Škoda’s journey from communist laughing stock to genuinely sophisticated family motoring is unmatched in automotive history. Its cars now receive high acclaim, they sell in enormous quantities and the brand is making strong inroads into the all-electric market to secure its future.
An indication of just how strong Skoda’s current product range is, The Car Expert recently ranked the Czech Republic as the country that produces the best new cars, thanks to its sole motoring manufacturer – Škoda.
Most British car buyers really only know Škoda as a budget brand in the enormous Volkswagen Group, but the company has more than 125 years of history that spans the Great Depression, Nazi occupation, communist nationalisation and now global success.
From two wheels to four
The company’s humble beginning took place before the turn of the 20th century with two men, coincidentally both named Václav. A 26-year-old Bohemian bookseller by the name of Václav Klement was struggling to fix his bicycle, and was frustrated by its German manufacturer’s lack of interest in helping him.
Despite a lack of any real mechanical knowledge, Klement decided to set up a bicycle repair shop in his hometown with a friend, Václav Laurin. Their shop became known as Laurin & Klement and the pair soon began designing and building their own bicycles, opening their first factory in 1896.
The pair soon became fascinated by the invention of the motorcycle, and debuted their Slavia motorcycle in 1898. After several further motorcycles, Laurin & Klement produced its first car in 1905 – the Voiturette A, which produced around 7hp and topped out at 25mph.
From here, things really started to take off, with the company exporting to the likes of New Zealand, Russia, Britain and Japan – until the Depression arrived…
Factory fires and fascism
Laurin & Klement made it through the first world war and was expanding rapidly, making motorcycles, luxury cars, military trucks and everything in between. The 1920s brought new challenges however, when a large fire partially destroyed the factory in 1925.
With things looking bleak, the company was acquired by Czech weapon manufacturer, Škoda Works, who would keep the name ‘Laurin & Klement’ for a little while longer, before changing the company name to Škoda Auto. By 1936, Škoda had overtaken Praga and Tatra to become the biggest car manufacturer in Czechoslovakia.
Reportedly inspired by the feathered headdress of Native Americans, Škoda Works founder Emil Škoda designed the company’s logo that is still present today. The arrow is said to represent speed, the wings progress and freedom, and the circle unity and world harmony.
Unfortunately for Škoda Auto, freedom and world harmony were in short supply over the next decade. By 1939, Nazi Germany had occupied both Bohemia and the Škoda factory, and swapped car manufacturing for aiding the German war effort, producing parts for trucks and planes, as well as weapon components.
Škoda’s compliance made it an Allied target. In 1945, one bombing run resulted in the near-complete destruction of its manufacturing facilities.
Life behind the iron curtain
The factory in Bohemia was rebuilt after the war, and while Škoda was no longer under Nazi control, it still wasn’t exactly free. Škoda’s life under socialism began in 1948, cut off from automotive developments in non-communist countries.
Despite the tight restrictions behind the iron curtain, Škoda was allowed to resume exporting its cars in 1959, when the Škoda Felicia coupé reached the Amercian market. However, the brand found little success overseas and earned an unwelcome reputation for poor reliability.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the lack of automotive progress in communist Central Europe was really starting to show, and nationalised Škoda had become the butt of many jokes in the west – which would continue to dog the brand for decades.
Having built some of the most expensive luxury cars in Europe in its early days, Škoda was now firmly operating in the budget end of the motoring market, becoming known for value-for-money as the brand tried to change its fortunes in the 1980s.
Škoda’s forte became the low-cost family car, and while its models were described as outdated, it did have some sales success in the UK with the compact Favorit hatchback – the Czech manufacturer’s first front-wheel drive car.
The Velvet Revolution and Volkswagen investment
By the end of 1989, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia had brought a peaceful end to communism in the country. Privatisation was back on the table for the first time in 50 years, and Škoda was looking for a partner. Eight motoring giants recorded an interest, including BMW, General Motors and Ford, it ultimately boiled down to a choice between Renault and Volkswagen.
Volkswagen won out by guaranteeing the survival of the Škoda brand and bolstering its research and development. However, the sale to Volkswagen was not initially popular among the Czech public, as anti-German sentiment was still widespread after the second world war.
Regardless of popular opinion, the design and engineering of Škoda models began to greatly improve as the 1990s progressed, as Skoda benefited from Volkswagen’s expertise and deep pockets.
Based on the Volkswagen Polo, the first iteration of the Škoda Fabia arrived in 1999 in the UK with some tongue-and-cheek marketing – “It is a Škoda, honest”.
The Škoda we know today
At the time of Volkswagen’s takeover in 1991, Škoda was building 172,000 cars a year. By 2018, after nearly three decades of guidance and support, Škoda produced more than 1.2 million vehicles in 2018, with its cars sold in 102 countries.
In 2015, Škoda was voted the most dependable car brand in the UK by 13,000 motorists that took part in the annual JD Power survey, marking an enormous leap from brand’s communist days. The current Superb has won, by our count, more than 60 UK awards since it was launched.
Each generation of its core Fabia, Octavia and Superb models has shown significant improvement. Like other brands, Škoda has expanded its range to several SUV models – including the all-electric Skoda Enyaq, which was named the ‘Best New Medium SUV’ at The Car Expert Awards in 2021.
The current Skoda range