125 years of ŠKODA: Hall of Fame

125 years of ŠKODA: Hall of Fame

The Czech founders of the ŠKODA carmaker built up an outstanding team of people from all kinds of different backgrounds. Let’s look back at some of the remarkable characters who shaped the company’s development during its 125-year history.

12. 3. 2020 125 let Škode

Founders: Václav Laurin (1865-1930) & Václav Klement (1868-1938)

Václav Laurin

Václav Klement

Václav Laurin, an intuitive technician with creative imagination, joined forces with another keen cyclist and visionary of personal mobility, Václav Klement, who was a bookseller by trade. In 1895 they founded the firm LAURIN & KLEMENT. Their experience and connections continued to help the company after it was acquired by the Pilsen-based concern ŠKODA in 1925.  Laurin and Klement remained close friends for the rest of their lives: in the town of Mladá Boleslav they lived near one another and they are also buried in the local cemetery.

The first racing driver: Narcis Podsedníček (1866-1932)

Narcis Podsedníček didn’t have a happy childhood: when he was still very young he lost both his mother and father, a gamekeeper who was shot by poachers. He became a toolmaker but was also one of the sales reps for SLAVIA bicycles made by the L&K factory. Later, as an employee of LAURIN & KLEMENT, he rose to the position of senior foreman. In this position he was responsible for developing bicycles and motorcycles, which he also raced. He successfully represented the brand in the first international race he took part in: competing against a strong field on an L&K motorcycle, he put in a solid performance in the Paris – Berlin race over a distance of 1,196 km.

The travelling smith: Václav Vondřich (1874-1943)

Václav Vondřich on motor-bike

The most famous motorcycle racer of the L&K era, originally a file maker. Among his many successes, he won the unofficial world championships that was organised by the International Motorcycle Federation in Paris in June 1906. At Dourdan near Paris, Vondřich completed five laps, a total of 270 km, in an unprecedented 3 hours, 5 minutes and 15 seconds. It’s no wonder that František Kmoch, the king of brass band music, wrote a gallopade in his honour. Vondřich, nicknamed the King of Carburation, the Victor of Dourdan or the Travelling Smith, later became head of the Mladá Boleslav brand’s central Prague showroom.

Count, shareholder, racer: Saša Kolowrat (1886-1927)

Saša Kolowrat behind the wheel

This member of one of the oldest Czech aristocratic families, though born in the USA, became a major shareholder in the carmaker. Not one for airs and graces, Count Alexander Kolowrat-Krakowský, or “Saša” for short, was popular with everyone from the mechanics he spent long nights with, covered in grease preparing race cars, to the aristocrats he would advise on the right automobile to buy. He was also a pioneer of aviation and cinema. His film studio worked with Marlene Dietrich and director Michael Curtiz, who would make his name long after Kolowrat’s death with the wartime romance Casablanca.

The father of ŠKODA cars for 30 years: Vladimír Matouš (1896-1963)

It’s fair to say that no other technician influenced the development of ŠKODA cars for as long as chief constructor Vladimír Matouš: from 1928, when the first production line was installed at the plant, to 1959. His life’s work was to keep improving a long development series of ŠKODA cars with a chassis girder frame, a concept used from the Š 420 Standard model (1933) to the ŠKODA 1202 (1973). The punctilious and modest chief constructor was so respected that he was promoted to deputy director after eight years with the firm. After a short post-war break working at the industry ministry, he returned to Mladá Boleslav in 1948 as the technical director of AZNP. Before retiring in December 1959, he found time to launch the production of the OCTAVIA and FELICIA models that are still popular today.

Forever onwards: František Alexander Elstner (1902-1974)

František Elstner with his wife

A keen scout in his youth and later a teacher, but above all an explorer, journalist and advocate of ŠKODA cars. In the mid-1930s he took a POPULAR car on demanding long-range journeys across Europe and even to North, Central and South America. Besides a number of articles and radio reports, his work lives on through Elstner’s highly readable travel books like Return of the European (ŠKODA POPULAR across the USA and Mexico, 1936) and Tango Argentino (POPULAR 1100 OHV in Argentina, 1938). He went on both these expeditions with his wife Eva, who was both a skilled navigator and shared the driving with the popular “Frank”. With the rest of the world out of bounds, in 1959 he went to the Soviet Union in the new ŠKODA OCTAVIA.

Designer of modern car bodies: Josef Velebný (1906-1989)

Josef Velebný first joined ŠKODA in the mid-1920s, but his greatest achievements are linked to the post-war era. As the head constructor of ŠKODA bodies, he was behind some key technological milestones: the switch to mixed structures, i.e. metal-plated wood, to the all-metal body on a separate chassis (1952: ŠKODA 1200), and the next step, the self-supporting all-metal body. After retiring, Josef Velebný played a major role in developing special vehicles for local markets, from New Zealand (TREKKA), to Pakistan (SKOPAK) and Turkey (ŠKODA 1202 KAMYONETLERI).

Three guys from a fast family: Václav Bobek senior + Jaroslav Bobek + Václav Bobek junior

Václav Bobek sen., Jaroslav Bobek, Václav Bobek jun.

In the post-war period, the two Bobek brothers Václav and Jaroslav and Václav’s son Václav junior were some of the most important figures in the ŠKODA works team. Václav Bobek senior competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1950 (ŠKODA Sport), for example, while his brother Jaroslav Bobek progressed from competition versions of ŠKODA OCTAVIA cars and the Š 1000 MB to special circuit versions of the Š 1100 OHC model and Formula 3 monoposts (he became Czechoslovak champion in 1966). Václav’s son Václav Bobek junior carried on the family tradition, taking part in the 1970 European touring car championship in a ŠKODA 100 L sedan, for example.

Nordic star of the winged arrow: John Haugland (*1946)

Norwegian racing driver John Haugland raced in ŠKODA colours from 1967, at first only in his home country in the team run by the Norwegian importer. But his performances attracted such attention that he soon transferred to the works rally team, where he remained until 1990. During his career, he notched up a remarkable 106 victories for ŠKODA in his class in international rallies and took part in 32 World Rally Championship events races. Most of Haugland’s victories came in the legendary ŠKODA 130 RS coupé. His supreme achievements included ninth place in the overall classification of the 1979 Swedish Rally and three victories in the Barum Rally (1976, 1979, 1980).

The creator: Petr Hrdlička (*1934)

Petr Hrdlička (right)

Petr Hrdlička is the son of the pre-war ŠKODA director Karel Hrdlička and simultaneously the father of the current head of chassis and powertrain development Martin Hrdlička. He started out as apprentice number 9809 (fitter – automobile mechanic). He later gained recognition as an expert on hypoid gears; in 1963 and 1964 he was senior foreman of the gear shop. He later worked in Switzerland and at the Motor Vehicles Research Institute in Prague. In March 1983 Petr Hrdlička was put in charge of the project to design a new-generation front-wheel-drive car that would later become the ŠKODA FAVORIT. He was also an external consultant on the ŠKODA FELICIA pick-up light utility vehicle projects, including the FELICIA Fun leisure vehicle derived from the FAVORIT (1995–1997).

Manager of the new era: Ludvík Kalma (1941–1996)

In 1991 ŠKODA became the fourth brand in the Volkswagen concern. The chairman of the board at that time was Ludvík Kalma. In the 1991–1996 period he oversaw the ŠKODA’s successful transformation from a state firm into a modern, highly competitive company. The culmination of his efforts was the ŠKODA OCTAVIA, the first lower mid-range model in the brand’s modern history which started to roll off the modern production line in the new part of the Mladá Boleslav plant in 1996. Ludvík Kalma died on 24 November 1996, the victim of a traffic accident.

Head of VW with Czech roots: Carl Hahn (*1926)

Carl Horst Hahn  (right)

The prime mover and architect of the integration of the ŠKODA brand into the Volkswagen concern was Professor Carl Hahn, chairman of the board of VW. From the 17th century his ancestors lived in Nové Hrady in South Bohemia, where as a child Hahn visited his grandfather. He wrote in his memoirs: “We were pleasantly surprised (...) Thanks to the ŠKODA FAVORIT Mladá Boleslav possessed a modern car in the Polo class that could be sold everywhere, though it needed a few modifications for sale in the West.” On 22 March 1991 he held a meeting with the ŠKODA management and top-level political representatives. On 28 March 1991 the entire process culminated with the signing of the agreement that took effect on April 16. As well as chairman of the board Hahn, it was mainly Volkhard Köhler, the director for international cooperation, who represented Volkswagen in the negotiations.

Lover of classic ŠKODA cars: Wilfried Bockelmann (1942–2017)

Wilfried Bockelmann had links with ŠKODA from 1985, when he helped adapt its carburettor for the ŠKODA FAVORIT model under preparation. From 1995 till 2002 the German technician and manager was head of technical development at ŠKODA and played a key role in advancing the brand’s independent technical development. He was in charge of the development of the FABIA and SUPERB models, for instance, and played a role in ensuring the Kvasiny plant was preserved and developed. He took the ŠKODA brand back into the world of international rally. He worked for 79 months at the Mladá Boleslav plant, and the enormous progress the brand made in that time is reflected in Bockelmann’s company cars: having started with a 1.3-litre engine FELICIA, at the end of his time with the company he drove a SUPERB V6.

New Design DNA Creator: Jozef Kabaň (*1973)

Then 35-year-old Jozef Kabaň, among other things a graduate from the Royal College of Art in London, became chief designer at ŠKODA in February 2008. He moved to ŠKODA from Audi. Before he had been responsible for developing the design of the Bugatti Veyron supercar, from the very first sketch to the start of production. His team stamped a distinctive style on ŠKODA cars and created the new design language – remember the third generation of the ŠKODA FABIA, OCTAVIA and SUPERB models. The design language is inspired by traditional Bohemian crystal, among other things, and embodies the brand values human, simplifying, surprising. In July 2020 Jozef Kabaň will replace Klaus Bischoff as head of Volkswagen passenger car design.

Strategist and driver of the transformation: Bernhard Maier (*1959)

Bernhard Maier, Chairman of the Board of ŠKODA, has been in the lead at the carmaker since November 2015. After apprenticing as an automobile mechanic, he went on to study business administration and held various executive positions at BMW AG in Germany and abroad before joining Porsche, where he was among other things board member for Sales and Marketing. At ŠKODA, Bernhard Maier is driving the company’s reorientation under Strategy 2025. In addition to electromobility and digital transformation, key aspects of the Strategy include new mobility services and connectivity, implementing a large-scale product campaign and the brand’s internationalization. ŠKODA has assumed responsibility for the Indian market and the Russian region on behalf of the Volkswagen Group. Under his leadership, ŠKODA has also introduced new, important models such as the KODIAQ, KAROQ, KAMIQ and SCALA. At the same time, ŠKODA started its eMobility product campaign. The next step in 2020 will be the ENYAQ iV model, ŠKODA’s first purpose-built electric car. By the end of 2022, ŠKODA will have launched a total of ten iV models.