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Founded in 1895, Skoda Auto is one of the world’s oldest automobile manufacturers still producing vehicles today. The company is also celebrating 115 years since the launch of its car manufacturing business with several of the brand’s historically important models also celebrating jubilees in 2020
Skoda Auto started out from modest beginnings and has produced a vast range of products over many decades, from bicycles to racing cars. But in all this, the brand’s heart of operation, its original factory location of Mladá Boleslav, Czech Republic has stayed unchanged.
The 125th anniversary of the company’s founding also marks the beginning of a new era for the manufacturer: the all-electric SUV, Enyaq – the production variant of the Vision IV, brand’s first concept vehicle based on the Volkswagen Group’s Modular Electric Platform (MEB) – which will go into series-production in the first half of the year. As part of its ongoing product campaign, Skoda will be launching 30 new models from 2019 to the end of 2022, more than ten of which will be partially or fully electric.
In India, Skoda showcased the Vision IN concept, the brand’s first MQB A0-IN platform-based compact SUV at its stall at the Auto Expo 2020. Powered by a 1.5-litre TSI engine making 148bhp and 250Nm, the Vision IN will go up against the likes of the Kia Seltos and Hyundai Creta when it goes into production in early 2021, and going by its specs on paper, it will definitely raise the benchmark with its combo of luxurious interiors and spirited performance.
The ŠKODA story began in 1895, when cycling fanatics Václav Laurin (a mechanic) and Václav Klement (a bookseller) started designing and manufacturing bicycles under the name Laurin & Klement. The bicycles sold well, so Laurin and Klement decided to take the next step – and add motors. The pair started making motorbikes in 1899, producing nearly 4,000 motorbikes of various types. They then started experimenting with a new phenomenon – the motor car - which began to gradually replace motorbikes from 1905 onwards.
During the early 1900s, Laurin and Klement made their first car, the Voiturette A, which became a huge success, becoming a classic in Czech motoring history. When war began in 1914, the company started manufacturing for the armed forces too. However, due to the challenging economic conditions in Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic) at the time, Laurin and Klement needed a strong industrial partner to strengthen and modernise their company.
They were now not only producing a range of cars, but also trucks, buses, aeroplane engines and agricultural machinery, such as motorised ploughs. To help realise their dream of building an even bigger company, they merged with engineering firm Skoda from Plzen in 1925.
Since then, the winged arrow has been featured on the brand logo on all vehicles from Mlada Boleslav. The first vehicle to be produced under the joint partnership was the Laurin & Klement / Skoda 110, which was available in both soft-top and hard-top versions. Its original modular design with a removable rear section also enabled the passenger car to be converted into a practical two-seater flat-bed truck, so it could be used for business during the week and by the family on the weekends.
The early 1930s were challenging for Skoda as it wrestled with a large range and a market greatly affected by the Great Depression. Luckily, the brand made a breakthrough with the new and modern Skoda Popular, which was to become a legend in the second half of the decade. Weighing only 650kg, the Skoda 420 Popular could reach 80kmph and was offered at a fantastic price. It was a true car of the people and adaptable enough to be converted into a range of utility vehicles, such as ambulances and delivery vans.
The Popular also empowered owners to venture far afield. In what would prove to be a great piece of product marketing for the brand, four factory-prepared Popular models embarked on a four-month trip to India, while the roadster version performed heroics on the 1936 Monte Carlo rally.
In the mid-1940s the company became a national enterprise. This period saw the Skoda Tudor successfully exported as far as Australia and later the introduction of the mould-breaking Skoda 1200.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the factory crew’s 1950 participation in the 24-hour Le Mans in a Skoda Sport, commemorating the brand's long tradition in motorsport. The 1950s also saw the launch of the Skoda 440 which, in 1959, evolved into the first Octavia, named so since it was the eighth model to be produced after the end of World War II.
The Czech economy performed well during this time but pressure began to mount as new technology advanced rapidly in the western Europe. In September 1960, Skoda presented the first Octavia estate at the International Engineering Fair in Brno. In the spring of 1964 the Skoda 1000 MB replaced the popular Skoda Octavia; one of the most prominent models in the company’s history, it featured a fully new car with the 1.0-litre four-cylinder engine housed in the rear. In May 1965, more than 1,000 vehicles were rolling off the assembly line each month. By the end of the year, the company had been able to ramp up its daily production to at least 150 units, making the 1000 MB the first Czech vehicle to be truly mass-produced.
Skoda continued to make new and improved cars – in the form of the legendary Octavia, the elegant 2+2 coupe Skoda 110 R, the Felicia roadster, and the 1000 MB range – but production really only grew again with the arrival of the Favorit model range in 1987.
The political landscape of Eastern Europe shifted again in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the communist government was defeated in Czechoslovakia, and the new free market economy arrived. On January 1 1993 the Czech Republic was formed. During this time, the new government began to search for a strong foreign partner in an effort to secure the company’s long term international competitiveness.
As mentioned before, the brand has also been an active participant in motorsport since 1901, gaining titles across genres, from winning the second place at the Czechoslovak Grand Prix 1950, to setting the Czechoslovak road speed record of 197.8kmph the next year. The brand has also had a recurring role in rallying since the 1960s with the Octavia and 1000MB models, before progressing on to the 110, 120 and 130 series.
Skoda Motorsport, a small outfit by works rally team standards, was at the time run as a department of the main Skoda factory. Among the staff there, working on the rally team was regarded as a highly desirable job, and even many of the drivers were selected from among company staff, although foreign professionals did drive for the team as well. Most notable among these was the Norwegian John Haugland, who appeared for the team on European and World Rallies in the 1970s and 1980s.
Skoda entered the World Rally Championship at the top level for the first time in 1999, with the Skoda Octavia WRC, competing on seven of the 14 events. Armin Schwarz drove one car and the second car was shared by Czech drivers Pavel Sibera and Emil Triner for most of the season, with Bruno Thiry driving the second car on the final event of the season, Rally GB, where he finished fourth, the team's first points finish.
The team had also competed as a manufacturer in the World Rally Championship between 1999 and 2005. Skoda Motorsport won the WRC-2 with the Skoda Fabia R5 in 2015–2018, but more on that later.
In 2002, Skoda launched the first-gen Octavia (launched internationally in 1997) in India, and also gave a massive fillip to enthusiasts introducing the Octavia vRS, which packed a 1.8-litre turbocharged engine making 150bhp and 210Nm, massive numbers at a time the other cars in the price range had a deficit of nearly 50bhp!
The brand followed up the success of the Octavia by bringing in the first-gen Superb in 2004 and the Octavia Combi in 2005. While the masses were blown away by the Superb (a Skoda which was even more luxurious and powerful than the Octavia), the masses were even more intrigued with the Combi. Though stationwagons were already on their way out in the people’s consciousness, despite its hefty price tag, the Octavia Combi developed quite a loyal fan following which persists till date, considering that well-maintained, low-mileage examples still command a premium price in the used car market.
The first-gen Octavia was followed by the Laura (the second-gen Octavia, overseas) which was in essence just a mild retune, with 10 more bhp and a 6-speed ‘box instead of the predecessor’s 5-speeder. At the same time, we also saw the Fabia hatchback (launched 2008) and Yeti SUV (launched 2010). And, worth mentioning is the trick (of sorts) which helped the Skoda Superb V6 (the second-gen iteration) make a name for itself in the luxury sedan segment, which was the 4X4 system it employed, giving it a kind of grip and feedback that was head and shoulders above its direct rivals, and even those from a segment above.
Now, though the brand pulled the plug on both the Fabia and Yeti in India, the Fabia went on to represent the brand in its motorsport pursuit, notably competing (and winning multiple Asia Pacific Rally Championship Manufacturer’s titles) piloted by Gaurav Gill, first with the Fabia S 2000 in 2012-15 and then the Fabia R5 in 2016 and ’17.
Finally, Skoda kicked off its second (and as yet largely successful) SUV innings with the Kodiaq in 2017. For 2020, Skoda will be supplementing its SUV range with the soon-to-be-launched Karoq, and as mentioned, the production version of the Vision IN concept, while in the sedan side of things, we’ll get the Octavia RS iV, which will have all the fun of the Octavia RS, with eco-friendly hybrid tech added in. It is this 360-degree view, from small cars to sedans to SUVs and EVs, all the way to motorsport, that has ensured Skoda thriving for 125 years, with presence in more than a 100 markets and delivering 1.24 million vehicles to customers worldwide.