x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Designed for dignitaries, the Superb failed to live up to its name

Marques always look to the future with new technology and designs but though innovation and efficiency appeal to the head, they rarely inspire passions of the heart. In an era when most cars are effective, the battle of the brands is to produce models that are exciting and alluring.

Marques always look to the future with new technology and designs but though innovation and efficiency appeal to the head, they rarely inspire passions of the heart. In an era when most cars are effective, the battle of the brands is to produce models that are exciting and alluring.

Increasingly, the focus of this battle has been nostalgia rather than novelty. The Mini and Fiat 500 have been proved a retro revelation, encouraging rivals to follow suit. In summoning up the spirit of the past, these brands have rediscovered their soul and their sales. In gaining inspiration from their past, they have invigorated their future.

Of all the marques that have followed this trend, the most surprising is Skoda. When Volkswagen acquired the Czech company in the late 1990s, it was a byword for cheap and not particularly cheerful. Its reputation for reliability was so bad it was laughable. It was a popular joke of the time that its models featured a heated rear window to keep the owner's hands warm while pushing it. Given this motoring mirth it was a brave decision of the brand to bring back a model from the past, let alone the self-proclaiming Superb. But perhaps this shouldn't come as such a surprise, for Britain and Germany have always had different perspectives on history.

While Britain remembers a haplessly outdated 1980s import, Germany respects one of the oldest and largest engineering institutions in Europe.

It may raise a few eyebrows to reveal that Skoda is one of the few marques that has been making cars for more than a century. The company formed in 1895 and, by the 1920s, Skoda cars were part of the largest industrial institution in Eastern Europe.

In the inter-war period they gained a reputation for reliable and robust, if somewhat rudimentary, saloons. But the Superb broke the mould and became the senior model of the range. Its bulbous, beetle-shaped body was imposing, especially in Eastern Europe, where travel was more meagre and modest than in the west. It took styling cues from the United States with a chrome slatted grille, whitewall tyres and conical chrome hubcaps. But despite these features, by western standards it was more sturdy than stylish. However, with exports selling well, the company gained in confidence and on the eve of war unveiled its most ambitious model to date, the Superb 4000. This was the flagship of the marque, a vast saloon as long as a contemporary Rolls-Royce but at a snip of the price.

The 4000 was a car designed for dignitaries. Its most obvious sign of the status of its drivers was its sheer size - at 5.7 metres, it was the longest car the company had ever made. The interior was sumptuous and welcoming, with generals or grand-dames having plenty of legroom to stretch out and relax in the rear.

While it was certainly a large and luxurious car, it doesn't quite convince as a limousine. This is perhaps due to Skoda's lack of experience in designing cars in this class. Skoda simply stretched the style and scale of its standard models, which made for a car whose looks, from some angles, are a little quizzical.

The large, long bonnet promises much but as your eye follows its line it leads to a tiny, split-screen windscreen. The side windows, too, are very modest, a mere quarter of the size of the doors.

And as for rear visibility, drivers would have been advised to lean out of the window and twist their necks.

Another feature of the 4000 that prevents it from quite competing on an even footing with its western rivals was its lack of power. Though it was the first Skoda to feature an eight-cylinder engine, the powerplant was crude and outdated. Despite a 4L capacity it produced less than 100hp, which proved woefully insufficient to propel the two-tonne 4000 at a speed a general would want to boast of to his men. It was adequate for a tour of inspection around the parade ground, a hand waving from the window, but less than exhilarating on a longer journey.

In truth, the 4000 could never match the sophistication or performance of a contemporary Mercedes-Benz, but it stands as testament to the surprising confidence of the Czech manufacturer. Only 10 had been made before Nazi Germany seized the production line to make munitions for the war effort.

For the duration of the war Skoda made tanks, some of which led the advance at the battle of Stalingrad, a turning point of 20th century history. When peace resumed, so did production, but some would argue it was still tanks that rolled off the production line.