The Škoda Story

Many car companies from the 20th century had
a few hurdles they had to negotiate to stay in business. Škoda’s had more than most, yet it’s
riding high after all these problems. From its start as the reaction to a bad customer
support experience to its post-Communist takeover as part of the mighty VAG group, Škoda continues
to produce an increasingly diverse range of popular cars to customers around the world,
in many factories around the world. This is the Škoda Story. (music) In 1894 Václav Klement was a bookseller in
the Kingdom of Bohemia, which today is the Czech Republic. So, if you want to know where those pesky
Bohemians come from, now you know! Bohemia at this time was part of the Austro-Hungarian
empire, and this is why Captain Von Trapp in the Sound Of Music is a naval captain even
though he lives in a land-locked country. If you’re interested Captain Von Trapp was
actually a bit of a bad-ass during the First World War, sinking 11 ships as a submarine
captain and becoming something of a national hero. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes – Václav Klement who’s happily selling
books in Bohemia. Like many people at that time he’d got himself
the latest transportation, the safety bicycle, in this case from German company Seidel and
Naumann. The bike needed repairs, so he returned it
to the makers along with a letter in Czech, only to receive a reply, in German, stating:
“If you want us to answer you, we insist that you convey your message in a language we understand.”. Now this is a lesson to all customer service
departments. Don’t annoy your customers! Klement was so unhappy with this reply, and
seeing the Czech bicycle market badly supported, he decided to open his own bicycle repair
shop with Václav Laurin, despite not knowing the first thing about how to repair bikes! Thankfully he could learn on the job as Laurin
already had an established shop in a nearby town. Business for the new company was good. They were not only repairing bikes, but making
their own, and soon had a dedicated factory. Just two years later, in 1898, they bought
a Werner motorcyclette. Powered by an engine mounted on the handlebars
driving the front wheels, with such a high center of gravity it proved dangerous and
unreliable – an early accident on it cost Laurin a front tooth. The pair felt they could do better and worked
with German ignition specialist Robert Bosch to produce the Slavia motorcycle in 1899. The following year they started exporting
it across Europe, and some at the time credited them as the makers of the first motorcycle. But Laurin and Klement were an ambitious pair
and they wanted to try their hand at a motor car. By 1905 they’d produced their first, the
Voiturette A. You would think that this would make them the oldest Czech car maker still
in business, but you’d be wrong! That honour goes to Tatra, now named Tatra
Trucks. The Voiturette A had a three-speed gearbox
and included a reverse gear. This car and others were entered into motor
trials events, starting a tradition the company would continue to the present day. Soon the company employed over 300 people
and started producing high-end sporty cars rich motor cars buyers wanted. During the First World War car production
stopped, and Laurin and Klement focused on motor transport and parts for the war effort,
for example a version of their existing light van. After the first World War the Austro-Hungarian
Empire and Kingdom of Bohemia was dead. Laurin and Klement found themselves producing
cars and trucks in the newly formed Czechoslovakia, once again selling cars around the world. But by 1924 they’d run into economic problems,
including a devastating factory fire, and needed to find a buyer. Enter Škoda Works, who weren’t called Škoda
Works at this time, but a long series of Czech words that I would butcher if I tried to say
them. They were an arms manufacturer amongst other
things and had been supplying all things war related to Governments since the mid-19th
century. The First World War should have worked out
well for an arms manufacturer like Škoda Works, but unfortunately it saddled them with
deep debts due to unpaid bills from the losers. After World War One there wasn’t much need
for guns, but there was a growing need for cars, so it seemed natural that they would
acquire Laurin & Klement’s growing motor car business. It would complement Škoda’s divisions building
trams and locomotives. Škoda actually already produced cars, but
under license from Spanish car company Hispano-Suiza. But soon Škoda was focusing purely on cars
they designed themselves through their Laurin and Klement acquisition, putting their newly
created Škoda logo on the cars. The car division was spun off into a separate
but wholly owned company with this name, which given all those syllables let’s just call
ASAP. As soon as possible (get it?), they brought
in an assembly line and started producing the 1933 420. It was the first Škoda to do away with the
old ladder chassis for a smaller and more taught tube chassis, “inspired” by one
made by competitor Tatra. The 420, or Popular as it was renamed would
be a small, cheap car for the everyman, and Czechs and Slovaks took it to their hearts. Škoda used the same chassis for the sportier
Rapid that won the Monte Carlo rally in 1936, and the Favorit and Superb. These car names would live on throughout the
years, some to the present day. Just before the Popular was launched Škoda
had a respectable 14% of the Czechoslovak car market. By 1938, thanks to that Popular it was 39%. It seemed that nothing could stop Škoda’s
increased domination of the car industry. And of course, when I say something like that,
you know something bad’s around the corner, and if you’ve seen any program on the History
Channel you know what’s coming next. Before Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the
start of World War Two, he’d invaded Czechoslovakia a year earlier. He started by changing the side of the road
people drive on, so although Škoda’s had been right hand drive, the new cars would
be left hand drive. Car production slowed to a trickle as Germany
put the Škoda auto factories to use making military vehicle parts and weapon components. Maybe for retribution over the Czech people’s
non-cooperation in the war, maybe to stop the factories being useful to the enemy, in
April 1945 what was left of the Luftwaffe destroyed the Škoda factories. Amazingly the factory was rebuilt in just
three months and after the war production of the Popular began again, now updated and
renamed the 1101, and as it had two doors it was popularly known as the Tudor! But as Churchill said at the time, an iron
curtain descended upon Europe, and Czechoslovakia was on the Russian Communist side. Škoda was now owned by the people, and car
production was part of a planned, centralised economy on the periphery of a larger empire. ASAP was renamed to AZNP who’s name I will
take a crack at (and probably butcher): Automobilové závody, národní podnik. Production of the Popular continued as the
1101 and 1102 and it would continue to be produced until 1961. Alongside it was the full-size luxury car
called the VOS. It wasn’t available to the ordinary man
and was the preferred car for senior political and military personnel. VOS stood for “Vládní Osobní Speciál”
or “special car of the Government”. It had air conditioning, armour plating, and
weighed in at nearly 4 tons. AZNP introduced a small Škoda to replace
the venerable Popular in 1955 with the 440 saloon and 450 convertible, which were renamed
as the Octavia and Felicia in 1959. The Octavia was notable in that it had interchangeable
front & rear windscreens. Although car production was up, the Soviet
Union needed hard Western cash to buy the things they couldn’t make themselves. Trade with the West was severely limited until
Stalin’s death in 1953. Škoda had never really stopped exporting,
but with Moscow limiting the amount of investment in the company, selling Škodas abroad stepped
up a gear. Europe was Škoda’s traditional market,
but they also sold the Felicia in the USA in 1960. They hoped to capitalise on European open
top roadster interest such as the Austin Healey Sprite and Triumph TR3, but the car was expensive
compared to the competition, its fuel economy didn’t sell in a land of inexpensive gas
and to top it all it was unreliable. Remaining cars were sold off cheap and Škoda
beat a hasty retreat. With production continuing to rise, a new
factory was built in the early 1960s, and with this larger factory the company invested
in a new car. Western car companies were putting engines
at the back, such as with the NSU Prinz and Renault’s Dauphine. Škoda liked this layout as a means of making
a lighter car that would have better fuel economy, being able to ditch that long driveshaft. The design of the new car would be once again
heavily “influenced” by a Tatra, this time the 1956 Tatra 603, and the designers
managed to hit their fuel economy goals with the car achieving an impressive 36mpg. The car was launched as the 1000MB, 1000 standing
for the almost 1000cc engine, and MB for Mladá Boleslav, the city where all Škodas were
made and where Laurin and Klement had founded their company way back in 1895. It sold well, with over 440,000 sold in 5
years. In the UK the 1000MB could be had for less
than a Ford Cortina, and it was better equipped. It was updated as the 100 and 110 in 1969,
with the sporty 110R in 1970 that had a bit of a Porsche look about it. But despite the sporty looks, it only had
a 1.1L engine that could get the car to 60mph in 18.5 seconds. That’s slow even for 1970. The more mainstream 100 and 110 sold well,
with over 1M produced in 8 years, and that’s probably because the Soviet Union had decided
more cars were needed to get people moving and to improve the economy. In 1971 Škoda tried their hands at making
a serious sports car. The 110 Super Sport was a prototype of something
that definitely wasn’t in Moscow’s 5-year plan to supply borsch to the masses. But under the Knight Rider looks was a 110R
with a 1.1L engine in the back, and likely it would take about as long to get to 60. Only one was ever made, initially in white
and then painted black in the 1980s. The 1203 light van was launched in 1968, although
plans for it had been drawn up as early as 1956, and because of this the van is based
on the 1202 introduced in 1961. It got to 50mph in 40 seconds and didn’t
have a 0-60 time because it couldn’t go that fast! Over the years the engines were improved,
and until very recently it was still being produced from spare parts left over after
production ended in 1999. But not all Škodas were slow. Since the 1960s Škoda had been entering their
cars in rallies to help sell them abroad, and to show that Czechoslovakia could take
on the world and win. And win they did! That rear engine layout and light construction
helped take the under-1300cc trophy in the RAC Rally not once, or twice, but 17 times,
in 17 straight years! They did this with specially modified version
of the 110R with 1.8L and then 2.0L engines, the latter fuel-injected beast being aptly
called the “Grenade”! Škoda intended the 100 and 110’s successor
would have the engine up front and be front wheel drive, but a lack of funding meant they
had to soldier on by updating the existing car. It was launched as the 105, 120 and 125, but
was better known as the Target in Greece and the Estelle and Super Estelle in the UK. These cars were hopelessly out of date compared
to the competition, despite being given a small update as the 130 and Rapid in 1984. A rear engine means limited luggage space
in the front, and since the late 1950s car companies had started embracing the tighter
front wheel, front engine layout. With such an outdated car, it was around this
time that the Škoda jokes started appearing in the UK. What do you call an open top Škoda? A skip! Why do Škoda’s have a heated rear windscreen? To keep your hands warm while you’re pushing
it! Cruel yes, but maybe close to the truth. The open top Škoda included a knob to turn
on the heated rear windscreen, which lit up to show it was on, despite the fact the open
top didn’t have a heated rear windscreen! The Soviet bloc’s economy was crumbling,
and it needed that sweet Western currency more than ever, but with outdated cars they
had to be sold off cheaply to sell at all. By the late 80’s Škoda’s, Lada’s and
Yugo’s were the cheapest cars in the UK, but it allowed some who could never afford
a new car to own one. Škoda tried to create a new popular people’s
car with the 1987 Favorit, designed by Bertone, and built with some Western parts to improve
the car’s quality. It was Škoda’s first front-engined car
for years and the first to have front wheel drive. It was a Favorit of British buyers, selling
over 50,000. The Eastern bloc of Soviet controlled countries
quickly gained independence in the late 1980s, and Czechoslovakia’s peaceful Velvet Revolution
ended in victory just 2 days before 1990. But the country was penniless, and with no
money to invest in a car industry that had been left out to dry for years. The Government owners looked around for a
partner to help kickstart Škoda for the 1990s. Renault and Volkswagen both bid, but the Government
went with VW in 1991 as they felt the company could safeguard more jobs in the Czech factory. The Favorit was quickly improved with parts
from the VW parts bin. And Škoda went racing again, winning its
class in the 1993 Monte Carlo rally, and the 2L category in the 1994 World Rally Championships,
beating cars from the top car makers, including much better funded parent Volkswagen! Škoda hadn’t lost any of its rallying skills. VW was pumping money into the company, building
a new factory with all the latest technology to produce high-quality cars. The Favorit was restyled and thoroughly updated
in 1994 as the Felicia, and its launch celebrated a century of bicycle, motorcycle and car production
in Mladá Boleslav. The car got ABS, air conditioning, a driver’s
airbag, and a mixture of Škoda and VW engines. The improvement in quality showed in reviews
and long term tests, and sales across Europe grew. Those Škoda jokes in the UK had now been
silenced. And the car was turned into a small pick-up and sold
as the 1996 Volkswagen Caddy in some markets. And Škoda wouldn’t be complete without
the ultimate 90’s vehicle – the lifestyle version dubbed the Felicia Fun. The cut-price Felicia sold 1.4M cars in just
7 years. And this is how VW started to position the
Škoda brand – good value cars that had rock-solid VW quality. Soon those bad old days of the 1980s were
erased and the company, now in the newly formed Czech Republic, grew and grew. And that rock-solid quality wasn’t just
marketing hype – the car started appearing at the top of customer satisfaction surveys. The first car based on Volkswagen underpinnings
was the 1996 Škoda Octavia. It took its name from the 1959 model and was
based on the VW Golf. Next up came the Fabia in 1999. It was the successor to the Felicia and was
based on the Polo. With small Škoda’s selling well, it was
natural Volkswagen would build a car based on the larger VW Passat, which was the 2001
Škoda Superb. It would be built at a new Czech plant, this
time in Kvasiny. With the rush towards MPVs in the late 90s
and early 2000s, Škoda launched its own in 2006 as
the Roomster, and it was also sold as the practical Praktik panel van. This was the first car that wasn’t largely
based on an existing Volkswagen model, although the car was based on the A4 platform, but
then so was the Audi TT! It showed Volkswagen’s growing confidence
in Škoda, and they had upped their initial 30% stake in the company to soon take a controlling
interest. In 2005 for the first time, the UK had a waiting
list for a new Škoda. In 2016 the Roomster was updated as the Kodiaq
crossover, making it Škoda’s flagship model with luxurious comfortable seating for 7. The compact SUV called the Yeti would arrive
in 2009 based on the VW A5 platform also used by the Audi Q3, VW Tiguan and SEAT Tribu. It would be succeeded by the 2017 Karoq and
2019 Kamiq. The 2011 Citigo is a sister car to the Volkswagen
Up, and is little more than a rebadge. It’s manufactured in yet another new Volkswagen
factory in neighbouring Slovakia and a fully electric version was launched in 2019. With small cars selling well, Škoda felt
a need for a car to fit between the Fabia and Octavia, and introduced the Rapid in 2012,
using the historic name from the 1930s and 80s. The car was updated and renamed as the Scala
in 2018. But the diesel pollution-cheating scandal
that hit Volkswagen in 2015 also hit Škoda, with 1.2M Škodas worldwide also having the
same problem. Probably as a reaction to this, the company
announced that it would launch a range of all-electric cars by 2019. The updated strategy now has the company producing
5 electric models by 2025, following parent Volkswagen’s strategy to move to all-electric
cars rapidly. Škoda sold 172,000 cars in 1994. That’s grown to 1.24M leaving the gates
in 2019 and 9 different types of car. The car is sold in over 100 countries with
China being a top market. And the cars aren’t just produced in the
Czech Republic. They’re made in India, China and even old
ally Russia! Škoda had produced over 14M cars by 2011,
and now employs over 33,000 people in the Czech Republic. Quite a success story for a marque with such
rich history. Scalextric has been a fun childhood toy for
years and has recently gone digital. Hear the full history on my new Scalextric
Story video, and a special thanks to all my Patrons for supporting me. Thanks for watching and see you in the next

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