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Along with its 125th anniversary, 2020 also marks 110 years of the Czech brand’s first victory in the Austrian Alpine Challenge, considered the most difficult rally of the time
Motorsport has always been a part of automobile history, endorsed with the old saying “the first ever race happened when the second ever car rolled off the production line.” And you wouldn’t be wrong to assume so, as many famous motorsporting events started out simply as a way for enthusiastic drivers to test the limits of their vehicles. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were almost negligible avenues for effective, organised competition. Every single tournament we can think of was still decades away.
This, however, did not stop some daredevils living along the Alps, with its unpaved mountain passes and formidable slopes providing the backdrop for some of the world’s most challenging racing events. These included the famous mountain stage along the arduous Semmering, which connects Lower Austria to Styria. Laurin & Klement celebrated an outstanding success on the ten-kilometre circuit as early as 20 September 1908, barely three years after the start of car production in Mlada Boleslav, and a full eight years before a similar mountain-based format would kick off in Colorado, USA. For its part, not only did the Bohemian brand win all three categories they entered with their special racing and touring cars, but they took second and third places, too.
The Austrian Alpine Rally, which celebrated its premiere on 26 June 1910, started in Vienna, the route leading through a circuit around lower Austria (Styria, Carinthia and Salzburg). After three days or 867km, only 14 of the 23 participants arrived back at the starting point. Along the way, they had negotiated steep mountain terrain with many ascents, including the Katschberg Pass.
The team from Mlada Boleslav sent three ‘Market Touring Cars Laurin & Klement 20 hp 95 x 130’ to the start line – vehicles similar to series-production models with engines running a 95mm bore and 130mm piston stroke, making about 20bhp. One such car was driven by Count Sascha Kolowrat-Krakowsky, a USA-born Czech who, in addition to his racing both cars and motorcycles, went down in history as the founder of the Austrian film industry and the discoverer of Marlene Dietrich.
Count Sascha managed to finish the Alpenfahrt (the colloquial name for the Alpine Rally) without incurring a single penalty point. The other two Laurin & Klement cars, driven by the Croatian Count Paul Draskovic and L&K’s chief designer Otto Hieronimus, also reached the finish line. The young car manufacturer had thus won the coveted team classification and took the co-deciding 5km special stage at the gates of Vienna with a fantastic average speed of 104.985kmph. The underlying reason for this stage was – based on the speed driven – the organisers could ensure the vehicles did not have a shorter overall gear ratio, which would have given them an advantage on the many uphill stretches in the mountains.
In 1911, Laurin & Klement returned to defend their title in the Alpine Rally. In the meantime, the route had been extended to over 1421km and now included the Loibl Pass with a gradient of up to 30 per cent. The strict rules required the car engines to run without stopping during the individual day stages. Penalty points were incurred, among other things, for repairs being made along the way, for driving too slowly or for deviating from the designated route.
A sports commissioner from the Austrian Automobile Club would ensure everything went according to plan in each car, important components and engines retained their official seals, and at the finishes of the stages, all vehicles were parked in a locked, guarded area. During the night break neither the crews nor mechanics had access to this Parc ferme.
Nevertheless, all five Laurin & Klement cars reached the end of the 1911 Alpenfahrt without penalty points, with Otto Hieronimus bringing home the ‘Silver Shield.’ In 1912 Hieronimus again took first place, and the factory team, which also included Kolowrat and Draskovic, again did not receive a single penalty point. The 1913 Alpenfahrt grew to seven stages, and over 2667km. Laurin & Klement sent production cars to the race as usual, while Rolls-Royce, for example, put their faith in the six-cylinder Silver Ghost, which had a special 4-speed gearbox with a shorter overall ratio: the year before the English team was forced to skip the steep climbs. Hieronimus once again won the silver shield; he and Count Sascha made it through without penalty points.
As the last great automobile race of its era before the First World War, the 1914 Alpenfahrt was once again a great spectacle. From June 14 to 23, 2932km and 30 Alpine passes were on the programme. Only 50 of the 75 starters reached the finish line, with 19 – including Count Sascha – not receiving a single penalty point. This made him one of only five racers to manage the feat on three consecutive occasions, qualifying him for the Alpine Challenge Cup. The organisers had to rush to obtain four more trophies in an identical style.
Kolowrat-Krakowsky’s trophy can be seen on display today at the Skoda Museum in Mlada Boleslav. The Bohemian factory team had succeeded in getting at least one car through all five years of the Alpenfahrt without penalty points – a record unmatched by any other manufacturer.
Five days after the end of the fifth Alpine Rally, the shots triggering the First World War were fired at the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, marking the end of an era for the Alpenfahrt. It wasn’t until four decades later that Skoda could celebrate further successes at this event. On June 17 1955, the sports version of the new 440 ‘Spartak’ took the silver and bronze medals in the up to 1300cc class at its international racing debut. Four years later, three Skoda vehicles crossed the finish line without a single penalty point. Another class victory followed in 1968, this time by a new-generation model with rear engine and rear-wheel drive.
Skoda impressively demonstrated the performance of its cars with these and similar results, achieved in front of an international audience on the most demanding tracks. This further strengthened the position of the Mladá Boleslav brand on the Austrian market and far beyond.