Czech carmakers: and you thought they only made Skodas?

Czech carmakers were once known for their style and innovation. Now those glory days are coming back. Mark Piesing reports
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The Independent Online

A handful of Czech entrepreneurs are trying to remind the world that the Czech car industry was once much more than Skoda – or a producer of other people's cars. By manufacturing hand-built sports cars, men such as Eugen Muller and Vladimir Friml of Auto Projekt Centrum and Michal Hradsky of Kaipan are hoping to recapture the glory days when Czech-owned companies such as Tatra and Praga were known for their innovation and style throughout Europe. Even if their combined annual production, which only just hits three figures, can't compare or compete with the almost one million cars churned out by the factories of Volkswagen, Peugeot, Toyota and Hyundai in the republic.

After a false start in 1997 with a Morganesque 1.8-litre Gordon Type 101 roadster that sold a dozen cars, in 2006 Muller and Friml reimagined the Gordon as a three-litre V6 musclecar wrapped in a luxury "lifestyle" body. Inspired by the pre-war Aero 30, the £54,000 Type 102 was born with a new Ford powertrain pumping out 226bhp under a part-Kevlar body with a luxury wood and leather hand-built interior.

This is a roadster that from the outset was designed to meet the latest European certification regulations. Exports – especially at first to German-speaking middle Europe – are crucial to a luxury sports car company with a relatively small domestic market. So much so that the marketing of the roadster is based in Germany.

Launched in March this year, the Type 102, which does 0-100kph in 5.7 seconds, has been been described by the German-language Swiss Automobile Revue as a "Czech neoclassic", and elsewhere as having " Rolls-Royce quality". It has even been a centrefold in the Czech Playboy.

Like Auto Projekt Centrum, Kaipan is another small producer whose owner, Michal Hradsky, is proud to be challenging the multinational giants for the ownership of the soul of the industry. And also like Auto Projekt Centrum, Kaipan is following in the tradition of great Czech roadsters, and has just launched a new model into the middle European market to good reviews. The Czech Republic's Automix magazine verdict was, "Kaipan Roadster – frankly it's good".

Unlike the Gordon Roadster, the £11,200 K14 – which already has a six-month waiting list – is aimed squarely at the low-cost performance market. This is not surprising for a car that uses the 1.3-litre engine and bodywork of the easily available Skoda Favorit, reassembled on a chassis and body designed by Kaipan itself to reflect – according to one reviewer – the spirit of the old Skodas.

The K14 is a big jump for a small company that started importing Lotus 7 copies back in 1991 only two years after the end of Communism, and whose early models were themselves Lotus 7 "replicas" produced as kit cars, as well as factory-assembled models.

According to David Leggett, editor of motor industry analysis site, it shouldn't be surprising that after the transformation of Skoda by VW, the Czech industry would throw up some sports-car manufacturers. "The whole industry has been undergoing a revival. There has been an emergence of engineering values and a pride in their motoring heritage that dates back to before the Second World War. After all, even in Soviet times a lot of engineers were produced."

So while the original Aero Roadster on which the Gordon was based disappeared after nationalisation in 1947, it was part of a thriving motor industry that made Czechoslovakia target number one for the Nazi regime. Along with Aero, there were companies such as Tatra whose groundbreaking rear-engined, streamlined Tatra 87 is said to have inspired the VW Beetle – so much so that Tatra won three million deutchmarks in compensation from Porsche after the war. The Tatra has also been classified by the Victoria and Albert museum as one of the 20th century's icons of Modernism.

Even under Communism, Czechs appreciated a good car. So the now US-owned Tatra managed in 1955 to "magic up" the rear-engined aircooled V8-powered T603, which customers preferred to poor-quality Russian imports. This was followed in 1968 by the Italian-designed Tatra T613 and lastly, in 1986, by the only Communist supercar, the Tatra MTX V8. Tatra made its last car in 1999.

The MTX, which was designed by Vaclav Kral, is slow by supercar standards – 0-60 in 5.7 seconds – and had a production run that produced only four cars. Kral, along with Hans Ledwinka – creator of the Tatra 87 – were the automotive designers who made the history that companies such as Auto Projekt Centrum and Kaipan are seeking to resurrect. Kral was also responsible for the Innotech Mysterro, which in 2000 became the next stab by the Czechs at the supercar business: it folded after only one car was made out of a planned 28.

"The markets Gordon and Kaipan are competing in are very tough," David Leggett says. "The key for these manufacturers is the right product at the right price. Even if the markets they are trying to enter – such as the UK – are already very competitive, if they can get enough niches in enough small markets then they may well survive."

With a sales target of 12 cars in 2007, rising to 30 in 2008, Auto Projekt Centrum has high ambitions for its Gordon Roadster and believes that the quality of its car will make it like Morgan, one of their industry's survivors. It hopes that the success of the Type 102 will enable it to modernise production facilities in Plzen and develop new Gordon models. Future models include a high-performance coupé and cabriolet in ultra-lightweight materials.

Kaipan, too, seems set to prosper in its niche market, as it has notched up sales of 100 complete and kit K14s since the launch in August last year. The success led Michal Hradsky to cheekily claim that Kaipan remains the only Czech sports-car company.