1906 - present
Vaclav Klement and Vaclav Laurin
Skoda started when Vaclav Klement left his bookshop in the early 1890s and joined with mechanic Vaclav Laurin to start up a small bicycle repair workshop in Mlada Boleslav, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We assume at the time that they had little idea that eventually they were to establish one of the biggest of the East European car manufacturers.
Business was satisfactory until Klement, chairman of the 'Club for the Promotion of Cycling' in Mlada Boleslav, discovered that it was extremely difficult to get spares for the imported bicycles which, because there were no domestic manufacturers, they were forced to ride. The final straw came when, having written to the Dresden-based firm of Seidel and Neumann for spares to repair one of their bicycles, he received the reply: 'If you want something write in German'.
Suitably spurred, Klement determined from that time on to design and build his own bicycles and not just be content with repairing ones of other people's manufacture. As a result the first bicycle manufactured by the two partners was produced in rented rooms in the Nove Mesto district of Mlada Boleslav and was called the 'Slavia'. Not surprisingly they met with considerable competition from the established manufacturers, especially those of Britain and Germany, but, undaunted, by 1897 they were employing 28 craftsmen and selling as many bicycles as they could produce.
In 1898 they moved their premises to a new building, the site of which would later become the centre of the car factory. That same year Vaclav Klement travelled to Paris where he was particularly impressed with the Werner Brothers' motor driven cycle and the De Dion Bouton tricycle. On the return journey Klement made the decision that he would build his own motorised bicycle.
The World's First Motorcycle
Soon the workforce was 32 strong and the battle was on to produce a satisfactory motor cycle. They struggled with no less than eight different prototypes before arriving at a solution that gave them an indelible place in automotive history. Although motoring historians argue constantly about who did what first, the press of the day were in no doubt as to who was responsible for the first motor cycle - Laurin and Klement.
In 1904, the German press proclaimed: 'The Laurin and Klement firm at Mlada Boleslav can by right be described as the makers of the powered two wheeler - without detracting any credit due to the French designers, the Werner Brothers. 'The French have attached an engine to a normal bicycle without changing its lines. In contrast, Laurin and Klement went the other way about it. 'They built around the engine and its elements a cycle.
The idea was the same but the ways were different. The French emphasised the principles of the bicycle and the Czechs the principle of a motor car. Time would prove the Czechs were right. Klement and Laurin's customers agreed. Motor cycle production began late in 1898 in the newly completed plant. Employing forty workmen, it was far ahead of its time in using what today we would regard as industrial production techniques. The factory had its own power station, forge, plating and paint shops, bodywork and machine shops, and a completely separate assembly bay.
The A-1.25 Motor Cycle
The first demonstration of the Laurin and Klement type A-1.25 motor cycle came in 1899. Powered by a single-cylinder engine, it had a specially designed 'surface' carburettor, belt rear wheel drive and all the controls concentrated on the handlebars. It was also the first motor cycle in the world to be equipped with electromagnetic ignition instead of the customary hot bulb, and the first motor cycle to be built in the Austrian Empire. The first export orders for the machines, 30 for Germany and 150 for England, came towards the end of that year. Within a short time the sporting potential of the new motor cycle was realised.
Pioneer 'TT riders' straddled the Laurin and Klement machines not only in short distance events but also in bone-shaking marathons such as the Paris to Vienna race. Spurred on by their success, the two partners set about producing new and better machines fitted with water-cooled, single-cylinder engines or twin-cylinder V-engines and eventually four-cylinder models. In 1900, following the expansion of the factory premises to an area of 1100 square metres and an increase in the number of employees to 68, the company exhibited their motor-cycles at the International Exhibition in Frankfurt-am-Main for the first time and took away the First Prize together with a Gold Medal.
The following year saw the introduction of improved types of the A-1.25 motor cycle and of the B-1.75 machine. 1901 was also the year during which the BZ-2.5 boosted power, single-cylinder motor cycle was introduced and in which Laurin and Klement won First Prizes and Medals at International Exhibitions in Prague, Vienna and Hanover. In 1902 the company introduced three more single-cylinder machines, the BZP-2.5, the L-2.75 and the LW-3, the LW-3 having a water-cooled engine. This was the year in which the company experienced their first real successes in competition with Podsednicek and Klement himself, taking first and second places in the Exelberg Uphill Race.
The Paris to Vienna Motor-Cycle Race
The Paris to Vienna Race was composed of fourteen motor cycles in 1902, eleven French machines and three Laurin and Klement bikes. At the finish there were only two French and two Laurin and Klement machines after 31 hours. The Laurin and Klement machines were ridden by top Czechoslovakian riders Riegr and Podsednicek, the latter being the only rider to pass Aroberk without having to dismount from his machine. Work on trebling the size of the factory to 3300 square metres and the building of a new engine assembly shop, tin smith and forging shop began and was completed in 1903.
That year the company introduced the first twin-cylinder CC-3 type motor cycle and, after experimenting with trailers and a seat in front of the driver, the company produced their first motor cycle and sidecar combination. These combination bikes were successfully exported to all parts of the world including Mexico and Britain, where they were used as postal delivery vehicles. Continuing their participation in competitions, Laurin and Klement motor cycles competed in 34 races in 1903, with 87 machines winning 72 prizes, including 32 first prizes. In 1904 four new models were introduced, the CT -2.75, the CCD-4, the CCR-5 and the CCRW-5, the latter featuring a water cooled engine.
By the end of the year Laurin and Klement had built 2000 motor cycles since their establishment and had sold a manufacturing licence to the German firm Siedel and Werner Foster. The participation of Laurin and Klement machines in thirty races that year resulted in twenty-four first places and F. Toman taking second place on a Laurin and Klement bike in the Gordon Bennet International Cup; completing his fastest lap at an average speed of 84 kilometres per hour. The factory was again tripled in size in 1905, the production of bicycles was discontinued and the company introduced their CCCC type motor cycle which was powered by a four cylinder in-line engine developing 5 hp.
On the Motor Cycle
In the same year a manufacturing licence was sold to the French company Alcylon. In the unofficial world championship held that year on the elliptical track near the French town of Dourdon, the Laurin and Klement factory driver, Vaclav Vondrich, stormed to victory. All the leading motor cycle manufacturers of that time entered their machines in the race, including Peugeot, Griffon, Progress, JAP, Ariel and Matchless and the victory of Vondrich on the Laurin and Klement machine resulted in his being acclaimed a national hero by the Czechs. Leading Czech composer of the day Kmoch even went so far as to compose a piece of fiery dance music called 'On the Motor Cycle' to honour Vondrich.
1905 was, however, to be a year of even greater significance. The Laurin and Klement factory in Mlada Boleslav had produced its first four wheeler vehicle as early as 1901 but realised immediately that it was not enough merely to apply the principles of motor cycle design to four wheels, and, although the company exhibited two prototypes of the car in Vienna, the project was handed back to the designers for further work. For four years the Laurin and Klement engineers worked on a design for a motor car and the result in 1905, was the unveiling of the first car to be designed and produced in Austria-Hungary, the Model A Voiturette.
Austria-Hungary's First Car, The Model A Voiturette
Of entirely original design, it had a four stroke, twin-cylinder, V engine giving 3 hp, a three speed gearbox with reverse gear and a maximum speed of 30 mph. Available with two or four seats as required, the engine was not placed under the seats as was customary at that time, but was positioned in front of the driver. The following year it was joined by the Model B. Of the same design concept, the B had an increased power output of 9 hp. Its sporting debut was at Semmering where Voiturettes took first, second and third places in their capacity class. In the same year the car also won first prize in a reliability contest which involved driving from Berlin, through Wroclaw and Leipzig, to Berlin.
With an obvious success on their hands the company again set about expanding the factory to cope with the increased demand for their products. During 1907 the entire factory was reconstructed and an extra 4000 square metres of working area added. The company went public that year with a capital of 2,500,000 Czechoslovakian Crowns - by 1920 the company's worth was estimated to be 16 million Crowns. Despite the reconstruction work the company continued to introduce new models. First the D and E Models powered by four cylinder engines, then the Type B-2 motor cab and finally one of their greatest pre-World War 1 models - the Type FF. Powered by an eight-cylinder, 4854 cc engine which produced 40 bhp, it was the first eight-cylinder engine to be cast in two parts with ignition by two magnetos to two spark plugs.
Competition successes that year included first and second places at a race held in Padua, Italy; a repetition of their victory at Semmering in the previous year and participation in the 430 kilometres non-stop race from London to Holyhead. The factory engaged the outstanding designer and experienced racing driver, Otto Hyeronymus, in 1908, to supervise the building of their first special racing car, the Type FCR. With a valve-in-head four-cylinder engine of 85 mm bore and 250 mm stroke, the car completed ten laps of Brooklands
circuit at an average speed of 72.57 mph and with a fastest lap of approximately 73 mph set a new world record for cars with a bore of up to 86 mm.
In the same year the company's products took the first nine places in a race from Petrograd to Moscow and Laurin and Klement were rewarded with massive orders from Czarist Russia which accounted for 35 percent of their total exports. New models continued to pour from the factory during the year. The new G Type was introduced which was powered by a four-cylinder unit giving 14 hp and the Types A and B were supplemented by the twin-cylinder in-line powered Type BS. That year the company began to manufacture commercial vehicles and omnibuses.
Otto Hyeronymus' Aircraft Engine
In 1909 the company bought a licence from a Dutch company for the manufacture of Brons stationary engines with power outputs ranging from 4 hp to 60 hp. In the same year the Type L was introduced with a four to six seat body, and powered by a 25 hp four-cylinder engine, together with the Type EN which was powered by a 46 hp unit giving the car a top speed of 85 kph. 1910 saw Otto Hyeronymus designing and building the first aircraft engine to be produced in Austria and in the same year test flights took place at Radouc near Mlada Boleslav and in Vienna.
Continuing with their policy of proving their cars to the public by racing and rallying them, Laurin and Klement cars took three medals, three silver shields and the Factory Team prize in that year's Alpine Rally. Nineteen-ten also saw the introduction of the Type ENS luxury car and the Type GDN taxicab. Sporting successes continued throughout 1911 with the most notable that year being the Petrograd to Sevastopol Rally of Czar Nicholas, in which the competitors travelled over 1600 kilometres of roads and 800 kilometres over the Russian steppes.
Laurent and Klement Type S
Of the five Laurent and Klement cars entered four finished without getting any penalty points. The Type S was introduced in 1911 and continued in production until 1925 at a production rate of 2000 cars per year. Powered by a four-cylinder, L-shaped 1766 cc engine which gave 14 hp, it was acclaimed as the most comfortable four seater appealing to the largest possible market. A Type K luxury model was introduced that year with a 32 hp engine. In a non-stop race from Vienna to San Sebastian, through Linz, Munich, and Bordeaux, 2137 kilometres in all, an S Type Laurin and Klement took fourth place against 61 other competitors.
In 1912 the company began side-line manufacturing and were the first to build motorised ploughs in Austria-Hungary. These were sold under the name Excelsior and the first six-furrow ploughs were followed by three-furrow models. In the same year the RAF automobile factory in Liberec was incorporated in the Mlada Boleslav factory and the company bought a licence to build Knight sleeve-valve engines. Laurin and Klement cars again took the manufacturers team prize in the Alpine Rally. A year later, in 1913, the company won the Alpine Prize and the Thurn-Taxis Industrial Award, which was awarded to the factory team which took the manufacturers' prize in the/Alpine Rally three years running.
That same year the company introduced Types MK and RK models, both with sleeve-valve engines. World War 1 completely disrupted production at the factory and even when peace was declared it took the company a number of years to get back onto its feet. Post-war production included, however, many of the models which they had been manufacturing prior to 1914, including an updated version of the Type S. In 1918 Laurin and Klement introduced the Type MH with a 4072 cc power unit which delivered 50 hp. By 1922 official statistics showed that Laurin and Klement cars were the most popular in Czechoslovakia with a 19.6 per cent share of the total market and 42.1 per cent of those of Czechoslovakian origin.
By 1923 car production was back to normal and the company introduced the Type 100, which was to become the backbone of their model range, and the Type 445. The former was powered by a 1796 cc unit giving 20 hp and the latter by a 4960 cc unit which gave 60hp. Types 200 and 21O were also introduced as 2403cc versions of the S Type. A year later the Type 400 was introduced powered by a sleeve-valve, 3300 cc 30 hp engine together with the Type 450 which was powered by a 4962 cc unit developing 60 hp.
With the company still suffering from the after effects of a disastrous fire in 1924, negotiations opened with a company then known as Akciova Spolecnot, today known as Skoda, with a view to the latter company taking over the assets of the Laurin and Klement company. These negotiations were satisfactorily concluded in 1925. Vaclav Klement became manager of the factory but the Laurin and Klement marque had disappeared for ever and all future models were to carry the Skoda name and emblem. Skoda, at that time, were well known for their heavy machinery, guns and ship parts. Some of these latter found their way onto ships such as the Queen Mary and Normandie.
Skoda had embarked on car production in their own right in 1924 when they bought licences for the production of Hispano-Suiza
cars and Sentinel steam lorries. Skoda-Hispano-Suizas were recognised as being outstanding luxury cars in their day, with many of them having specially made bodies. They were powered by six-cylinder, overhead camshaft 6600 cc engines which developed 100 bhp and gave the cars a top speed of 90 mph. Production of these cars continued at the Mlada Boleslav factory until the 1930s when the name was dropped.
Skoda Between The Wars
Between the wars Skoda developed into one of the three biggest car manufacturers in Czechoslovakia, the other two being Tatra and Praga. As well as cars, Skoda produced trucks, tractors and aeroplane engines, with power units ranging from four up to eight cylinder. Immediately following their takeover of the Laurin and Klement car factory work began on extensive reconstruction including the building of a new mechanised assembly shop, a coach building shop, laboratories and the establishment of a research and development department. In 1928 the first of the new models were unveiled: the 4R with a 1944 cc 32 hp four-cylinder engine and four-seater bodywork and the 6R, a 2918cc, 50hp, six-cylinder, six seater.
A year later these models were joined by a Type 422 four-cylinder, 1165 cc, 22 hp model, a Type 645 six cylinder, 2940 cc, 45 hp model and a Type 860 eight-cylinder, 3880cc, 60hp model. In 1930 further rationalisation of the company led to the formation of the Automobile Industry Co Ltd, and annual production of 6000 cars. Production continued to concentrate mainly on the 430, 422 and 645 and the Type 633, introduced in 1931, which had a six-cylinder 1792 cc 33 hp unit, but soon the demand for a cheap and economical car led to the introduction of the Model 420.
The Skoda Popular, Superb, Rapid and Favorit
The 420, introduced in 1933 represented a turning point in design for Skoda with the conventional frame being replaced by centre tubular chassis and rear swing half axles - a design that continued for the next thirty years. The following year the 420 was remodelled to produce the very successful 'Popular' - Skoda's first small, family car- Powered by a 903 cc (later 995 cc) engine developing 18 hp, it rapidly became the most successful car on the Czechoslovakian market (the Republic of Czechoslovakia had been created after the signing of peace in 1918). Exported throughout the world it also helped to put the Skoda name on the international map.
The same year saw the introduction of the six-cylinder, 1165 cc, 26 hp 420 Rapid and the six-cylinder, 2941 cc, 55 hp Superb. In 1936 the Rapid was given a 1766 cc, 31 hp unit and the Superb a 2703 cc, 60 hp unit and the Favorit was introduced with a 1802cc, 38 hp, four-cylinder engine. That year a Popular, driven by Pohl and Hausmann took second place in the Monte Carlo Rally in its class and finished eighth overall. A Rapid won the 1936 Olympic Games Rally.
The following year Skoda cars took third and ninth places in the Monte Carlo and two South Africans, Van Derburg and Van Vuuren, won the Nairobi to Johannesburg Rally, driving a two-year-old standard Popular. That year the Popular was given an uprated 1089 cc, 32 hp, four-cylinder, overhead valve engine; a design which was retained until the Octavia. The year before World War 2 broke out saw the restyling of the bodies of the Popular, Rapid and Superb and the development of new engines all with overhead valves. The Popular was given a 1089 cc, 22 hp unit, the Rapid a 1558 cc, 42 hp unit and the Superb a 3140cc, 85hp unit. Ironically enough, in 1939 Skoda were to reach their highest pre-war car production figure of 6371 cars in the year.
The Germans Invade
Following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, the factory was taken over to contribute to the German war effort. Two days after the German forces surrendered on 7 May 1945, the Skoda factory was damaged by bombs. By the end of 1945, however, production of small passenger cars had resumed and the factory had been nationalised. First cars to come off the production line were a descendant of the Popular, the Skoda 1100 and the big Superb. The S1101 was introduced in 1946 with an 1100cc engine and gradually the range was extended to incorporate wagon, convertible, van, ambulance and patrol car versions. Before the discontinuation of production in 1950, 67,000 cars of this type were manufactured at a daily rate of sixty vehicles.
Exporting The 1100 To Australia
Within three years of the war ending, Skoda 1100s were being exported, mainly to East European countries, but also here to Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, South America and Africa. In the 1948 Francorchamps 24 Hour Race, they were beaten only by a British HRG. With special bodywork, Skoda cars also raced at Le Mans. In 1950
the company took over the manufacture of Tatraplan cars from the Tatra Works at Koprivnice as part of the Government's nationalisation programme and proceeded to produce one model, the 2-litre, rear-engined Tatraplan, derived from the pre-war Type 97 Tatra. Some 5000 were produced up to its discontinuation in 1954.
In 1955 the manufacture of the Skoda 1200, a four-door development of the S1101 with a larger capacity engine, was transferred to the subsidiary works of the Automobile Works National Corporation in Vrchlabi and Kvasiny, where it continued until 1970. The same year saw the introduction of the two door Skoda 440-Spartak which was powered by an 1100 cc engine developing 40 hp and was the predecessor of the Iater S445 1200cc model, the S450 and the Octavia and Octavia Combi, 382,000 being built in all.
A year later saw the beginning of an extensive modernisation programme for the factory which included the installation of over 100 production lines. A team of workers in the Automobile Works National Corporation at Mlada Boleslav designed and built the first automatic machining line for cylinder heads in Czechoslovakia. Three years later work began on the construction of a new plant in compliance with a government ruling aimed at increasing production of passenger cars. On an area of 80 hectares, some forty buildings were erected within a period of a little over 4 years, of which the mechanical workshops (60,000 square metres) and coach-building shops (75,000 square metres) represented, at the time, the largest constructions of their kind in Czechoslovakia.
The Skoda 1000 Mlada Boleslav
The new metallurgical plant which was built at the same time included a forging shop, a foundry for cast iron and a foundry for aluminium alloys. The plant had the capacity to build some 120,000 cars a year. Production began with the Skoda 1000 MB (MB for Mlada Boleslav), a roomy four-door saloon of chassis-less design with a rear mounted 988 cc, 40 bhp engine. The adoption of this design, the first of its type in the history of the factory, resulted in a reduction in the gross vehicle weight and an increase in performance. From this basic type were derived first the Skoda 1100MB and, after a restyling of the body, the Skoda 100, 110 and 110R Coupe models.
Only four years later the company had new tool shops and ancillary plants built, but in 1969 a fire destroyed the largest building of the old factory, the mechanical assembly shop. By that time Skoda had produced over 500,000 1000 and 1100MB models, and a year later a new building to replace the burnt one was constructed. Daily output exceeded 630 cars a day in 1973 and on 29 August 1973 the millionth Skoda 1000MB was assembled. For the first time in its history the factory exported over 10,000 cars which represented some 70 per cent of its production.
In 1977 the Skoda range consisted of two versions of the 100 saloon both powered by a four-cylinder, in-line, 988 cc, 42 hp engine; three saloon versions of the 110 and a coupe version of the 110, all powered by an II07 cc, 48 hp (52 hp in the 110LS and Coupe versions) rear-mounted four-cylinder in-line engine. In 1977 Skoda introduced their first really new design in a decade, the Estelle. The obsolete rear-engine configuration was retained, leading to adverse comment from reviewers, despite a change in weight distribution from the 110 range with the' radiator
being moved to the front.
However not much changed over the next decade, and by the late 1980s, Skoda (then named Automobilové závody, národní podnik, Mladá Boleslav or AZNP) were still manufacturing cars that conceptually dated back to the 1960s. Rear engined models such as the Skoda 105/120, Estelle and Rapid sold steadily and performed well against more modern makes in races such as the RAC Rally in the 1970s and 1980s. They won their class in the RAC rally for 17 years running. They were powered by a 130 brake horsepower (97 kW), 1,289 cubic centimetres (78.7 cu in) engine. In spite of its dated image and being the subject of jokes, the Škoda remained a common sight on the roads of UK and Western Europe throughout the 1970s and 80s. Sport versions of the Estelle and earlier models were produced, using "Rapid" as the version name. Soft-top versions were also available. The Rapid was once described as the 'poor man's Porsche', and had significant sales success in the UK during the 1980s.
The Skoda Favorit
In 1987 the Favorit model was introduced. The Favorit's appearance was designed by Italian design company Bertone. With some motor technology licensed from western Europe, but still using the Škoda-designed 1289 cc engine, Škoda engineers designed a car comparable to western production. The technological gap was still there, but began closing rapidly. The Favorits were very popular in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries. They also sold fairly well in Western Europe, especially in the UK and Denmark, being regarded as solid and reliable, as well as being good value. Their trim levels continued to improve and they were sold until the introduction of the Felicia in 1994.
The fall of communism with the Velvet Revolution brought great changes to Czechoslovakia, and most industries were subject to privatisation. In the case of Skoda Automobile the state authorities brought in a strong foreign partner. Volkswagen was chosen by the Czech government on December 9, 1990 and, as a result on March 28, 1991 a joint-venture partnership agreement with Volkswagen took place, marked by the transfer of a 30% share to the Volkswagen Group on April 16, 1991. In the following years, Skoda became the fourth brand of the German group, as the Volkswagen Group raised its equity share first on December 19, 1994 to 60.3%, followed on December 11, 1995 to 70% and last up to 100% getting the full ownership of the company on May 30, 2000.
Also see: Skoda Car Reviews