Unknown history: OCTAVIA cars were made in Chile 50 years ago

Unknown history: OCTAVIA cars were made in Chile 50 years ago

It is exactly 50 years since Bohuslav Čtvrtečka was given a few weeks to learn Spanish and a plane ticket to Chile. He spent two years there teaching the locals, whose skills were then limited to rudimentary metalwork, to make the Czechoslovak carmaker’s bestselling product: the ŠKODA OCTAVIA ESTATE.

14. 8. 2020 Škoda World

Bohuslav Čtvrtečka is a ŠKODA man heart and soul. His whole life has been linked to the Kvasiny plant in East Bohemia, where he still works today. Even though he’s been retired for many years, he still works as a tour guide at the factory, telling visitors everything there is to know about the past and present of the company he has devoted over 60 years of his life to.

The main highway to Santiago de Chile leads through the desert. In those days it took at least three days to complete the 2,500 km journey, and it was a good idea to have some oil and basic spares in the car. Bohuslav Čtvrtečka is on the right.

Fifty years ago, he was an expert in the ŠKODA OCTAVIA ESTATE that had been rolling off the production line for ten years by then. As the head of technical control in the welding shop he knew every nut and bolt in the car, so he was offered the chance to take charge of assembly on the other side of the world, in Chile. He seized that chance, and two months later he boarded a plane to teach Chileans how to assemble cars. Practically the entire workforce at the plant in the town of Arica was comprised of indigenous people.

The car that conquered the world

In the 1960s, the OCTAVIA ESTATE was the dream car for heads of families in Czechoslovakia, especially those with a cottage in the country. Although only a three-door model, it had a unique estate body that was highly sought-after and measuring over 4 metres in length it was incredibly spacious. In addition, it was rugged, with a chassis that might almost be described as all-terrain today. Over 54,000 units were made between 1961 and 1971.

Partially completed cars in the assembly plant in Arica, which was situated on the edge of a desert. The ever-present dust can be seen on the cars, because the building was open at both ends.

With a front-mounted engine, rear-wheel drive and a frame chassis, it was a simple but robust car. With a bag of cement adding downforce at the rear, the OCTAVIA could even navigate extremely muddy tracks. That is one reason why it was such a sought-after export item: the estate cars were ordered by the Icelandic police as an ideal car for the tough local conditions, and they were also exported to Denmark, Norway and even Australia. And cars were assembled under licence – either the entire car or just the chassis, with a different body mounted on it. The car was delivered in parts for assembly to Iceland, Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey. The OCTAVIA ESTATE came in a passenger version and a goods version.

An OCTAVIA from the Americas

Complete knocked-down assembly (known as “CKD”) in Chile at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s is a relatively unknown chapter in ŠKODA’s history. Three hundred to four hundred OCTAVIA ESTATE cars were made there in the course of two years. Assembly took place in very basic conditions and almost entirely by hand. And it was Bohuslav Čtvrtečka who oversaw the process on site. At the time a 28-year-old employee of the Kvasiny plant, he didn’t think twice, apparently. Even though he didn’t speak a word of Spanish.

The assembly conditions were truly basic, making the local employees’ skilful hands all the more essential.

“Before I headed off to Chile at the start of 1970, ŠKODA cars were already being assembled there. When I got there, I saw an old 1201 pick-up on the road,” he says, looking back at the almost forgotten story of the production of Czechoslovak cars abroad. At first, for customs reasons, the process only involved completing practically finished cars. At Kvasiny, a painted body with the upholstered interior was put into one transport crate, with two chassis placed in another crate. All that was left to do in Chile was screw them together, basically.

The OCTAVIA ESTATE in facts and figures

The car was first put on show on 11 September 1960 at the International Machine Engineering Trade Fair in Brno, one year after production of the “three-box” ŠKODA OCTAVIA Tudor began.

It was manufactured from 1961 to 1971 at Kvasiny, but also assembled at numerous plants abroad, such as Iceland, Pakistan, Indonesia, Chile and Turkey.

In total, 54,086 estates were made, with many of them exported. The last one rolled off the Kvasiny production line on 21 December 1971.

The car is very compact, measuring 4065 x 1600 x 1430 mm, but all the more spacious for that. The declared luggage compartment space was 690 litres, and as much as 1,050 litres when modified as a two-seater.

Its three-door body had separate top and bottom boot doors. The spare tyre had its own compartment beneath the luggage space, so it could be taken out even when the boot was fully loaded.

It was powered by the famous OHV four-cylinder 1.2 l engine, which delivered 47 hp, upgraded to 51 hp in 1969. Its top speed was 115 km/h and official fuel consumption was 8.6 l/100 km. For decades to come, the same engine powered the ŠKODA 1203 van (and its Slovak successor), but this robust unit’s origins date back to 1938 and the POPULAR model.

In addition to the passenger estate car, there was a goods vehicle version with blacked out rear windows.

The car was modernised in 1965: it was given a black steering wheel and sunshades and mirrors from the modern 1000 MB model. The interior’s noise and heat insulation was improved and a windscreen spray was added.

Starting in 1968, the car had rear armrests that could be tilted backwards or forwards. Its price was 44,500 Czechoslovak crowns.

A year later, component sharing with other models intensified, with a new instrument panel from the 1000 MB, rectangular rear lights from the ŠKODA 100 and the scrapping of the practical separately accessible compartment for the spare tyre. That made the rear of the car stiffer, however.

In 1996, OCTAVIA was the name given to the first ŠKODA car produced from scratch as the outcome of cooperation with the VW concern. The OCTAVIA become the brand’s best-selling car in history, with almost 7 million units of all generations made to date.

At the end of last year the company presented the fourth modern generation. Unusually, the first version to be unveiled was an estate car.

Even so, only a couple of units were assembled per day. Three cars in one day was peak output. That is because only local inhabitants were taken on at the plant, and in the vicinity of Arica, Chile’s northernmost port, that meant almost exclusively indigenous people, whose previous work experience was restricted to farming or trading.

Instead of conveyors, which have been used in the manufacture of ŠKODA cars from the end of the 1920s, the workers in Chile in the 70s had to make do with basic equipment like a primitive frame on wheels and a pulley.

“But then the Chilean government demanded that more local parts were used, so we started to find out what parts could be supplied from local sources, such as batteries, wheels or tyres,” Bohuslav Čtvrtečka recalls. The share of locally sourced components gradually increased.

A manual press and a local smith

But that had its pitfalls. There was no press, for example, or qualified mechanics either. “But the order came that we had to make some pressed parts. So we managed with what we had to hand: in the factory there was a board on hydraulic jacks, and on that board we put a kind of wooden last – today we’d call it a fixture – and six guys started to pump the jacks. It took a while, but in the end we managed to make the shaped part,” he says, smiling at the memory.

“I can’t imagine making things that way today. Today, the maximum tolerance for some parts is 0.2 millimetres, but back then in Chile we overlooked size differences of millimetres.”

Bohuslav Čtvrtečka during the assembly of a hydraulic press that was to replace the manual production of small pressed parts.

The picture shows an OCTAVIA ESTATE front axle with wound springs, a trapezoid that was sophisticated for its time and robust.

On the other hand, high demands were placed on the locals’ ability to cope with the final assembly, because numerous parts simply didn’t match the original expectation. “I remember a smith, for example, who had previously made horseshoes. He knew nothing about cars, but he was amazing with his hands. He could do miracles with the most basic equipment. He gave instructions to the others: one held the gas cylinder, another wielded the hammer, and in a short while you couldn’t tell the difference between the original part and the piece he had pressed out under the most basic conditions.” Assembly in Chile ended in 1971 and for political reasons it was never renewed.

Overseas production today

These days, ŠKODA is a global carmaker with nine models that are produced all over the world. India is one of the most important production locations. Luboš Hradecký spent eight and a half years of his career there. India is front and centre of the Czech carmaker’s plans for the future. Under the INDIA 2.0 project, ŠKODA is responsible for all production and sales activities in India. Last year ŠKODA opened a development centre in India. The first fruit of the unit’s work is the study of the compact ŠKODA VISION IN SUV unveiled in February this year. Mass production of the car is scheduled for the turn of 2020 and 2021. And it is Luboš Hradecký who has been in charge of preparing for production and quality assurance.

What idea did you have of what to expect in India? And what was the reality?
My idea was that I would have the good fortune to discover a different culture and a completely different part of the world and try my hand at an interesting job. But the reality was a lot more demanding. First, the language: the English I’d learnt at university was not good enough to manage people and set tasks. And I didn’t understand Indian English at all, it seemed like a completely different language to me.

How do you recruit employees in a country where they have 22 official languages and around ten different religions?
It’s even more true that you have to have the right person in the right place. It’s usually not the way it works in the Czech Republic, where people can do what you expect of them, but it’s necessary for everyone else to accept that person in that position as well. There’s no problem finding high-quality candidates and a global company like ŠKODA has a good reputation, so the best people want to work for us. Our academy, where we train colleagues to supply truly top-quality cars to customers, plays an important role as well. But as a manager from “the West”, I practically played no part in the first two rounds of recruitment – I left that to my Indian colleagues. And in the later stages I always had beside me my Indian deputy or another close colleague who understood relations between the locals.

What is the situation like in ŠKODA plants in India today?
When ŠKODA was tasked by Volkswagen with taking charge of all the group’s India activities under the India 2.0 project, a new company was set up with the official name Škoda Auto Volkswagen India Private Limited. That company has two production plants in India. One is in Aurangabad and produces 11 models: Škodas, Volkswagens and Audis. The plant’s capacity is over 70,000 cars a year.

The second plant is in Pune, around 220 kilometres from Aurangabad. That’s where they make the Škoda Rapid, which is different from the European version, and also the VW Polo and Vento. Unlike Aurangabad, the Pune plant handles all aspects of production, including welding, painting and assembly. The Pune plant’s capacity is currently over 150,000 cars a year. Now we are working to expand capacity and launch the production of two new SUVs, one a Škoda and the other a VW.

Luboš Hradecký

56 years old

Graduate of the Technical University in Liberec

He has worked for Škoda for 36 years, starting as a constructor of single-purpose machinery and equipment. He has held a number of managerial positions in the fields of production and logistics.

Airplanes and flying is his main hobby. He has a pilot’s licence for ultralights. He is a member of the board of the Metoděj Vlach Foundation and works closely with the Metoděj Vlach Aviation Museum in Mladá Boleslav. He also makes model airplanes and plays the piano.