From bicycles to cars, or the first ten years of L&K

From bicycles to cars, or the first ten years of L&K

In today’s parlance, the subject of the story would be called a startup. Václav Klement and Václav Laurin started making bicycles in a workshop. Within four years they had built their own factory and started producing motorcycles – and within ten years they made their first car.

15. 8. 2023 Škoda World

The globally successful car company was obviously not – as would befit a present-day start-up – created in someone’s garage. Before Christmas 1895, there weren’t any garages in Mladá Boleslav. But like the later pioneers of motoring from American garages, Václav Laurin and Václav Klement could not yet afford a “better address”. They established themselves on the periphery of a Central Bohemian district town.

The first factory building, covering an area of 53 x 13 m, was completed in August 1898 next to the road between the towns of Mladá Boleslav and Kosmonosy. The workforce at the time comprised 32 labourers, plus six apprentices and three administrative staff.

However, the Václavs’ output soon became famous for its quality of materials and workmanship. Not to mention the helpful hire purchase system, whose fairness was guaranteed by an independent committee of local respected personalities, including a priest.

In the earliest days of the business, there were only two workers and one apprentice besides the two founding fathers, but then things happened fast. Within a year, the Laurin & Klement bicycle factory had 21 employees – and a machine tool powered by a two-horsepower steam engine. By then, it was offering five models of bicycles with the brand name Slavia and two lime branches in its logo. True, they were made from English components, but these were gradually replaced by Czech parts.

Motorised two-wheelers (motorcycles) were successfully exported, even to the most demanding European markets. After careful packing, they were transported almost exclusively by rail.

Laurin came up with a host of technical innovations, while Klement was a tireless promoter and a true visionary of the company. In August 1898, the company expanded for a second time: in less than three years the production area more than tripled. The company’s output included robust touring bikes and lightweight semi-racing specials.

A new passion for engines

In the autumn of 1896, Václav Klement went to Paris, then the world’s capital of motoring, from where he brought a rudimentary “motocyclette” for inspiration. It only ran when it felt like it, one of its main weaknesses being the impractical engine located above the powered front wheel. Not surprisingly, Laurin knocked out his front teeth on a test ride. However, his subsequent experiments gave rise to the concept of the modern motorcycle still in use today.

In 1904 the production premises in Mladá Boleslav were illuminated by both daylight and powerful arc lamps that work on a similar principle to electric welders.

On a memorable Saturday, 18 November 1899, two models of L&K “motorised two-wheelers” – types A and B – were presented to journalists in Prague. Klement marketed them aggressively at home and abroad, gaining international success by securing an order for 150 machines from the renowned London dealer Henry Hewetson. He convinced the businessman that a three-minute training session was enough to master the “Laurinka”, as it was nicknamed. Klement came back from England with an order that was ten times the company’s annual production at the time. A quarter of a year later, more orders arrived from Germany. The new sales were a reaction to the first prize and gold medal that the L&K motorcycle won in its category at an international exhibition in Frankfurt am Main.

In the left of the picture, one of the prototype automobiles stands in front of the factory. The hose between the front wheels is the engine cooling pipe.

At the same time, during the summer of 1900, the company offered discounts on its bicycles and motorcycles, and at the same time a prototype of the car they were preparing grabbed the public’s attention when it was paraded through Prague. True, it was still far from finished; the four-wheeler had been assembled from motorcycle parts, with handlebars instead of a steering wheel and the driver sitting on a perch behind the passenger.

On Sunday, 1 July 1900, cyclists staged a ride through Prague. By the Invalidovna building in Karlin district, heads were turned by a Laurin & Klement “quadricycle” with a petrol engine. Five years and a series of prototypes later, the company launched its first automobile, the L&K Voiturette A.

But the whirlwind of success and innovation continued. In June 1901, L&K took on international competition in the challenging conditions of the Paris to Berlin race, and the company was soon collecting one winner’s laurel after another in the surrounding countries. The 1904 season, by which time the company was producing motorcycles with one, two and even four cylinders (one of the first factories in the world to do so), with air-cooled or water-cooled engines, saw the L&K brand pick up a record of 56 first prizes plus 59 second and third prizes out of the 64 motoring events the company took part in between 1903 and 1904. Not surprisingly, the licence for Slavia motorcycles was purchased by the German factory Seidel & Naumann, which had a workforce of 2,800 people compared to L&K’s 310. The result was Germania motorcycles.

In March 1904, one of the first four-cylinder motorcyles in the world, the 735 cm3 CCCC-type, provided proof of the company’s technical proficiency.

Culmination of the opening stage

Given that the foundations of the business were laid before Christmas 1895 and the official registration of the company was not done until the spring of 1896, the tenth year of business was the 1905 season. Again, it was a year of great success. In March, Laurin & Klement announced to the district authority that they were discontinuing the manufacture of bicycles. The production capacity and all efforts were now to be concentrated on motor vehicles. Their company, with 355 employees, was now occupying an area of 9,500 m2 and had 206 machine tools at its disposal. In April, at the Prague Motor Show held in the art nouveau Palace of Industry, the company’s stand displayed the two-cylinder engine of a forthcoming car. In June, the motorcycle era culminated in a triumphant victory at the unofficial world championship in Dourdan near Paris, and in October, the Viennese trade press was already running a photograph of the first Laurin & Klement Voiturette A, which was made to order.

In 1905 the factory’s production area was enlarged to 9,500 m2, with 900 m2 of that taken up by the “finished machines assembly hall” shown in the picture. 

That brought to a close the first decade of the “startup” founded by Václav Laurin and Václav Klement, a dazzling decade of success and innovation. A company from a small district town managed to outperform competitors from the most technically advanced countries in Europe. Without needing to catch its breath, it continued to expand. In the next ten years, before the First World War hampered its development, it grew into the biggest car company in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a superpower with a population of over 50 million. The sales and service network would extend to every inhabited continent, and customers would include not only Europeans but everyone from Mexican postmen to Egyptian royalty and a member of the Japanese imperial court. Today, Škoda looks back on all this from the position of a global brand with a tradition of 128 years of developing and manufacturing passenger vehicles. 

125 years of building relationships with employees

The “founding fathers” were not only visionaries who weren’t afraid of physical labour, but they were also entrepreneurs who kept their employees in mind. And so 125 years ago, in 1898, in addition to the new factory, L&K introduced its first workplace rules. Their eleven points regulated the relationship between the company and its employees. Workers undertook to perform work other than that originally assigned to them if it was required. The rapidly changing industry necessitated flexibility, and at that time the launch of production of auxiliary engines for bicycles and later motorcycles was being considered. The employees’ arrival at the workplace was recorded by means of a control number, which had to be hung on a hook in a locker by the gatekeeper’s lodge no later than three minutes after the start of working hours. The work regulations included sickness and accident insurance for employees, but at the same time required them to be loyal to the company.