Day Trip: A century of history on wheels
Newly refurbished Škoda Museum showcases mammoth limousines and modest hatchbacks
Posted: March 13, 2013
From humble bicycles to luxury limousines, from idiosyncratic rear-engined saloons to mainstream modern-day family cars, the history of Škoda Auto has been nothing if not varied.
In its more than a century of existence, the carmaker and its forebears have seen their fortunes ebb and flow dramatically, partly as a result of the upheavals Central Europe faced over the same period.
Every stage of that diverse motoring past is on show at Škoda's newly refurbished museum in Mladá Boleslav, the town in central Bohemia where the Laurin & Klement factory, Škoda Auto's predecessor, was founded and which remains one of the firm's key manufacturing centers today.
Reopened after work that took up much of last year, the museum displays everything from basic skeletons of cars in need of rebuilding through to lovingly restored luxury models.
There are edgy, angular concept vehicles, all-conquering rally contenders, day-to-day hatchbacks and even one car, a Škoda Rapid from 1935, that visitors can sit in to get a feel of what motoring was like in the first half of the 20th century.
"There are 43 cars available to see in the museum, but there are some other cars that are undergoing reconstruction at the moment," said Tomáš Kubík, a company spokesman. "We try to show the public how the reconstruction goes. Sometimes, it takes up to one year to rebuild a car, because some of them have been found in a really bad condition, for example in stables."
Indeed, one car that is yet to undergo a full restoration, a 422 Cabriolet from 1922, is labeled as having been "found in a barn."
The museum, gleaming white throughout, is close to the town center in a former Škoda Auto's plant where production was halted in 1928. Just a few minutes' walk away are Škoda's present-day main offices and the vast modern factories where some of the current model lineup, including the new Rapid, the Octavia and the Fabia, are produced.
"We have our hearts here in Mladá Boleslav, and we have such a long history, so it's very important for us to show the history we have and show it right here in the city," Kubík said.
In front of the museum are statues of two men: the bookseller Václav Klement and the mechanic Václav Laurin. In 1895, the pair set up a bicycle repair shop in Mladá Boleslav before starting to make bikes themselves. They branched out into producing motorcycles, and among the machines on display are the L&K motocykleta typ B from 1902 and the L&K motorová tříkolka (motor tricycle), the latter being an unusual motorbike with a small bench seat in front of the rider.
By the 1930s and 1940s, the company, now part of the industrial conglomerate Škoda, was making vast luxury limousines, and vehicles from this long-distant era of no-expense-spared motoring elegance are perhaps the museum's most striking exhibits.
Examples include a magnificent dark blue 860 model from 1932 that was powered by an eight-cylinder 3.9-liter engine. One of these cars, designed to be driven by a chauffeur, was presented to the Czechoslovak prime minister.
Perhaps even more attention-grabbing is the equally vast Škoda Superb 4000 from 1940, of which an immaculate example in brown is on show. The Superb tag, one of many Škoda names to have been brought back to life recently, is well deserved.
Dramatically sculpted on the outside, the old Superb has a luxurious cloth-covered interior for the rear passengers that compares well with anything Rolls-Royce was selling at the time. Only 10 were made before World War II.
Fast forward to 1960, and the Škoda Octavia was one of the company's key models, although it was a very different car to the current vehicle of the same name that has spearheaded Škoda's global re-emergence. The museum houses a red version of this modestly sized saloon, which is said to have become popular globally as a result of its good handling.
By the 1970s and 1980s, under communism, Škodas had moved far from the global motoring mainstream. The cars were offbeat rear-engined saloons that were mainstays for motorists in the Eastern bloc and popular in parts of Western Europe thanks to their keen price, although they also attracted derision. At the museum, a 125L model, colored green and looking like it never left the showroom, illustrates this era.
The museum also contains examples of the cars that launched Škoda's subsequent recovery, starting with a white Favorit from the late 1980s and continuing, now under the tutelage of Volkswagen Group, with a purple-colored Felicia from the following decade.
Things are brought up to date by the Vision D concept car from 2011, clear echoes of which can be seen in the reborn Rapid and third-generation Octavia models unveiled last year.
Located close to the Mladá Boleslav-město train station, the museum also houses a café/restaurant and a gift shop selling Škoda memorabilia.
Daniel Bardsley can be reached at