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It’s like driving into a tunnel and you can’t see the end and you don’t know what awaits you on the other side,” says former employee Bohuslav Čtvrtečka as he recalls the momentous months back in the 1990s. Back then, Europe was undergoing rapid political change and the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia had fallen to the ground. A market economy arrived just as quickly, and also with major repercussions – including at ŠKODA where Čtvrtečka worked. A quality assessor and “Škodovák” in heart and soul, Čtvrtečka had already been working for the brand with the winged arrow for more than three decades in 1991. But suddenly everything was poised to undergo radical change. That was clear to everyone at the company – and was also considerable cause for concern.

But then a sense of confidence returned. In April of 1991, Volkswagen and ŠKODA entered into a partnership. The merger marked the start of one of the most exciting endeavours in modern automotive history, extending far beyond the actual contract signed by the Czechoslovakian Minister of Industry at the time, Jan Vrba, and legendary Volkswagen CEO Dr Carl Hahn. The merger was far more than a matter of funding. It became a driving force in the lives of people in Germany and Czechoslovakia, later the Czech Republic.

It did not take long for the project to bear fruit. ŠKODA shared in the experience and synergy effects of the Wolfsburg-based corporation and posted successful results year after year. By the late 1990s, demand for the mid-market Octavia had exceeded all expectations.

Milestones in ŠKODA history

FROM ITS FOUNDATION TO TODAY

1894: Václav Laurin and Václav Klement, two enthusiastic cyclists, founded their Laurin & Klement bicycle factory in the Bohemian town of Mladá Boleslav.

1905: Following early prototypes from around the turn of the century, the company starts making cars in 1905.

1925: Merger with the ŠKODA works in Plzeň.

1939-1945/48: The German occupation from 1939 to 1945 integrates ŠKODA into the German Reich.

1948-1989/90: In the first election after the Second World War, the communists come to power and apply their ideology to the economy. That same year the company in Mladá Boleslav is nationalised as AZNP ŠKODA (a publically owned enterprise).

1991: Following the political transformation in 1989, ŠKODA in Mladá Boleslav starts its search for a strong foreign partner that can help restore its competitive international profile over the long term. In December of 1990 the government of Czechoslovakia decides on a partnership with the Volkswagen Group. The ŠKODA-Volkswagen entity is launched on 16 April 1991 under the name ŠKODA automobilová a.s. and ŠKODA becomes the Group’s fourth brand along with VW, Audi and SEAT.

More than a million ŠKODAs are produced every year at 14 sites on two continents and sold in over one hundred markets.

Bernhard Maier, ŠKODA CEO

Customers and employees benefited from the technological developments that arose from the German-Czech partnership. And the traditional Czech brand grew into an internationally successful car maker. In 2015 ŠKODA delivered more than a million new cars to customers throughout the world, and now employs more than 25,000 people in 2016. But facts and figures can provide only a limited view of how these two major car makers came together. The stories of individual people are far better able to convey how a vision became a successful reality.

“The world opened up to us with Volkswagen as a partner,” says Bohuslav Čtvrtečka – summarising the past quarter of a century in a single sentence. He pauses for a moment and smiles. He is not the only one to have a good feeling as he reminisces about the past 25 years. Čtvrtečka and five other people connected with ŠKODA take a look back:

Bohuslav Čtvrtečka (72)
Quality assessor, then museum guide at ŠKODA in Kvasiny (56 years with the company)

From Kvasiny, Czech Republic

I started working for ŠKODA in 1959, at the age of 16. Our “prestige” factory was located in Kvasiny, a village with a population of around 1,500 today. Back then it made all the special models, like the Š 110 R known fondly as the “Erko”, and the old Octavia Combi. You could say that Mladá Boleslav was in charge of producing the standard models while we got to make all the icing on the cake. They did what was needed, and we did what was desired. Just think of the Felicia, the old convertible, probably the only car of its kind in the entire Eastern Bloc. It was also made in Kvasiny, starting in 1959, which was my first year at the factory.

The Felicia was a real beauty, and that’s no exaggeration. Even today it’s a favourite among collectors of vintage cars. It was also very popular in the West. I can well remember our dealer in West Germany who imported the convertibles and sold them in Germany. When production stopped in 1963, he sat the directors down and harangued them until they finally agreed that there was sufficient demand in the West to make production worthwhile. They continued for a good year afterwards, until the last convertible rolled off the line in early 1965. Those were special editions, with top-grade materials, wood and leather, and the highest export quality.

My first car also came from our factory in Kvasiny. It was a 1963 Octavia. I bought it scond-hand in 1971 and drove it for many years. It was an outstanding car. After that I had a series of others, all of them ŠKODAs, like a Favorit, new Felicias and so on. Funnily enough, I now have another old Octavia Combi, built in 1965, just two years younger than my first car. I bought it last year and am restoring it little by little. It’s a project I can put a lot of time into – now that I’m retired.

At the moment I’m driving an Octavia estate car, a 1.9 Diesel, and it’s an absolute treasure – with more than 300,000 kilometres on it. Even the exhaust system is an original component. Just imagine – in a few weeks the “old girl” will officially become an adult. But I should add that I take very good care of my treasure. I even talk to her! And she pays me back with undying loyalty. I used to keep my cars for around ten years and then sell them. Now, after 18 years with this one, I see no reason whatsoever to purchase a new car. If there’s ever an instance of solid quality, it’s here.

The world opened up to us with Volkswagen as a partner. Cutting-edge technology, sales markets, modern in every respect.

The world opened up to us with Volkswagen as a partner. Cutting-edge technology, sales markets, modern in every respect.

And I’m more than a little proud of that. After all, I’ve spent more or less my whole life at ŠKODA. When I started working at the factory in Kvasiny I was 16 years old, and when I retired at 62 after 46 years of work, I wasn’t about to leave. Instead of doing quality assurance in the production department I then got involved in the museum. Apparently people thought that after so many years at the company I’d be good at leading tours, as an insider. So I didn’t retire in the classical sense, but became a guide at the museum where I tell visitors our story, of which you could say I am a part. I did that for a full ten years, until 2015, which means I’ve put in what amounts to 56 years of service. You could say I’ve spent my whole life at ŠKODA – where I’ve seen and experienced a lot.

The biggest changes came in the middle of this period, roughly speaking, first with the change in the political system, followed by the merger with Volkswagen. In retrospect, that was the best thing we could have done. Of course in situations like that you can never know what the future will be like. It’s like driving into a tunnel and you can’t see the end and you don’t know what awaits you on the other side.

But the world opened up to us with Volkswagen as a partner. Cutting-edge technology, sales markets, modern in every sense. Also the increasing levels of automation, which can be a double-edged sword for employment, turned out to be good for us. I can remember when we only had seven robots here in Kvasiny. Now we have hundreds, but they haven’t taken away any jobs. On the contrary, even more people are working at ŠKODA, due to the high demand. And thanks in part to Volkswagen, the brand now has a worldwide reputation. I’m happy that Kvasiny has become a centre of innovation – or never ceased being one – and a top site in eastern Bohemia.

Jaroslav Horák (63)
Technician at ŠKODA, since 1977

From Mladá Boleslav, Czech Republic

The red vintage ŠKODA Favorit owned by Jaroslav Horák in the yard of his weekend cottage. First picture (above): Jaroslav Horák at his workplace in the test center of Mladá Bloeslav, recorded in May 2016.
The red vintage ŠKODA Favorit owned by Jaroslav Horák in the yard of his weekend cottage. First picture (above): Jaroslav Horák at his workplace in the test center of Mladá Bloeslav, recorded in May 2016.

I came to ŠKODA on 10 March 1977, and that’s the exact date. Production of the 120 was supposed to start up then, and a lot of new people were being hired. I lived in Nymburk, but I had a grandmother in Mladá Boleslav and was terribly keen on this job. When it worked out and I passed the selection process, I was thrilled to bits. A dream came true for me as a young man. And I threw myself into my new job, very conscientiously, which is what I’m like – and I really enjoyed it.

I started off by doing assembly work. My foreman noticed that I was good at it, and when he transferred to the quality assurance department a few years later he took me along as part of his team. That was the ideal preparation for my subsequent job at the test centre, where all the new models are given the once-over before they are allowed to enter production. My area of speciality was water resistance. And that was how I moved from the ŠKODA Favorit to the Felicia, Octavia, Fabia, Superb, and got to know all the cars essentially right from their earliest days.

Which of the models is the most impressive? The Superb, without a doubt. And also the Fabia, especially the new model, which is a very remarkable car. But what launched the series of ambitious modern cars was definitely the ŠKODA Favorit in the late 1980s. I think this model was our ticket to the realities of a market economy, which we acquired shortly afterwards. It was the key to the door, so to speak, that Volkswagen came through. It enabled ŠKODA to prove that it could produce automobiles that stand up to international competition. Who knows whether such a solid investor would have been interested in us otherwise.

I welcomed the merger with Volkswagen back at the start. It was a marriage of both convenience and love.

Jaroslav Horák, technician at ŠKODA

I welcomed the merger with Volkswagen back at the start. It was a marriage of both convenience and love. I am 63 years old and don’t have to cultivate anyone’s good graces or flatter anyone, and I can say with full conviction that the merger is the best thing that could have happened to us. Granted, there were a fair number of critics back then in 1991, including some troublemakers at the highest levels of government, you can read all about that. But today the success of the brand shows that taking this road was the right decision, in terms of both engineering and business.

A number of the older employees were not very well disposed toward Germany, and consequently were not exactly thrilled about a partnership with Volkswagen of all things. They associated Germans with SS uniforms, the occupation and the protectorate. But it was different for those of us who were younger. We were full of admiration for what West Germany had managed to build after the war. We had read about the achievements in the West from newspapers and magazines that people brought back, and were entirely aware that we were lagging far behind in our socialist system, despite what the state-run media would have us believe. 

Jaroslav Horák at his workplace in the test center of Mladá Bloeslav, recorded in 1993 when he startet to work at this working place.
Jaroslav Horák at his workplace in the test center of Mladá Bloeslav, recorded in 1993 when he startet to work at this working place.

And it quickly turned out that the actual working relations with our partners from Volkswagen were excellent. This is no exaggeration. I can’t remember a single instance of unfriendliness or arrogance on the part of our new colleagues. On the contrary, the atmosphere was open and courteous right from the start. Just one example: my department at the test centre was responsible for water resistance, and we had a problem in this area with the Favorit, namely the insulation on the doors wasn’t working properly. We had hardly mentioned it when our colleagues from Volkswagen produced a technical solution which got rid of an issue that had gone on for years. I could add all kinds of examples here, and we really worked intensively together. In a few years we were able to make cars that we had only dreamt of before.

And from a purely personal perspective things have also worked out well for me. Without going into too many details, consider the following: On my “Škodovák” salary I couldn’t afford a new Škoda before 1989. My first car was a Trabant 601, then a second-hand Favorit. They were followed by four Felicias, then an old 120, all of them lovingly cared for and kept in perfect condition. Today I drive a second-generation Fabia and am entirely satisfied.

For someone who’s a technician through and through, and a car nut his whole life as well, my job was a dream come true, and I’m thankful for the time spent here. In all these years I’ve never skipped work, never slept through the alarm, in fact never been late to work even once. That wouldn’t have been in tune with my sense of responsibility or my attitude toward work. In two months I’m going to retire after a good 39 years at the factory. The beginning of the summer holidays this year will also mark the start of the biggest holiday of my life.

Thomas Peckruhn (53)
OWNER AUTOHAUS LIEBE

From Sangerhausen in Saxony Anhalt, Germany

“I grew up with petrol in my blood. My grandparents had a car repair shop on our property in Sangerhausen, a small town 100 kilometres west of Leipzig in Saxony Anhalt. My grandfather always assumed I would enter the business one day. “The boy will make something of our company,” he used to say. And the opportunity to do so came after the reunification of East and West Germany.

As a youngster in the 1970s, I never thought about running a ŠKODA dealership, of course. It was hard to get Czech cars in the GDR, and they were said to be slow and need frequent repairs. But I had to change my mind in the summer of 1989 – when a ŠKODA Favorit left my Lada in the dust on the slopes of the Krkonoše Mountains. My wife Manuela and I just watched in disbelief – but we never thought that one day we’d be selling ŠKODAs ourselves.

One of my personal highlights was the demand for the new Octavia in 1996 – it literally ran us over. The orders came in faster than we could deliver.

Thomas Peckruhn, owner of Autohaus Liebe

But two years later that’s what we were doing. Our company had to be restructured after German reunification, and we talked a lot about how to do it. I finally said that we would take the risk and remain independent, and that we would go with ŠKODA. I had visited the factory in Vrchlabí and was impressed by the progress that ŠKODA had made with the Favorit. As it quickly turned out, we could also count on the partnership with Volkswagen for both technology and design. Making that decision was like winning the lottery. We’ve been expanding all these years and opened our eighth location in 2016, a used car centre. In 2015 we sold 1,639 new cars, more than ever before. By comparison, we made 170 customers happy in 1992 which was our first year with ŠKODA – and now it’s almost ten times that number.

In retrospect I would have to say that the ŠKODA brand has kept all of its promises. Back then they said the dealers would have to be patient and that a car would come out in the mid-1990s showing the results of the partnership with Volkswagen. And that’s exactly what happened: first came the Fabia and then the Octavia.

We wanted to make the most of our opportunity and grow with the brand. When I saw that the dealership was working, I visited ŠKODA and inquired about the possibility of expanding. I wanted to show how successful a family-run company in the countryside can be. We then went looking for markets with more potential and opened a dealership in Erfurt.

Autohaus Liebe remains in family hands, and that is very important to us. My wife, two of my sons, my mother, my four siblings and other members of the family work for the company. My youngest son is the biggest technology fan; he’ll soon be leaving school and after going to university will join the company too. It makes me very proud to see how my enthusiasm for ŠKODA and our dealerships has been taken up by our children. With the knowledge they’ve gained, the boys take a very different approach and are expanding the digital side of things. And I make clear to them how important it is to have good customer relations.

Many of our very first car buyers keep coming back to us. Why do they do that? In part it’s tradition. My grandfather and my father always placed a premium on service. Back then that mainly had to do with repairs, and with getting replacement parts. The planned economy in the GDR was a real challenge to everyone, and those were hard times – but we always wanted our work to be reliable. Then came reunification, which brought a lot of changes. But what remains is a sense of solidarity. Our customers trust us. And we trust ŠKODA.

To put it all in a nutshell: at the end of the 1980s we were a small company in the new part of Germany that decided to throw in its lot with the developing ŠKODA brand and its partnership with Volkswagen. And that was the right thing to do. One of my personal highlights was the demand for the new Octavia in 1996 – it literally ran us over. The orders came in faster than we could deliver. Will something like that ever happen again? After so many years I might have acquired a sense for these things – and I think the new SUV could be a sensation.”

Jan Klokočka (55)
Founder and owner of Autosalon Klokočka Centrum a.s. 

From Prague, Czech Republic

Jump! Jan Klokočka and Miloš Heřman with a ŠKODA 130 L driving the 23. Rally Šumava in 1988.
Jump! Jan Klokočka and Miloš Heřman with a ŠKODA 130 L driving the 23. Rally Šumava in 1988.

“My first unforgettable moment with a ŠKODA? For my 18th birthday in 1979, my parents gave me a ŠKODA 100. But my love for cars only really took off when I started to become involved in rallies. I entered my first rally in 1981, in a ŠKODA 110 L. Somewhat later, when political conditions were loosening up in communist Czechoslovakia and you could start having certain types of private enterprises, I opened a small repair shop on the ground floor of our building in Prague, with space for just one car. That was in 1988 – and events have followed rapidly ever since.

My business activities and my involvement in racing brought me to the attention of ŠKODA AUTO, which offered to work with me. We became an official sales partner in the spring of 1991, as one of the first in the country. ŠKODA was also the first brand in our portfolio when we opened our first dealership in 1992, in the Barrandov neighbourhood of Prague, not far from the world-famous television studio. We opened and established a second dealership in Řepy, a Prague district, in 1996, which was extensively modernised last year and is the 1,000th rebranded autosalon worldwide. Today, Autosalon Klokočka is one of the largest ŠKODA sales and service partners in the Czech Republic. As the founder, I continue to be the sole owner. I’m a visionary and stand completely behind my company. It carries my name, which means I personally back our service and commitment to customers and business partners.

The year 1991 will always represent a major turning point for me. That was when the partnership between ŠKODA and Volkswagen was launched – and mine as well. Today I’m happy to say that both of these partnerships have been and continue to be extremely successful.

But it’s hard to compare the situation today with that of 25 years ago. The products, sales, advertising, customer service, general economic conditions – everything is different. We used to have only one model, whilst today we have whole model series with different sets of options and several engine types. Communications used to be centralised and standardised. Today the focus is on taking an individual approach and selecting the right strategies for different target groups. And our market is no longer just Prague, but the entire EU. That of course places high demands on quality, and means we have to keep expanding and educating our team.

All in all, ŠKODA has made enormous progress since merging with Volkswagen, not only in technology but also in general. I’ve often had the chance to visit our three factories in the Czech Republic, and have observed how production of the Favorit has developed. It’s fascinating to watch. ŠKODA is no longer a regional car maker, but an established brand throughout the world. As such, merging with VW and continuing to develop in the Czech Republic have turned out to be the right decisions. The current model campaign and Mr Kabaň’s unique design work are also the right course, in my opinion.

All in all, ŠKODA has made enormous progress since merging with Volkswagen, not only in technology but also in general.

Jan Klokočka, Autosalon Klokočka a.s.

Aside from that I’ve always had a positive view of the brand. Even before 1989 it always made me proud to see the winged arrow emblem on cars in other countries. And then to see the Czech flag waving above the victory platform when we took third place with a ŠKODA Favorit MTX at the prestigious rally on the Isle of Man! Those are unforgettable moments, just like getting a ŠKODA 100 for my 18th birthday or receiving the many awards for Autosalon Klokočka.

Where will we be in 25 years from now? A lot will depend on innovations, and on further developments in the fields of IT and mobile communications – or all of the “smart solutions”. In any case we’d like to keep up our rate of growth and maintain our high standards of services that we offer. For us, the customer will always come first. I’m confident that Autosalon Klokočka will continue to be one of ŠKODA’s biggest contract partners and that our customers will always be loyal to us. Aside from that, the future lies in the hands of my two sons who will take over the business one day.”

Jürgen aND Christel Grünler (74)
ŠKODA drivers for 20 years.

From Obhausen in Saxony Anhalt, Germany

A quick photo before setting off: Jürgen and Christel Grünler with one of their ŠKODAs. (Photos: private archive)
A quick photo before setting off: Jürgen and Christel Grünler with one of their ŠKODAs. (Photos: private archive)

“What’s the right car for us? It should be dependable, sporty and not too slow, or at least that’s what our daughters say. And they’re right. As pensioners we also need a good car, because we live in the countryside in Obhausen, a small town of around 2,300 people in Saxony Anhalt. Public transport is limited to only certain times of the day.

My wife and I were both teachers, at different schools, and we always drove to work. That was never a problem, because I like to drive, and for that matter to drive fast – that’s always been the case and it’s not about to change.

Our ŠKODA Fabia Ambiente is nippy, which I like. My wife chose the colour – an attractive shade of grey-blue metallic. It’s the seventh ŠKODA model that we’ve purchased.

In the GDR we had a Trabant, which was a bit of a tight fit for four people with luggage. It was the most economical car, and we watched our finances so didn’t even think about buying an imported ŠKODA.

Even if I won the lottery, we’d still drive a ŠKODA.

Jürgen Grünler, ŠKODA driver

After reunification we then got our first ŠKODA Felicia, from the Liebe dealership. It was green, and we took it on our longest drive yet, all the way to Stockholm. We’ve never had a breakdown on any of our trips, not even a flat tyre – and that’s what we’re counting on for the future as well. Our eldest daughter was an enthusiastic ŠKODA driver too for a while, with a smart Octavia as her company car.

I think that ŠKODAs have changed a lot over the years. When we got the Felicia, we already knew that the more powerful petrol models, those with 75 horsepower, had engines from Volkswagen. We saw that as a sign of quality.

When it comes to technology, my wife Christel and I like to stay up to date. We drive about 50,000 kilometres a year, trade in the old car and look forward to each new model. The Liebe dealership in Sangerhausen has given us good advice from the start. When we go there we feel like part of the family. Everyone knows us, and we’ve watched the children of the owners become involved. When you go there you have a chat and share your experiences and memories.

Our next car will probably be another Fabia. Four doors are important to me, because then it’s easier to put things in the back at our age. I don’t need a bigger car, because it’s usually just the two of us. And if I think about it, we don’t need a faster or more expensive car either. Even if I won the lottery, we’d still drive a ŠKODA.”

Photo: ŠKODA AUTO a.s., Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images, private archive