125 years of ŠKODA: Two (and more) heads are better than one

125 years of ŠKODA: Two (and more) heads are better than one

During the past 125 years, ŠKODA has grown into a full mobility services provider, partly thanks to a number of partnerships. These have ranged from the cooperation between the founders to contemporary support for sport and culture. Read about the most important of them.

16. 7. 2020 125 let Škode


Václav Laurin in tandem with Václav Klement



In the town of Mladá Boleslav there happened to be two keen cyclists thinking about making Czech bicycles. Why compete, when they could cooperate? What’s more, they complemented each other’s talents so well. Václav Laurin was a technician in heart and soul, gifted with a creative intuition, an experienced mechanic and, on top of that, modest and hard-working. Bookseller Václav Klement was an astute businessman, a visionary with a broader scope of knowledge and what we now call people skills. But he needed a technically minded associate to apply for an official licence. Their first meeting was mediated by another cyclist, local lawyer Dr Zimmermann, who was motivated by the endeavour to promote his favourite sport in his hometown. We may not know the date of this meeting, but there’s one thing we know for certain: the two men saw eye to eye and shook on it. Just before Christmas 1896, Laurin and Klement joined forces to found the L&K brand.


Eminent aristocrats as shareholders and champions of the car firm


The sporting triumphs of Laurin & Klement boosted their commercial success, putting the Czech brand in an enviable situation: demand from home and dozens of export markets exceeded their output capacity. Bank loans were not sufficient for a major expansion so, after two years of preparations, associates Laurin & Klement resolved to transform their firm into a joint stock company, registered on 17 July 1907. The new shareholders strengthened the company’s international character, paying in a total of 1,968,750 crowns for shares. The original firm was valuated at a “mere” 450,000 crowns. Investors such as Prince Erich von Thurn und Taxis and Count Filippo Consolati were not the only members of the aristocracy who opened doors to the highest social circles for the carmaker. A good word from them in Vienna would come in useful after the outbreak of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire called up numerous employees to the front. Many of them managed to get official exemptions and returned home.


Acquisition by a strategic partner, Pilsen-based Škoda


The end of World War I in November 1918 may have brought peace, but while people on the streets were celebrating, indoors others were dying from the Spanish flu pandemic, and factories practically stood idle. Traditional markets collapsed, while the newly founded states protected themselves with high import duties. The whole of Europe became poorer, and Russia, the pre-war destination for a good third of the carmaker’s output, was plunged into civil war. In this situation, Laurin & Klement was saved by its acquisition by a strong strategic partner. The Pilsen-based Škoda Works had been controlled by French owners after the Škoda family left its management in 1919. This gave the Mladá Boleslav carmaker a financial injection that paved the way for fundamental modernisation, with a state-of-the-art factory with production lines built. It also allowed the company to benefit from the European machine engineering and armaments giant’s know-how. Škoda benefited from the merger too, as it had lost many army orders (and no longer wanted this kind of business).


Czech luxury outdoes the French original


The Škoda brand was always closely linked to Czechoslovak presidents. The first of them, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, only took a shine to automobiles during World War I, when he was in the USA. Back at home he used several Laurin & Klement models, and for almost ten years he travelled in a 6-cylinder 6.6 litre Škoda Hispano-Suiza that delivered a hundred horsepower. It was the first of a series of one hundred of these cars made in Pilsen under licence from Hispano-Suiza, a French-Spanish company with a Swiss chief constructor. This limousine weighed 2.7 tonnes and had a top speed of over 130 km/h; unusually, it had front and rear brakes and a power-assisted braking system. Tests of the Pilsen-made Škoda in France ended in triumph: the Czech car was better made than the original, it was quieter, and the French were astonished at the precision of the gearbox construction.


International cooperation and the aluminium heart of the “MB”


At the end of fifties, an awesome project in the car factory in Mladá Boleslav was getting underway to build a super-modern plant for a new-generation car, which would be launched in 1964 as the ŠKODA 1000 MB. The new works boasted state-of-the-art Siemens induction furnaces, Fenwick forklift trucks and Coleman moulding machines, the latter two both British technologies. Engines were made on a Renault automated line, and much of the equipment in the pressing plant and automated point welding line for the monocoque bodies was also French-made. In total, over 300 companies, 134 of them from outside Czechoslovakia, were involved in building and fitting out the new Mladá Boleslav factory. The company’s metallurgical works was among its most admired features. It was the first place in the whole of Europe where pressure casting of engine blocks made of aluminium alloy was used for mass production of automobiles. The introduction of pressure casting, based on an original Czechoslovak patent, brought dramatic improvements in energy consumption, production efficiency and working conditions in the metallurgical works.


Czech and New Zealand genes: TREKKA, the predecessor of ŠKODA SUVs


The development and production of models suited to the specific requirements of national markets have a long tradition at ŠKODA. We should not forget the TREKKA, the first automobile made in New Zealand. Developed in 1966, it was based on a shortened OCTAVIA Super chassis. What’s more, ŠKODA, working in conjunction with the state export organisation Motokov, sent experienced technician Josef Velebný to assist the company’s Antipodean partners. Velebný did more than just construct the body, whose exterior lines were designed by New Zealand-based designer George Taylor: he also helped prepare and launch production at Otahuhu, spending 15 months in the southern hemisphere for this purpose. Production of this comparatively affordable and economical 4x4 off-roader ended in 1972, with 2,800 units made. The TREKKA was also exported to Fiji and Oceania. Disassembled units of the vehicle also ended up in Pakistan and Australia. The TREKKA was seen as a low-maintenance workhorse for the road and bush. Many were driven until they literally fell apart. That’s why only a few dozen have survived into the 21st century, having attained almost cult status in their home country.


A head-turning ŠKODA designed by a young Giugiaro


By the second half of the 1960s, the new factory in Mladá Boleslav was operating at maximum revs, but the traditional brand had no intention of limiting itself to MBs. In fact, it was working on superior-class modern cars with a classic power system. What's more, the political thaw allowed cooperation with the West, where the new 720 type, with 1250 and 1500 cm3 OHC engines, could find new markets. Cooperation with Alfa Romeo may have been thwarted by a lack of funds, but in February 1969, after several months of negotiations, a contract was signed with the progressive Ital Design (ID) studio that had been founded by Giorgetto Giugiaro a year earlier when the designer was just thirty years old. Giugiaro first visited Mladá Boleslav in April 1969. Over a period of four months from the start of negotiations to the end of August, his team, working with the carmaker, took the project from the first sketches phase to a functional specimen of the Š 720 ID. This was a supremely elegant sedan 4.4 metres in length, delivering a top speed of 157 km/h on its 14-inch wheels. The company still has Giugiaro’s designs for a five-door estate and coupé, plus alternative radiator grille designs and varying numbers of headlights. Unfortunately, the re-hardening of the political situation sidelined the Š 720 project, which was ultimately scrapped entirely.


SKOPAK = ŠKODA + Pakistan


In May 1970, production of a new vehicle got underway in Karachi. This was the SKOPAK, a joint venture between ŠKODA and Haroon Industries Ltd. As with the TREKKA, the “organ donor” was the OCTAVIA. And once again it was Josef Velebný in charge of the project. He decided that the most practical solution would be a body made of welded steel plates and profiles, onto which laminate panels were screwed. This gave rise to a flexible modular system, while also facilitating any repair work and future facelifts. With the windscreen laid flat, the SKOPAK was just 1,100 mm high, making it easier to pass beneath obstacles like fallen trees blocking the road. The cheapest two-seater version was a pick-up that had no doors, just straps preventing the crew from falling out. There were numerous other versions as well. But with a war between Pakistan and India and the future state of Bangladesh on the horizon, only around 1,400 SKOPAK vehicles ended up being made. 

1982 – 1987

International fairy godmothers of the breakthrough FAVORIT model


The springboard for ŠKODA’s further development would be a brand-new generation of cars with front wheel drive and attractive looks from the acclaimed Italian design studio of Nuccio Bertone. The demanding project to make the FAVORIT hatchback began in 1982. There was much more to the FAVORIT than a “mere” new generation of cars. It also involved the crucial modernisation of production technologies in ŠKODA plants and its domestic suppliers. Even during the development stage, contacts were established with renowned international partners, including Porsche and Volkswagen. As a result, the ŠKODA FAVORIT was one of the few non-licensed automobiles produced in the eastern bloc that achieved success in the west, which ultimately played a role in ŠKODA becoming part of Volkswagen Group.


Acquisition by a strategic partner - Volkswagen


The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites paved the way for political and economic changes. One example of the Czechoslovak privatisation process was ŠKODA’s integration into Volkswagen Group in 1991. Besides ensuring the traditional brand’s continued existence, the move marked the start of large-scale investment by Europe’s biggest car firm in local research and development, known as Technical Development. As well as cars, ŠKODA currently manufactures and develops components such as engines and gearboxes for the group. Out of global sales of 10.34 million automobiles achieved by the concern in 2019, ŠKODA accounted for 12%, or 1.24 million vehicles.

1992 – present

ŠKODA partnerships with elite sport

Tour de France, ředitelský vůz, Škoda Superb

For many years now, the ŠKODA brand has been a partner for elite sports events at home and abroad. ŠKODA’s long-standing flagships in terms of sports sponsorship are the Tour de France cycling race and the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, which ŠKODA has supported since 1992. The longevity of this partnership has earned it a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.


Partnerships with local partners in China and India


The traditional Czech carmaker currently has three production plants in the Czech Republic, but it also manufactures in China, Russia, Slovakia and India, mainly through Volkswagen concern partnerships, as well as in Ukraine and Kazakhstan in collaboration with local partners. Having a firm foothold in India and China, markets with roughly 1.4 billion inhabitants each, is crucial. ŠKODA announced its move onto the Indian market, where it had successfully exported passenger and utility vehicles before World War II, at Auto Expo 1998 in New Delhi. The ground-breaking ceremony for the main assembly plant at Aurangabad, a city with a population of a million and a half, took place on 13 January 2000. Production of the OCTAVIA series started in November 2001. In India, ŠKODA currently manufactures at Aurangabad (OCTAVIA, KODIAQ and SUPERB) and Pune (RAPID). In addition, ŠKODA is in charge of all Volkswagen Group activities in India as part of the INDIA 2.0 project.

Before World War II ŠKODA also had five sales offices in China. Large-scale cooperation did not start until June 2007, though, when ŠKODA returned to the Chinese market after several decades’ absence as part of the SAIC Volkswagen joint venture and began producing ŠKODA OCTAVIA cars in Ningbo. China soon became the Czech carmaker’s biggest national market. KAMIQ, KAMIQ GT and SUPERB models are currently made in the factory at Nanking; RAPID cars at Icheng; KODIAQ and KODIAQ GT at Changsha; and OCTAVIA and KAROQ models at Ningbo.

ŠKODA, Czech culture and the technical museum

ŠKODA is also a long-term supporter of prestigious Czech cultural institutions: the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Theatre, the National Gallery, the Smetana’s Litomyšl opera festival, and FilmFest Zlín, the biggest film festival for children and young people. It should also not be forgotten that Václav Klement himself was behind the very first cooperation with the National Technical Museum in Prague in the 1930s. In the museum’s transport hall, visitors can admire the L&K VOITURETTE B car he donated, and the museum's archive has a precious collection of correspondence and company documents from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Related Stories Based on tags: 1000 MB, 2020, Trekka, Vaclav Klement, Vaclav Laurin