The Skoda of times gone by
My girlfriend said that she’d leave me if I bought a Skoda Estelle.
This was in the mid 1990s, when Britain’s roads were littered with old gents in hats pottering about in rear engined Skodas, less-than-alternative comedian Jasper Carrot made jokes about how nasty and unreliable these cars were, and you could buy a secondhand Estelle for about £50.
Launched in 1976 (when it was Britain’s cheapest new car), the Estelle was going to have front-wheel-drive, but bureaucrats in then communist-run Czechoslovakia said this wasn’t allowed, so at the last minute its boxy little body was grafted onto its predecessor’s rear engined, 1960s conceived underwear. The result was very cheap, very tinny, blew head gaskets and had scary, tail happy handling. Car magazine dubbed it the worst new car in Britain. Perhaps my girlfriend had a point.
This didn’t stop British pensioners from buying Estelles in large quantities because they were inexpensive and new. Meanwhile Skoda’s engineers began transforming the car from unspeakable to respectable. Five-speed gearboxes arrived, 130 versions got semi trailing arm rear suspension and consultant engineers at Porsche helped tame the base model 120’s leery swing axle handling. Skoda began making giant killing RAC Rally wins, and launched a coupe; humorously dubbed the Rapid, although the later, fuel injected RiC version was almost quick. The cars became cheap and charming rather than cheap and nasty. Autocar called the Rapid ‘the poor man’s Porsche.’
When production ended in 1990 VW was so impressed by Skoda’s underdog transformation that it went on to buy the company (which by then was also making the front-drive Favorit hatchback), laying the foundations for the slick, modern entity Skoda is today.
None of this impressed my beloved, and not fancying the single life I drove other old bangers instead. Then three years ago I was seized by a weird midlife crisis twitch to own a rear engined Skoda as a weekend plaything. By then the cars were so rare that they’d started going up in value, with half decent Rapids worth four figures rather than 50p.
In a fit of lunacy I bid £600 for a 1989 120LS being sold on eBay by a pair of jolly, bald Liverpudlian brothers. Alarmingly, I won. The car could have been a rotting pile of scrap, but turned out to be remarkably solid. It had issues, including a blown head gasket, but a retired Skoda mechanic called Mervyn fixed this for £150, and the car is so simple it can be serviced with a lump hammer and a sense of adventure.
My little Skoda sounds like a fart in a biscuit tin, it’s slow and has gas oven knobs for minor controls, it feels early 1960s rather than late 80s but has a dogged charm that makes pottering down county lanes a delight. Modern cars are antiseptic and laden with kit, my Skoda’s wind-your-own-windows simplicity is refreshing, it’s a car of immense character –and this once worthless joke has probably doubled in value since I bought it.
As for the girlfriend, she’s now my wife.
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