Škoda Équipe hits the road!

Škoda Équipe hits the road!

In June 1950, a Škoda car started in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race for the first time. The modified Škoda Sport had to be transported to the legendary circuit. Find out how racing cars were transported in the past.

3. 7. 2023 Škoda World

The Czech carmaker has successfully participated in motor sport since the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The company’s first major event abroad was an endurance motorcycle race from Paris to Berlin in 1901. At that time, the starting point was reached by train, and the motorcycles were protected by simple wooden crates. It was basically a standard shipment – a far cry from the special trucks of present-day racing teams.

 Narcis Podsedníček on his single-cylinder Laurin & Klement B-type at the Czech brand’s international sporting debut: the Paris-Berlin race in June 1901.

Racers like Narcis Podsedníček were recruited from the ranks of mechanics, so they could handle repairs themselves. Improvisation was often the order of the day. For capacity and financial reasons, they carried only basic tools and spare parts. There were also problems with fuel: for example, during the unofficial motorcycle world championship in Dourdan, France, the team led by manager Václav Klement had difficulty finding light petrol for the Laurin & Klement motorcycle’s surface carburettor.

In October 1908, a railway carriage with a L&K FC racing car dilly-dallied somewhere between Mladá Boleslav and Gaillon, France, the venue of the famous hill climb race. It only arrived after the event, which was won by Count Saša Kolowrat in his F-type touring car, which he drove to the race venue with mechanic František Krutský. The night before the race, they had to strip everything unnecessary out of the car to reduce the weight, including the seats, which were replaced by wooden crates without backrests.

1908: Count Saša Kolowrat and his stripped-down F-type at the race in Gaillon

In December of the same year, the engine block of the FCS special burst during a training session at the Brooklands circuit in England. Instead of an attempt at the world speed record in the car’s class, an ignominious return home seemed on the cards. The factory, having been notified by telegraph, dispatched a courier by train with hand luggage containing a replacement block. He arrived the following evening, but careless handling of the luggage during the journey had caused the fragile cast iron flange to crack. Fortunately, a skilled mechanic was able to provisionally repair the block. The result was a new record of 118.720 km/h.

Post-war Praga RN

Transporting Škoda racing cars by rail or actually driving them to events was still done after the Second World War. By the summer of 1950, however, the factory was already using a truck. Its tarp bore the inscription Équipe Škoda 24 Heures du Mans. It was a Praga RN, which stood for “rychlé nákladní”, meaning “fast truck”.  Its top speed of 80 km/h was considered fast on the poor roads of the day; and in fact the diesel version – called the RND – would not do more than 60 km/h.  The RN was made in Libeň in Prague, but after this factory was bombed at the end of the war production was moved to Letňany Aircraft Works – originally a private company later known as Aero. It is testimony to the complex relations prevailing in the post-war nationalised automotive industry in Czechoslovakia that in the 1947-1951 period, alongside the Praga RN, a smaller Praga A 150, formerly the Aero 150, but originally the Škoda 150, type 943, was built in the Letňany plant. It had been developed and produced by Škoda from as early as 1939 and used the two-litre four-cylinder engine from the Škoda Favorit 2000 OHV passenger car, a mid-range model. However, the 150’s short load bed would make it suitable for carrying a racing special and its supply of tyres, spare parts and tools, which is probably why the larger RN model was chosen.   

Aero 150 transportation vehicle originally developed as a Škoda

On Monday 19 June 1950, a Škoda Sport racing car with a 1.1 litre engine was loaded into an RN in Mladá Boleslav. The lorry’s maximum payload weight was 3,000 kg, but the car itself only weighed about 590 kg without crew and fuel, leaving a good allowance for all the necessary equipment.

Behind the Iron Curtain

Travelling abroad in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the First Czechoslovak Republic was far easier than in the period from the 1940s to 1980s, although travelling by car did traditionally require bureaucratic groundwork – mainly international permits such as carnets (customs permits for motor vehicles). The export of foreign currency was also subject to regulation.

Škoda Sport at Le Mans in 1950: after 13 hours’ driving and 115 laps, the two-seater modified “Tudor” was eliminated by an engine fault.

After the Second World War, the situation in Europe became more complicated, with 1950 being one of the most politically charged years. Trade relations with the West were faltering and foreign exchange was scarce. For these and many other reasons, every foreign trip was subject to approval. Moreover, the Autoklub of the Czechoslovak Republic demanded that when transporting racing machines and teams, car companies should give preference to “Czechoslovak or such means of transport as are most advantageous from the point of view of foreign exchange”. Even the choice of foreign race had its own ideological pitfalls at the time. “It is advisable to limit oneself to enterprises of value, provided that the conditions for success are present, and to enterprises which do not represent an increased burden on the National Bank of Czechoslovakia, but rather a benefit,” Autoklub recommended.

The Škoda Sport’s start at Le Mans undoubtedly fulfilled these preconditions. Not only with regard to the competitiveness of the car itself and the abilities of its crew, but also because of the event’s importance for supporting the successful export of Škoda cars to France and the Benelux countries, where they were already well established.

Škoda Sport at Le Mans in 1950

The Škoda archives contain a letter from Ing. Vladimír Matouš, long-time chief designer of Škoda cars and light trucks. At the beginning of June 1950, he asked his superiors to make a reliable employee of the Czechoslovak trade office in neighbouring Belgium available to the team before and during the Le Mans race. The document reveals that less than two weeks before the departure it was still not clear how the transport would be handled. “At present we expect that the car will be transported to France by lorry, accompanied by a passenger car, but transporting the car by train to Paris with the team travelling by air is not ruled out,” Matouš wrote.

In the end, the first option was chosen. The passenger car was the popular four-seater “Tudor”, i.e. Škoda 1101. It was from this model series that the racing Škoda Sport was derived – it had originally been prepared for the 1949 Czechoslovak Grand Prix and was modified for the specifics of the Le Mans track. This racing car was developed under the direction of Josef Velebný, chief bodywork engineer. The car used mostly production parts, including the home-made PAL electrics and Barum tyres. In Le Mans the mechanics from Mladá Boleslav were greatly assisted by staff of the Czechoslovak Embassy in Paris.

Václav Bobek Sr. behind the wheel of a Škoda Sport

The actual course of the race is well known, so let’s just briefly recap that practice sessions took place on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, always from 9 pm to 1 am. At 4 pm on Saturday 24 June 1950, the race proper got underway in the standard manner: the cars were on one side of the track, the drivers on the opposite side. At the starter’s signal, they ran to their machines, jumped in, started their engines, and set off on the twenty-four-hour endurance race. The Škoda was unmissable on the track – not only for its racing performance, but also for its four powerful headlights. Drivers Václav Bobek and Jaroslav Netušil were fighting for a top position in their class, but after 13 hours on the track, on lap 115, a technical fault ended their race. The car with the starting number 44 had to retire, and return home on the back of the RN truck.

Škoda Sport for Le Mans (1950)

The Škoda Sport with a two-seater ponton body made of sheet aluminium was the next evolution of the version introduced in the previous racing season. The main differences were that the wheelbase was lengthened to 2,150 millimetres, providing better directional stability while still keeping the car’s kerb weight to a favourable 600 kg, and a pair of auxiliary headlights was added.

The standard 1,089 cc long-stroke four-cylinder engine, with a compression ratio of 8.6:1, a special Solex 40 UAIP carburettor and other modifications, delivered 42 hp (31 kW) at 5,200/min and enabled speeds of up to 140 km/h. The fuel used was a mixture of petrol, ethanol and acetone, with the Škoda Sport burning only about 12 litres per 100 km. Many years later, the Škoda Sport returned to Le Mans for a vintage car event.