The Skoda marque isback in Australia. But today's VW-based products are very different from the shoddy Communist-era cars that were the butt of so many jokes. Report and pictures by Paul Burrows.

There’s a good chance that some readers will never have heard of Škoda — so it may surprise you to learn it’s one of motoring’s oldest marques. If you are familiar with the name it’ll be because either you read European car magazines or you remember the last time you could buy a Škoda in Australia… around 30 years ago.

Depending on which of these applies, you’ll either be keenly anticipating the rest of this article or quickly rummaging through your memory banks for all the old Škoda jokes. The fact that you don’t see too many old Škodas on the road in Australia (if any) will give you some idea how the jokes originated, although to be fair the numbers sold here were only ever small.

In western Europe a lot more damage was being done to the brand which, like so many that had ended up behind the Iron Curtain at some stage after WW2, was declining under the commercial lethargy induced by communism. A lack of investment — as well as isolation from the technical and styling developments taking place in the west — meant that Škoda soon fell behind in all areas of car design. Consequently, during the 1970s and 1980s, Škodas only had one major selling point — they were cheap! Mind you, in the league of crap Communist-era cars, the Czech-made Škodas did manage to stay ahead of the USSR’s Lada and Moskvich models, Poland’s FSO, Yugoslavia’s Zastava and the East German Trabants (which were so awful they were never exported outside the Eastern Bloc). Curiously, the exported Škodas of this period were rear-engined, including the optimistically-named Rapid coupe which was subsequently described as the ‘poor man’s Porsche’… although any similarities ended with the engine in the boot, two doors and four wheels. Nevertheless, Škoda did take it rallying — it must have been a truly interesting experience on loose gravel — and the company remained in this area of motorsport until quite recently.

Children of the revolution

What’s often overlooked when poking fun at Communist-era Škodas is that things only got really bad after the Soviet-sponsored invasion of 1968 to rein in an increasingly liberal Czechoslovakia — less than two decades out of over a century of vehicles.

The company was established in 1895 as Laurin & Klement, in what was then Bohemia and is now the Czech Republic. Vaclav Klement was a bookseller by trade, but when he couldn’t obtain parts for his German-made bicycle, he decided to start making his own, quickly graduating to building motorcycles (thereby becoming one of the earliest manufacturers).

L&K moved from two wheels to four in 1905, taking advantage of the growing popularity of the horseless carriage and so joining the likes of Daimler-Benz, Renault, Peugeot, Ford and Fiat as one of the car industry’s century makers. After WW1 the company also started building trucks, but it had overstretched itself financially and, in 1924, subsequently merged with Škoda Works which, among other things, was an engineering concern. Škoda and Czechoslovakia subsequently weathered the Great Depression, occupation by the Nazis during WW2, a Soviet-backed coup in 1948 followed by nationalisation and economic policies which nearly bankrupted the country, the 1968 invasion and Soviet occupation, and a new dictatorship which subsequently unleashed nearly two decades of repression.