A historic moment: the first “motorised cart” is made in Mladá Boleslav

A historic moment: the first “motorised cart” is made in Mladá Boleslav

A one-litre engine, a car with a fabric roof and no windscreen, so the driver is buffeted by the wind and rain but still delights in the experience. That is just how our great-grandfathers felt if they had the good fortune to drive the first automobile from Mladá Boleslav in 1906 – the VOITURETTE A.

10. 8. 2021 Classic cars

In spring 1905, Messrs Laurin and Klement were wondering how to celebrate the first decade of their bicycle and motorcycle manufacturing firm. They decided to do it by striking out in a new direction: they would make their first four-wheeler. In April that year they exhibited their V-engine delivering 6 horsepower (4.4 kW) intended for their coming automobile at a motor show in the Palace of Industry in Prague. The motoring experts took note – the firm from Mladá Boleslav was going to make cars!

By the end of the year, two operational specimens of the future VOITURETTE A had been completed and presented to the public and subjected to intensive driving tests. But our great-grandfathers could only buy the car in 1906, when it received official approval. The VOITURETTE A, whose name is the French word for “little cart”, soon became a hit. With its excellent value-for-money and performance, just three years later this model accounted for 90% of all cars in this category sold throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Sand-assisted braking 

The basic structure was a ladder frame of pressed steel U-shapes riveted together, a pair of rigid axles with semi-elliptical leaf spring suspension and a classic drive system.

VOITURETTE managed to drive in difficult terrain, only the crew had to withstand weather conditions

A cone clutch with leather lining was attached to the front-mounted engine.  If the clutch started to slip on hills, it was usually enough for the driver to add a pinch of sand from the road through a little aperture, without having to take the engine apart. It had three gears and even a reverse gear, which were almost unprecedented features in small automobiles. On the first units produced, the rear wheels were chain-driven, but most VOITURETTE cars were fitted with a more modern cardan shaft. Even so, some customers preferred chains for their softer bite and their ability to partially dampen jolts transmitted from the wheels or from the drive unit.

Progress year in year out

The Mladá Boleslav-based constructors worked feverishly to develop more powerful, faster and more luxurious VOITURETTE models. By the end of 1906 they had added the VOITURETTE B with a fourteen-hundred litre engine that delivered 9 horsepower (6.7 kW) – 378 units of this model were made. It was followed by sixty three VOITURETTE C cars with a much more powerful two-litre engine delivering 12 horsepower (8.8 kW) and a wheelbase around 700 millimetres longer.

Just a few months after the VOITURETTE A saw the light of day, Laurin & Klement created the E type, with an in-line four-cylinder 4.6 l/35 hp (26 kW) engine. That was followed by the F model, with an L-head engine, i.e. with all the valves in one row. It’s hard to believe that just two years after the A model was homologated, a magnificent luxury automobile like the FF rolled out of the gates of the expanding Mladá Boleslav factory – it was evidently the first in-line eight-cylinder engine in central Europe and one of the first in the world. Incidentally, the FF was driven to Berlin and Paris for the prestigious motor shows of the day, deservedly turning heads along the way.

An “interior” for demanding tastes

The liquid-cooled two-cylinder one-litre engine that delivered a power output of 7 horsepower (5.2 kW) did not have much work with the automobile’s five hundred kilograms. The VOITURETTE A managed a top speed of forty km/h. If the driver needed to brake sharply, the best results could be achieved by simultaneously depressing the pedal that worked on a drum behind the gearbox (known as a cardan brake) and pulling the handbrake that was attached to the rear wheel drums by a cable.

The VOITURETTE A didn’t have much of an interior, as it was an open-sided automobile for two people. The “interior” design was in line with the aesthetics of the early twentieth century, so the seat was a proper, leather-upholstered "coachbox”, with a generous amount of wood and other natural materials, both functional and aesthetic rivets and, on most models, exterior red metal plating.

It would not meet present-day requirements, of course, but in its attitude towards quality of materials it is entirely comparable to the way we view automobile fittings today. “It beautifully illustrates the enormous progress that has been made by both the automotive industry and society as a whole over the last century. Having said that, as a designer I can see that a lot of passion, effort and care went into it. Just like what we do today, in fact,” explains Oliver Stefani, ŠKODA chief designer, how he sees the VOITURETTE A.

The first car from Mladá Boleslav was manufactured in 44 units

The VOITURETTE A’s success was not restricted to its domestic Austro-Hungarian market – like its two-wheeler Laurin & Klement forerunners, it was sold in Germany and other countries. Forty-four of these automobiles were produced from 1905 to 1907. Only a handful have survived to this day. You can find an original specimen in the permanent exposition of the ŠKODA Museum in Mladá Boleslav, or at the National Technical Museum in Prague, whose VOITURETTE was a personal gift from Václav Klement, the company’s founder, in the 1930s.

I would like to have a time machine and visit Laurin and Klement
says Oliver Stefani, chief designer at ŠKODA.

Can you imagine what went on in constructors’ minds at the beginning of the last century when they didn’t have to worry about aerodynamics?
It would be great to have a time machine and be able to chat to them, even just for one day. I am sure that it would be highly entertaining, surprising and inspirational for both sides.

What do you like most about the Laurin & Klement VOITURETTE A? Which design feature do you admire? Can you express how this automobile might inspire your work?
The car really is an important part of history. Not just for ŠKODA, but for the entire automotive world. It is one of the foundation stones of our present-day success and I particularly like all the – from today’s perspective – imperfections that give the VOITURETTE A its soul. At first sight you can sense that this car was made by a human being. These days we can no longer imagine designing automobiles like this, let alone driving them every day. Put simply, it’s not compatible with our current requirements and demands. But these rich historic roots are a guarantee that our cars of today and tomorrow will contain a large helping of humanity, which is the philosophy that was advocated by Messrs Laurin and Klement when they founded the company.

What is your take on the very generous use of natural materials – above all leather and wood? Could that be an inspiration for future ŠKODA models?
Being part of a company with such a long and rich tradition is inspiring in itself. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a designer, an engineer or anyone else. If you can recognise and appreciate our predecessors’ creativity and resourcefulness, you can take inspiration from it as well. That is a nice invitation to visit the ŠKODA Museum, no?

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