Guilty Pleasures: The Skoda Estelle.

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!

By the 1980s Skoda had reworked their cars into the Estelle range. They offered a level of engineering and sympathy that was just a little ahead of the Lada Riva.

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.

The automotive version of David slaying Goliath – The giant killing works-team Group B 130LR

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?

8 comments

  1. Swinging from trees by piano wire! Just brilliant

    Not laughed so much in months. Thank you so very much for brightening up my cold damp evening

  2. Always remember the What car ? Review of a similar eastern block car , the FSO Polonez

    For: quad headlamps
    Against : everything Aft

  3. Wife’s family had an Estelle back in the early 80s. Although it was reliable, she says it was an embarrassment when it would keep stalling backing out of the drive to drop her off at primary school.

    To be fair, that’s hardly unique to Skoda. We had an Opel Ascona which was a reliable cold starter (unless it was damp), but utterly useless on a warm start, where it would stall repeatedly, in spite of carburettor settings being checked etc.

    So much easier these days, where nine times out of ten cars just work!

  4. As a long time Skoda Estelle and Rapid owner I am pleased to read such a positive, and accurate article.

    I have found one of the biggest issues facing the old Estelle was maintenance. Because the cars were so cheap servicing was often neglected and repairs botched. This was not always down to the owners as I have had some shockingly bad work done in garages who seem to think my main objective is to save money rather than having the work done properly.

    All that said, when the cars are looked after they can clock up huge milages. My Rapid achieved 175,000 Miles before being hit and taken off the road by a Fiat. My 120 Estelle 125,000 Miles.

    Excellent and enjoyable read, thank you.

  5. At least with East European cars you tended to get a decent toolkit – remember the Lada stirrup footpump?

    In 1999 I was looking for a cheap no nonsense runabout and asked a local family Skoda dealer if they had any Favorits which had been traded in – they said they normally just scrap them which didn’t inspire me with brand confidence…

    Anyone remember the Skoda Rapid convertible – you could lock the doors and then get in by lifting the soft top, which next to the B post was secured by Velcro, and reaching in to the interior door handle….

    • Hi Chris,

      Skoda had it’s own scrappage scheme around that time, VW being determined to erase any pre-VW cars from the history books.

      I remember the convertible. Two types were made/converted by a British company – the first having an all over canvas roof with a roll-over bar very much like the Stag’s, and the second having fixed rear sides.

      I think that most cars were very easy to break into with just a coat hanger at that time, and if you had a soft top you just left the doors unlocked to save the roof being cut!

      I believe most have now gone ‘back’ to Czech as they didn’t have the model themselves at the time!

      All the best to you.

  6. I have run Estelles since 1995 and still have one which was my first car. A 105. Its always good to give someone a lift and see their genuine surprise what a good car they are. Reliable first time starer too as its tuned up as per the manual. As one recent BMW 5 Series purchaser said to me after getting out from a quick blat with a big grin on his face ‘this is better than my BMW’. And I agree.

    • 1995 is the same year I discovered the truth, too!
      Your comment reminds me of the time a friend had just bought a Mercedes and took me for a drive around the block. When we got back we continued to the Pub in my Estelle, as I was ‘designated driver’. As we drove down the road he said “Rides well, doesn’t it?”. Indeed, the old Skoda had a far better ride than the Merc.
      Very glad to hear you still own a 105!

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