As time goes on it’s becoming harder to remember that Skoda was once a subject of ridicule in the UK.
With some justification, comedian Jasper Carrott devoted a significant amount of his career to making Skoda jokes which were repeated in pubs and school playgrounds across the land.
Skoda owners may have been offended, but they generally didn’t know much about cars and just wanted something cheap that would keep the rain off and was quicker than walking.
It was an odd period in Skoda history, because beforehand the company built high-quality family, sporting and luxury cars, and it has returned to doing more or less the same now (apart from the luxury bit, though in absolute terms modern Skodas are far more comfortable than anything built in the old days).
It’s very unusual for a car manufacturer to have fallen from grace so badly and recovered so well. Here we explain the curious fall and rise of Skoda.
The fall and rise of Skoda
The history of what we now know as Skoda predates its name by many years. In the 1890s, two young Czechs called Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement set up in business as bicycle makers. In 1899 they produced their first motorcycle.
Continuing to develop very quickly, they put their first car on sale in 1905. The Laurin & Klement Voiturette A was quite modern for its time and had a one-litre two-cylinder engine producing 7bhp.
The company was based in the city of Mlada Boleslav, where Skoda still has its headquarters today.
Laurin & Klement developed many new models (including the one picture above, built in 1911) until the mid 1920s.
At this point it was acquired by Skoda Works, an engineering company formed under another name in 1859. The cars became known as Skodas and were fitted with the famous ‘winged arrow in a circle’ badges still used today.
The Laurin & Klement name also lives on. It is used for the most expensive and best-equipped cars in Skoda’s model ranges.
The luxury Skoda
One very early product from the new Skoda brand was the Czech-built version of the Hispano-Suiza H6.
This was a luxury car whose seven-litre engine was so powerful it could also be used for racing and setting speed records.
Most were built in France, and some in Spain. Skoda produced no more than 100, all of them with slightly detuned engines which could cope better with lower-quality petrol.
The cars Skoda developed itself in the 1920s were of high quality too, if not to quite the same extent as the Hispano-Suiza.
The 422, one example of which is owned by Skoda UK, was very refined for its day.
While the driving position is quite cramped, it had a great deal of room for rear passengers, as 21st-century Skodas such as the Superb do too.
The start of the decline
Czechoslovakia (the single country consisting of the now separate Czech Republic and Slovakia) came under Communist rule after World War II, and Skoda, the car manufacturer, was separated from Skoda Works.
Money became scarce, and arrangements with non-Communist countries impossible, but post-War Skodas were not far behind their foreign rivals up until the 1960s.
One of the strangest and least-known parts of the Skoda story is the Trekka.
Unrelated to the much later Renault Kangoo Trekka, this utility vehicle was the only car designed and mass-produced in New Zealand, where it was sold from 1966 to 1973. It was also exported to Indonesia and Australia.
Skoda’s involvement was to provide the engine, gearbox and chassis of the Octavia Combi. Trekka then fitted its own body, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to that of a Land Rover.
Engines to the rear
Starting with the 1964 1000MB, Skoda began mounting its cars’ engine in the rear, a layout also used by Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen among others.
The advantage was that it allowed for a more roomy passenger compartment, but it also led to handling problems which did nothing to help Skoda’s reputation.
Despite their low power and awkward weight distribution, Skodas of this era could be made to perform very well in motorsport. The works team’s cars were particularly successful in rallying.
In the UK, privateers who competed in Special Saloon racing took advantage of a rule which said that you could do almost anything to a car as long as the engine was still in the same half as it was in the standard model.
This led to several monstrously quick Skoda lookalikes which were really purpose-built sports racers (often powered by enormous V8 engines) with fibreglass replica bodies.
Back to front
In 1987, Skoda launched a car called the Favorit. Named after an earlier pre-War model, it was the first front-engined Skoda for several years, and the first front-wheel drive model the company had ever built.
Crude though it may have been compared with western European rivals, the Favorit nevertheless was a first step into the modern era.
The post-Communist era
Czechoslovakia made a relatively peaceful transition from a one-party state to a parliamentary republic in 1989. The effect on Skoda was almost immediate.
Volkswagen became a shareholder in 1991, increasing its ownership to 100% by the end of the century.
During that time, Skoda launched the Felicia (the last car based on a platform developed by the company) followed by the Octavia and the Fabia (pictured), both of them heavily based on Volkswagen Group technology just as contemporary Audis and SEATs were.
A new century
In the 2000s, Skoda launched a new Octavia and the first two generations of the extraordinarily spacious Superb.
It also brought out two very adventurous designs. The first, introduced in 2006, was the Roomster MPV, which looked quite unlike anything else on the market.
The second and more successful was the Yeti SUV (pictured). It was launched in 2009, and although was starting to feel out of date by the time it was discontinued eight years later it was still very popular among owners.
Skoda currently has a range of seven cars covering the most popular segments of the market.
The smallest is the Citigo city car, followed by the Fabia supermini, the Rapid Spaceback and Octavia family cars, the executive Superb, the Karoq (replacement for the Yeti) and another SUV, the larger Kodiaq.
They are all are closely related to other Volkswagen Group products and are in many cases cheaper. They also have a level of quality which would have seemed impossible in the 1980s. There is no stigma attached to buying any of them. Skoda jokes are without doubt a thing of the past.