Škoda 1203: multifunctional and immortal

Škoda 1203: multifunctional and immortal

The Škoda 1203 light utility vehicle first hit the road 55 years ago. Mass production continued for almost half a century, during which time the vehicle became a legend.

16. 11. 2023 Classic cars

With its load capacity of 750 kg and space for up to 5.2 m3 of cargo, the Škoda 1203 was first presented to the public on 14 September 1968, with mass production starting at Škoda’s Vrchlabí plant on 20 November 1969. Its career longevity combined with the countless versions of the characteristic cab-over body, the Škoda 1203 was a daily feature of the lives of Czechoslovak citizens, literally from the cradle (ambulance variant) to the grave (hearse variant).

Škoda 1203, ambulance variant

It was also driven in France, Belgium and Egypt, and in Turkey it was converted beyond recognition into a robust pick-up. The Škoda 1203 was freely available on foreign markets. If you’re wondering why that’s a big deal, in the centrally controlled national economy of the former Czechoslovakia, only state or cooperative enterprises and organisations could order a new Škoda 1203. They had to apply to the State Planning Commission, whose officials assessed the legitimacy of the request and allocated what was known as a “balance voucher”. Only then could the organisation pay the purchase price and take delivery of the vehicle. The Škoda 1203 only got into private hands as second-hand vehicles. 

The Škoda 1203 could carry up to 5.2 m3 of cargo.

Slowly but surely

Centrally controlled economies are inflexible and slow, so the vehicle’s development ultimately took twelve years. Despite all the difficulties, Škoda successfully completed their project with the original codename Š 979. In the spring of 1956, when the developers in Vrchlabí had set to work, the self-supporting, single-space body had been a progressive concept even by world standards. The body design dispensed with the traditional chassis frame and separate engine compartment impairing the use of the interior space. And the result was a remarkably spacious and lightweight vehicle. In the utility car category, the Škoda 1203’s independent all-wheel suspension that improved driving comfort on the often poor roads of the time is still not that commonplace.

One possible use was as a van for a band.

The constructors designed timelessly elegant bionic shapes, a rounded body and abundant glazing. The first prototype hit the road in September 1956. But Škoda lacked the investment funds to introduce the new technology of self-supporting bodies, so Škoda offered customers a new Š 1202 model using the more traditional design for the time being, while continuing to refine the shape of the future Š 1203.

Interior of the Škoda 1203

As part of the unification process, a number of proven components from the aforementioned 1202 model were applied in the upcoming car, including the 1,221 cc, 49 hp (39 kW), four-cylinder OHV petrol engine. The vehicle had the same dashboard and tail lamps as the new Škoda 1000 MB passenger car.

Its predecessor – the Škoda 1202 

Flat-bed trucks and ambulances

The first to reach customers in 1969 was the compact van variant, which weighed just 1,170 kilograms but had external dimensions of 4,520 × 1,800 × 1,900 mm. It had a satisfactory top speed of 90 km/h, and at a steady 60 km/h consumed 11 litres of petrol per 100 km.

A minibus soon followed, followed by a number of other variants, from flat-bed trucks to various assembly versions and ambulances and hearses. A few units of an extended flat-bed truck variant were also made, which the works team used to transport racing cars. On the roads of Eastern Bloc countries the goods vehicles’ main competitor was the East German Barkas B 1000 with the three-cylinder two-stroke engine used in Wartburg passenger cars. Other rivals were the Polish Žuk and Nysa, powered by archaic four-cylinder engines derived from the Soviet GAZ M20 Pobeda cars from just after the war.

Detailed comparison of the minibus and van variants.

Between 1968 and 1981, a total of 69,727 Škoda 1203s were built at Vrchlabí, after which final production was moved to Slovakia, namely the Trnava Automobile Works (TAZ), where many components had been built for years.

Later life

The Škoda 1203 underwent continuous modernisation. For its 20th birthday (1988), the vehicle received a larger, more powerful 1,433 cc engine delivering 57 hp (42 kW). The new five-speed gearbox reduced the engine’s revs at higher speeds, and thus also its noise emission and fuel consumption. Dual-circuit brakes contributed to improved safety, minor adjustments freshened up the body design, and a fuel-efficient 1.9-litre four-cylinder diesel from Volkswagen appeared under the bonnet in the 1990s. TAZ was privatised after 1989, but production of the popular model continued under its original name. Starting in 1993, it began to be offered as the TAZ 1500. Three years later the aforementioned diesel version was added with the designation TAZ 1.9D, with the classic petrol version, now with fuel injection, was renamed the TAZ 1.5i (“i” for “injection”). 

Škoda 1203

Anyone looking for the undemanding, affordable 1203 could still order it two decades later. From April 1973 to August 1999, a total of approximately 89,000 vehicles of all versions were built at Trnava. The vehicle’s production journey then came full circle when the baton was then passed – albeit only in the form of individual orders and assembly from parts – to a smaller company from the Czech town of Žacléř, only about 16 kilometres away from the original Vrchlabí plant.

In Turkey, they converted the 1203 into the Kamyonet pick-up.