Not As Awful As We Like To Believe Part 1: The Skoda Estelle
In the annals of motoring history there are some cars that everyone agrees - with the exception of a few die-hards who like to sail against the prevailing wind - were rubbish. Terrible, awful and very, very bad. Judgement has been handed down, a sentence of cold, hard revulsion has been passed and nobody has bothered to appeal. Because why would we: they're rubbish. It's Fact.
Except, perhaps not. Perhaps in our willingness to accept the common view we've unfairly banished some - maybe all - of these cars to the rubbish dump of history.
In this new series we're going to explore the ones that have possibly got away. Lets start then with a car from a car maker that has experienced a remarkable renaissance over the last 20 years. Not that it's helped this car very much.
How The Skoda Got Its Reputation
Skoda began life in the early 1890s making bicycles in Czechoslovakia, with car production starting in 1905. So when Skoda launched the Estelle in 1976 the firm had a very long history of making often very good cars like the Felicia, Octavia and Spartak. Some of these cars were even sold to communism's old nemesis, America. But not many.
The trouble was that since World War Two all of this car making malarkey had taken place behind the Iron Curtain. For the citizens of Western Europe, indoctrinated on Cold War rhetoric, this meant that by definition Skodas must be rubbish. This didn't bode entirely well for the new Estelle.
The new car didn't help its cause by, in the eyes of Britain's 1970s car buyers, having the engine in the wrong place. We could just about stomach the Porsche 911 getting this fundamental concept clearly wrong, but we certainly weren't going to allow it from a pesky Eastern Bloc manufacturer of budget cars.
The Estelle looked quite good - like a sort of squashed Saab 99 - and it was reasonably nailed together with a decent spec. It was spacious and quite comfortable, too. On the downside, the handling was a bit tricky, even at low speeds, which was just as well as the feeble 1.0 and 1.2 litre engines didn't allow for anything else. But then the Ford Cortina was not exactly a paragon of on-limit dexterity.
So, all in all, it was a competent entry to the world of family motoring. Except it came from the 'wrong' side of the tracks - or curtain - and this meant nobody wanted it unless it was cheap. 40 years on in our globally connected world it's hard to grasp just how judgemental we were about anything associated with the words 'East' and 'Europe' back in the 70s and 80s. The former East/West allies were sworn enemies and, starved of actual facts and information, we bought the idea that communism involved spying, no fun, a lack of money and a uniform crapness. Some of which may be true, but it certainly wasn't a nuanced assessment.
Into these icy waters dropped the Estelle. In order to shift units, Skoda had to sell it cheap. This pushed it outside the mainstream car market and into competition with equally cheap wheels from Lada, FSO and Wartburg. Whose cars were absolutely rubbish, being either reheated old Fiats or smelly old mobile smoke machines.
With the exception of the Lada, not many people bought these old buses. But quite a lot of people did buy the Skoda Estelle, mainly because it didn't look like something designed by three one-armed chimps, it didn't choke all wildlife within 3 metres of anywhere it drove and it was better specced than a bog standard Ford Cortina. In 1987 alone, when the car was already 11 years old, 17,000 Estelles found UK homes. So the car became the poster child for the 70s influx of Eastern European cars and therefore the target of our anti-communist ire.
And laugh we did. During the 70s and 80s the Skoda was a regular part of stand-up routines. At least it was a welcome break from the racism and misogyny. "How do you double the value of a Skoda?" "Put petrol in it." "Why does a Skoda have a heated rear window?" "To keep your hands warm when you're pushing it." How we absolutely rolled around at these belters.
It was a star of the rough and tumble in the school playground too. Being dropped off at the school gates in an Estelle was the automotive equivalent of arriving sans trousers.
It probably didn't help that in the 80s Skoda succumbed to the common weakness amongst purveyors of long-in-the-tooth motors and plastered spoilers and cladding onto the unassuming Estelle. Today those add-ons have a sort of charm, but back then suggesting the Skoda could 'go faster' just produced a flurry of new jokes.
Beyond The Reputation
Innovation is a double-edged sword. Even now, when a Western car maker does something different - like, say, Porsche putting the engine in the wrong place - we scratch our chins, cautiously digest this fresh new challenge to everything sane and normal and then remark how clever they are. When an Eastern Bloc company did it, less so.
That said, the Estelle didn't have the engine in the wrong place because it was clever and innovative. Unfortunately, the reverse is true. Skoda DID want to launch the car with a conventional layout but, because this would have outclassed its Russian rivals, it was disallowed. So the engine went in the back.
Skoda, however, made a virtue out of necessity. The layout meant the car coped with rough Czech roads very well. For the same reasons it became a formidable rally weapon. Estelles chewed up and spat out competition on rally stages across the world, the car's rugged reliability, light weight and good grip helping it to see off challenges from much more established and conventional marques.
Despite tearing up the rough stuff through the forests of the world, it's true the Skoda's handling was a bit, well, distinctive. Certainly for anyone used to a Ford Cortina. But it's likely this was much more an issue for the journalists hooning Estelles round Millbrook than Mr & Mrs Miggins trundling down to Safeway every week.
While small boys traded Skoda jokes in playgrounds, the car itself got on with the job of motoring very reliably. It was simple and rugged and much more durable than anything at the time from Ford and Vauxhall.
There was also a 'hot' Rapide coupe version, which gained a reputation as a mini-911. But we also laughed at it, because it had a 1.2 engine in a 2.8 litre Capri world. And we laughed as well at the awkward convertible version. But less said about that the better, as it does tend to undermine my argument.
Should We Reconsider?
In the 1970s and 1980s it's true that the Eastern Bloc gifted Britain some truly rubbish cars, like the Moskovich and the FSO Polonez, cars that did nothing to convince a sceptical Western world that anything good was happening on the other side of the curtain.
Skoda was different. The Czech Republic was always more advanced and innovative than Russia and the Estelle was the latest in a line of cars that dated back to the birth of the car itself. Had the Estelle been a more conventional car, with the engine in the right place, I doubt we'd have treated it any differently back then. It was hobbled by association.
That is a real shame, because like the similarly styled Saab 99, the Estelle was well engineered, clever, unusual and distinctive. It was also well built, reliable and a fairly good place to be on the annual pilgrimage to Blackpool or Torquay. And, unlike conventionally engineered British cars, the more luggage you put in it, the better it handled.
So yes, I think it's time we rethought the Skoda. And in the nick of time too: there are just five left on the roads, a miniscule survival rate from the 120,000 originally sold here.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733