Before the Second World War, long-distance trips – including those in Europe – were seen as a big adventure. There were no highway tunnels through the Alps, and the quality of roads was poor in many countries. In fact, this was precisely why car manufacturers supported long-distance driving, viewing it as an opportunity to put their cars to the test.

František Elstner undertook many such trips. For example, in 1935 he spent 100 days in a ŠKODA POPULAR on a 25,000-km trip through the US and Mexico, followed by 10,000 km across the Balkans in a ŠKODA RAPID.

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In 1938 he came up with another big plan: a trek through Argentina in the new ŠKODA POPULAR 1100, powered by a 22 kW engine. With the official production launch scheduled for the autumn of that year, Elstner’s project would serve both as a pre-series stress test and as a brand-building campaign in Argentina and Uruguay, where ŠKODA was supplying just a few dozen cars a year in those days.

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Elstner and his wife Eva started their journey in mid-July 1938. Their first stop was the port in Genoa, where the couple embarked the steamboat Augustus. More than a fortnight later, following a voyage taking en-route breathers in Senegal, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo, the couple reached Buenos Aires. After attending the official opening of a new ŠKODA showroom in Rosario, they set off on a trip planned to start in Buenos Aires, continue to Gran Chaco, then on to the Bolivian border, before doubling back to the centre of the Argentina.

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What was not planned, though, was a third passenger. The arrival of the two travellers stirred up so much attention among locally settled Czech compatriots that one of them, a furrier by the name of František Lhota, decided to run away from his family to join the couple. Elstner describes this story in his book:

The Mile Chaser’s Argentinian Adventure

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Despite knowing the local ways and language, Lhota also caused the couple numerous problems, such as when, north of Cordoba, his navigation skills got them stuck in a rain forest, and – at some cost – they had to ask locals to come to their rescue and help them back to a proper road. After this experience they decided to stick to the itinerary prepared for them by the Automóvil Club Argentino. Though they encountered no more major hurdles on their 6,000-km circuit, they were increasingly concerned about the news coming out of Europe, where the threat of war appeared to be escalating all the time.

In Montevideo, Uruguay, they held an impromptu race against another POPULAR owned by Victor Borrat Fabin, a local ŠKODA racer. Elstner was faster, but refused a rematch. Instead, on 12 September 1938, the couple hastily embarked the Massilia, warned that it would be the last vessel to reach Europe before the outbreak of the coming war. Sixteen days later, the Elstners arrived in Bordeaux, France, where they were in such a hurry that they had to leave the car behind in order to catch the express to Paris (having just 20 minutes to get from the boat to the train), from where they flew to Prague, landing in the evening on 29 September, hours before the signing of the Munich Treaty.

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Their “Argentinian” POPULAR was transported by ŠKODA’s French agent to Paris for a motor show which, although postponed, eventually took place in October 1938. In December, František Elstner travelled to Paris to collect the car and drive it back home. After a troublesome journey, he reached his destination on 2 January 1939. Once home, he wrote Tango Argentino, an account of the journey around Argentina.

The whole adventure came to a sorry end on 15 March 1939. Near Vinoř, a village that is now part of Prague, the POPULAR, driven by Eva Elstnerová, was hit by a German lorry transporting Wehrmacht soldiers, who had occupied the rest of post-Munich Czechoslovakia that very day. In the collision, the car flipped. Mercifully, Eva climbed out virtually unscathed.

František Alexander Elstner
(11 April 1902 – 8 September 1974) had many interests. Not only was he a scout, traveller, sportsman, journalist and writer, but he was also the first Czechoslovak to attend the International Forest School held in England.

Elstner is not particularly well-known these days because the Communists, deploring his Scouting activities, banned him from travel (except for a trip to the Soviet Union in 1959) and heavily censored all public information about him.

Elstner liked to mix up his hobbies. He viewed his trips around Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas as questions of sport, and always did all he could to cover the route within a pre-set time, hence his “Mile Chaser” nickname. He wrote numerous interesting news reports and books about his travels.

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František Alexander Elstner

a scout, traveller, sportsman, journalist and writer

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