x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A Czech laughing stock turned serious player

Nick March recollects the days when Skoda was nothing more than a punchline, epitomised by the Estelle.

The Skoda Estelle was a rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive car that attempted to make the most of limited resources.
The Skoda Estelle was a rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive car that attempted to make the most of limited resources.

Of all the smart moves that Volkswagen has made over the years - and there have been a few - a cross-border raid into the former Czechoslovakia to scoop up Skoda Auto shortly after the Iron Curtain fell two decades ago did not appear to be one of them. Skoda was, at the beginning of the 1990s and together with FSO, Trabant, Lada and Yugo - those other pillars of Communist-era car making - the laughing stock of the motoring world.

All five producers were guilty of churning out underpowered and underwhelming products that may have played out well in their home countries - where customers had little choice but to buy these domestic offerings - but were about as welcome on the export market as engine failure on a desert road. Oddly, of this manufacturing quintet of underachievement, Skoda attracted the most ire among western Europe's car buyers, in part because they so aggressively pursued sales in foreign fields.

Trabant alone would earn some kind of postmodern cool courtesy of Paul Hewson (aka Bono) and Achtung Baby-era U2 after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, while Yugo, Lada and FSO were largely written off as simply rebadging and remaking old and generally bad Fiats. Skoda, on the other hand, dared to be different by eschewing the retreading of Italian cast-offs - and paid the price for it. The Czech car maker introduced the Estelle at the end of the Seventies. A small family car, it was also badged in some markets as the 105, 120 and 125 - the numbers denoting the car's small and imperfectly formed engine sizes (1.0L, 1.2L and the top-of-the-range 1.25L).

The Estelle was a rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive car. Sadly, this set-up had little to do with performance and balance but was, instead, a Kafkaesque solution to Skoda's inability to find the financial clout to fund the development of a more conventional small family car. Stuck with old technology and starved of resources, the company did its best to make do and mend. It was, in truth, a deeply primitive piece. What interior trim the Estelle did possess had a tendency to fall off every time a hapless owner cornered at anything close to a moderate speed. Although, given that the Estelle's handling was a little lively even at pedestrian pace, most owners were less likely to be worried about ashtray malfunction than the vanishing road the Skoda was about to run off. Knowing the car was not for thrill-seekers, at least not in the conventional sense, Skoda had the good sense to knock the Estelle out at a knock-down price.

Fancifully, a few years after the Estelle's original release, Skoda would also later spin a three-door fastback off the same platform. With a top speed of 150kph and a requirement of 15 seconds to carry the car from a standing start to 100kph, the Rapid, as it was badged, was more a name and less a way of life. Sometime in the mid-Eighties, the Estelle and the Skoda brand became the butt of a thousand jokes: What do you call a Skoda with a sunroof? A skip. How do you double the value of a Skoda? Fill it with petrol. Why does a Skoda have a heated rear window? To keep your hands warm while you're pushing it. Regrettably, space on these pages does not permit a more extended repertoire of the jokes that haunted the brand in this period.

The Estelle stayed in production until VW purchased Skoda - significantly, it was the first of the company's products to be axed by the new owners. Now 20 years later, Skoda has been reinvented as a modern and respected marque producing good-looking cars with startling names like Yeti and Roomster. The jokes stopped a long time ago. nmarch@thenational.ae