated clearly every 10 m.p.h. from 0 to 90 incorporating a mileage recorder devoid of decimal readings (nor is there a trip reading) and possessing quite a battery of indicator lights, one of these staying alight all the time the ignition is on, others indicating headlamps full beam. turn indicators in use, etc. There is rheostat control of the instrument lighting, although its knob fell off early in the test.

To the left of the speedometer is a temperature gauge reading from 0 to 120 deg. C. and below it is the ignition key, which is of Bosch style in that it pushes in to complete the ignition circuit and can be turned to 0, 1 or 2 positions, to bring in side and headlamps. The foot lamps-dipper is badly located between clutch and brake pedals and there is no room to park the left foot beside the clutch pedal. On the right of the speedometer is a decently accurate benzin gauge, with commendably steady needle, in contrast to which the speedometer needle indulged in an irritating little dance at speeds around 30 m.p.h.

Water temperature on the Skoda is controlled by a blind for the radiator, attached to a miniature lavatory chain operated by the driver's right hand. This entails stooping forward under the facia, and with the blind nearly closed the chain hangs down and fouls the treadle accelerator. However, it is fairly easy to set the temperature to 80 deg. C., although it then rises quickly in traffic.

Under the curved, painted metal dash are pull-out knobs for choke and starter, together with a switch for the second spotlamp, these lamps being extras, fitted by the agents. The front compartment is a jumble of heater pipes, wires, cables and that chain. Extra heat is obtainable by opening doors on the central heater unit, and the cables are explained by large knobs with ratchet action up under the dash, which actuate these exposed cables and open fresh-air traps in the floor. The knob on the passenger's side was rather difficult to turn because it rubbed the left-hand heater pipe.

The rear windows do not open; those in the doors have rather crudely fitted handles with pivoted finger grips, which require 2.5 turns from fully open to fully shut. When half open the driver's handle had reversible action, it being possible to press the glass down directly by hand with the handle spinning round, whether intentionally or not is not known. The aforesaid quarter-light handles are stiff to operate.

The angle of the front-seat squabs can be varied by using a spanner on unplated screws and lock-nuts. The steering wheel carries a half-horn-ring which moves with the wheel and sounds a curious high-pitched horn. The hand-brake is of pull-out-and-twist umbrella-handle pattern, on the left of the driver, fairly well placed, although it is farther from the hand than it would be on l.h.drive cars. It holds securely. Incidentally, the gear-lever operates a sleeve surrounding the steering column, this moving as the gears are changed. Equipment includes two blue-tinted anti-dazzle vizors but no clock. The doors operate the interior lamp, apart from its convenient facia switch.

An endearing detail is the provision, on both sides of the rear compartment, of double coat-hooks which automatically fold into the door pillars when not in use. There is a capacious shelf behind the back seat which is provided with anti-rub slats.

At times a smell of petrol penetrated to the car's interior, seemingly from a leak round the filler extension to the tank, which is located in the off side of the luggage boot. The fuel filler can be replenished from a can and, indeed, an excellent ," extra " is a jerry-can strapped inside the boot opposite the tank. Driving the Skoda 440 carefully we obtained 39 m.p.g. and as the tank has a capacity of approximately 6.6 gallons, the range is in the region of 260 miles, which the jerry-can extends to over 400 miles. After driving the car for more than 400 miles no water or oil were required. The engine takes a few moment's to " catch " when starting from cold, after which it pulls away within a matter of yards without use of the choke. It did not " pink " on good fuel. nor run-on when switched off.

The test car was appropriately finished in red, with cocoa-and-cream upholstery piped in red and blue. The English agents had added some extras, and thus the hooded Autopal 7600/21 headlamps (excellent until dimmed) were supplemented by twin Butlers Saucer Mk. II spotlamps and, on the near side, a swivelling Marchal 642 searchlight with its switch within the cubbyhole. Instruments and electrics are Pal, the windscreen is of Miritz, the quarter-lights of Thorax T safety glass. The number-plates were English Bluemel, the under-bonnet battery an Exide, but the 40-b.h.p. engine has a Czech-made carburetter looking like a Solex, with accelerator pump, topped by a big transverse, cartridge-shaped Skoda air-cleaner. There is suction-operated automatic ignition advance, the Lodge plugs having Tesla covers, coil and dynamo being Pal. Hot air is conveyed to the heater orifice through a long bell-mouthed tube picking up behind the radiator, which has the blind, operated by wire passing over pulleys, behind it, and a four-bladed fan.

Summing up, communistic tendencies should be easily cured by taking a short drive in Skoda, because, although it is commendably brisk, spacious and economical, it lags many years behind other small cars in respect of steering, handling and the amenities of silence and a comfortable ride, and is spoilt, in particular, by the vagueness of the steering. It costs as much as £788 17s. in this country without the extras mentioned and although it may attract buyers who set considerable store in having a car which is different from the majority, the Skoda 440 is, indeed, interesting rather than meritorions.----W.B

The Skoda 440 Saloon
Four cylinders, 68 by 75mm (1,089cc) Pushrod operated overload valves. 7-to-1 compression ration. 40 bhp at 4,200rpm
Gear Ratios: First, 20.42 to 1; second 11.75 to 1; third 7.60 to 1; top 4.78 to 1
Tyres: 5.50 by 15 Barum 4-ply rayon on bolt-on steel disc wheels.
Weight: 18 cwt. 1 qr (without occupants, but ready for the road, with approx. one gallon of petrol).
Steering Ratio: 3 turns, lock-to-lock
Fuel capacity: 6.6 gallons. (range approx. 257 miles)
Wheelbase: 7ft 10.5in
Track: Front, 3ft 11.5in; rear 4ft 1.25in
Dimensions: 13ft 3in by 5ft 3in by 4ft 8.25in (high)
Price: £525 (788 17s inclusive of import duty and purchase tax).
Makers: Motokov, Praha, Czecholslovakia
Agents: Watling Street Garage. Flamstead. Herts