Although it is today mostly known as a Volkswagen subsidiary, the Czech Republic’s Skoda is one of the oldest operating automakers in the world. And it all started a few days before Christmas when two Vaclavs decided to make some bicycles.
The “simply clever” brand was founded on December 21, 1895 by Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement. Laurin was a mechanic and Klement was a bookseller, and both had a passion for cycling.
The plan was to offer a high quality bicycle at a reasonable price and together produced bicycles powered by feet or hands, in the early days. If you’re bicycle nerd, you might be more familiar with the SLAVIA brand under which they sold their first bikes.
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By 1899, they had moved on to motorcycles. Their first, the SLAVIA A and B models, had engines installed lower in the frame than the competition to improve stability. In fact, their low engine placement became the international standard and helped the company into a period of rapid growth.
With that success, they went racing and would win a number of important races, including a 1905 Dourdan, near Paris. It was considered the unofficial motorcycle world championship and led to great acclaim for the Czech brand.
It would turn out to be a big year for them, as 1905 is also the year the company produced its first automobile. The Laurin & Klement Voiturette A was light and maneuverable and was powered by a 1.0-liter two-cylinder engine. It helped the car travel at speeds of up to 40 km/h (25 mph).
Only a year later, Laurin & Klement were offering a range of two- and four-cylinder engine powered cars. In 1907, L&K produced its first 8-cylinder, the Type FF. By this time, it had become the biggest manufacturer in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which ought to give you a sense of just how old the company really is.
The name Skoda came in 1925, when L&K partnered with Pilsen’s Skoda, an engineering group. Together, they formed SKODA AUTO and it was only at this point that the company’s factory switched over to assembly-line manufacturing.
That meant that Skoda could produce the Popular, the Rapid, the Favorit, and the Superb. That allowed it to grow into the biggest Czech manufacturer by 1936 – which doesn’t sound like a huge accomplishment today, but when you consider that the Czech auto industry was big enough for Germans to steal one of its designs and make it into the Volkswagen, it becomes a bigger deal.
After the war, Skoda was nationalized. Under Soviet rule, it produced the Octavia and Felicia and production continued to grow. By 1975, its success in rallying earned it the nickname the Porsche of the East.
By 1991, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the growing Volkswagen set its eyes on Skoda, making the fourth brand in its empire. The purchase meant more money and improved quality, but less engineering independence.
Today, the brand sells in more than 100 markets worldwide and aims to make its cars simply clever with fun accessories, like a headrest to help passengers sleep more comfortably.