I’ve been thinking about the time when cars were much simpler… and rubbish… and sometimes hopelessly unreliable. Its been said by me in the past, that some of the best automotive fun and adventures took place behind the wheel of a red Lada Riva – either one of two I was the incumbent of many moons ago. Soviet or Communist cars had a sort of charm about them that equivalent European models often lacked. Their design was nearly always a decade or more behind everything else but that just added to the mirth and wonderment of trundling around in a car that was pretty much only one step up the social ladder than travelling around by bus.
The great Quentin Wilson once said of the Lada Riva “the epitome of anti-establishment motoring” but regardless of the Commie crud that graced your driveway be it an FSO, Lada or Yugo, the above statement remained the same. But there was one simple reason for the huge upturn in Eastern Bloc car sales, and it wasn’t anything to do with politics. The British buying public were getting rather naffed off at the lack of quality and reliability of British made cars in the 70s. If you wanted a cheap no frills car that at the very least would fire up first turn of the key on a bitterly cold January morning then something Slovakian or Russian was the only way to go.
“mature buyers, many of whom were ex WW2 veterans had often witnessed their fellow brothers in arms swinging from trees by piano wire, so you can understand the initial resistance to motor imports from the land of the rising sun”
Of course you could go Japanese with a Datsun or Toyota, but remember, in the 1970s it wasn’t that long ago that mature buyers, many of whom were ex WW2 veterans had often witnessed their fellow brothers in arms swinging from trees by piano wire, so you can understand the initial resistance to motor imports from the land of the rising sun. Whereas Lada’s were pure unadulterated basic cars and Yugo’s were based on hand-me-down models that weren’t that brilliant in the first place, Skoda had just a little bit of engineering flair. Do your research and you’ll find out that before the iron curtain was drawn Skoda were a company of top drawer engineering repute – fact!
As the 80’s came along, The Skoda range was updated and morphed into what was now known as the Estelle. With its rear mounted in-line engines of 1050 or 1200cc capacity – latterly to the heady capacity of a snorting 1.3, they were that little bit roomier than a Lada and a soupcon more aerodynamic too. They offered 2yr warranties and their old import centre in Kings-Lynn boasted a mini production line where the basic trim was updated for the more demanding UK market. Parts supply bettered some European rivals too and not only looked after Skoda cars but Jawa motorcycles and Zetor agricultural tractors – even before Volkswagen came along they were far from being a cottage industry.
“Owners simply loved the Estelle and their dealers tended to be family run businesses of repute that sold a slice of their integrity with every new car”
Despite the jokes and second-hand resale values that were on a par with a box of used matches, the company couldn’t import enough of them. Owners simply loved the Estelle and their dealers tended to be family run businesses of repute that sold a slice of their integrity with every new car. Top line LSE or the later GL sported niceties such as alloy wheels, a vinyl roof, stereo cassette wireless and five speed gearboxes but you steered clear if you were a high mileage driver. Drive them hard and without sympathy and they would be shagged out by 50,000 miles. Pootle to the shops or for the odd run to the sea-side – they were all you needed in a car.
Class winners in the rally scene and the darling of the British motorist who’d had enough of bump starting their Marina every morning, Skoda were far from the bumbling, misfiring comedian joke theme many of us regarded them to be. Look at where they are now – multi award winning cars and proprietor of Europe’s most modern and up to date body press facility, hell they even produce complete bodyshells for Bentley didn’t you know?
Skoda… just who’s laughing now then?