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Thursday, 24 February, 2000, 16:03 GMT
Skoda has last laugh

Skoda Fabia
Czech this out: Skoda's reputation on the rise


Throughout the 1980s Skoda cars had a reputation for mechanical reliability and overall quality even today's troubled British Armed Forces would not envy.

However, since being taken over by German car giant Volkswagen in the early 1990s, the much maligned Czech manufacturer has rapidly risen up the auto rankings.

Skoda Rapid Now test your brakes
Skoda's claim to membership of the motoring premier league has been given a further boost with it's latest model, the 7,599 Fabia, named car of the year by What Car? magazine.

This is all a far cry from Skoda's fortunes during the days of Eastern Bloc communism, when the company became the butt of jokes in the West.

To drivers in the UK, the vehicles which chugged off Skoda's production line in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, embodied all that was wrong with the planned economies of the Soviet satellite states.


What do you call a Skoda with sunroof?

A skip!
Skoda joke
However, it was a testament to the relative vitality of the company that any of its cars made it onto Britain's roads and into the joke repertoire of every pub wag.

Skoda produced its first cars in the 1920s. Prior to World War One the company could already boast being the Austro-Hungarian Empire's largest industrial concern.

The performance of these early vehicles left little room for mockery - Skodas regularly took podium places at the arduous Monte Carlo Rally.

Skoda Rapid Rapid trip or laughable skip?
Under communist rule, exporting Skoda cars was seen as a useful source of hard currency.

However, some in the West suspected the influx of these cars was part of a dastardly Warsaw Pact plan to bring chaos to capitalist highways and byways.

Unable to compete with western car companies on styling, performance or build quality, the once proud Skoda resorted to knocking out motors at bargain basement prices.

The company, and the customers tempted by its "competitive" pricing, plumbed the depths with the Skodas of the 1980s.


How do you make a Skoda look good?

Park it between two Ladas!
Skoda joke
The infamous rear-engined Skoda Estelle, seemingly available in any colour so long as it was beige, prompted scorn from which the marque has yet to fully recover.

Capable of rattling from 0-60mph in 14.2 seconds, the four-door saloon had the handling characteristics of a shopping trolley with a missing wheel.

For one-tenth the price of a basic Porsche, cheapo boy racers could hit the streets in the two-door Rapid.

Sadly for budding Nigel Mansells, the cunningly-named "Rapid" was in fact no swifter than the Estelle. Needless to say neither vehicle troubled the membership committee of the "ton-up" club.

Sporty spoilers and even a soft-top cabriolet version only served to provide the cars' detractors with more ammunition.


What do you have to do if your Skoda gets in the way of a swarm of killer bees?

Stop pushing and take refuge in the car!
Skoda joke
Of course, that the Skoda became such a figure of fun was in part due to its ubiquity on Britain's roads. The company must have been doing something right.

East Germany's dire Trabant, Russia's equally ropey Lada and such homegrown targets for mirth as the three-wheeled Robin Reliant, were comparatively on rare Britain's roads (and hard shoulders).

The Velvet Revolution of 1989 left the Czech firm facing the full rigours of free market capitalism. Thankfully for Skoda, reputation apart, it was in better shape than any other Eastern European car maker.

Robin Reliant Robin Reliant: Britain's answer to the Skoda
When Volkswagen signed up Skoda in 1991, the Estelle was the first model to be dropped as the company was remade in the German firm's image.

Currently Skoda's output is being aimed at those "Volvo-Rover" drivers who balk at the rising price of replacing their cars.

Top Gear's notoriously hard to please Quentin Willson reckons the new Fabia can challenge any other "supermini" on the market, a sign that Skoda has finally "come of age".

Who's laughing now?
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