Classic Cars

Skoda 1000 MB

It couldn't go over 60 and reeked of petrol, but it kept a stone-cold sober Sean O'Grady from waiting for the bus

I used to own one of these. I ought to think of it as some sort of badge of shame, as the rear-engined series of Skodas made from 1964 to 1992, ending with the Estelle (a few of which can still be glimpsed on our roads), are routinely and rightly regarded as automotive dogs, regular fixtures in all those "worst cars ever" compilations and the butt of many a bad old joke.

Well, I owned one, as a lot of people did, because I had to: because it was all I could afford as a poor student. Really, sensibly, I should have gone without private transport altogether for at least two reasons. First, being a student meant I was too poor to run any car, even a Skoda, and even with four star at £1.50 a gallon and cheap insurance from the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (I still don't know why it was insuring me).

Second, being a student meant, or should have meant, I was too inebriated to make the best use of it. Yet, like most students who drive a car, and more responsibly than you might think, I used to delight in drinking Coca-Cola all night long or orange squash (cheaper but much less palatable than the real thing), and offering all my mates a lift home when the pub or nightspot (as they were then known) closed its doors. That way I made sure I got to any parties that were going, but the misery of being sober in a houseful of stoned, drunken wanton undergraduates... well I don't need to elaborate further.

Still, I liked my Skoda. I liked the way it looked like nothing else on the road. I liked the fact that it had four wheels and, when I needed it, mostly, that I didn't have to wait for it for 20 minutes while standing by a metal pole with "Midland Red Bus Stop 62/63" on it.

The palates of car hacks can become jaded with the fruits of the world's most fabulous dream machines forced upon them, as if they were particularly literate (or maybe not) geese on a fois gras farm. Yes, Mercedes-McLaren SLR, Lamborghini Murcielago, Ferrari F40: I've been there and done them, but the Skoda was a much bigger laugh.

Actually, I lie. I chose the Skoda 1000 MB as the subject of this week's little essay because it was the original rear-engined Skoda, but the car I owned was the facelifted, updated version of the car released (escaped?) in 1974, the Skoda S1000, a blander-faced affair with much less flamboyant rear air intakes. More's the pity. But it was basically the same old contraption, loosely based in turn on those dreadful rear-drive Renaults like the Dauphine, and the 8 from the 1960s.

Even by the early 1980s there were already none of the original rear-drive Skoda MBs left of the road. An Austin 1100, a Mini, a Ford Escort or a Hillman Imp were the nearest alternatives to the Skoda 1000, and much more expensive they were too. I quite enjoyed hearing the story of a contemporary whose Austin 1100's subframe fatally disengaged from the rest of the Issigonis classic when crossing a humpback bridge near Loughborough, but my smugness was not to last.

The Skoda, I soon learnt, had a number of design flaws. First was the heater. This promised a flow of "ambient air", but with the engine in the back and thus a long way to travel to the cab it was always fairly cool by the time it got to me.

Second, rather more serious, was the engine, which seemed very prone to overheating, and blowing all sorts of pipes and gaskets. The car would never do more than about 60 mph and it always, always smelt of petrol when it didn't stink of boiled anti-freeze. It was pretty bad, but at least it never went fast enough for me to experience the car's "entertaining handling" through tricky corners. So things were miserable enough without all of the Skoda gags. Here are a few:

* How do you double the value of a Skoda?

Fill the tank!

* What do you call a Skoda with a sun roof?

A skip!

* Why does a Skoda have a double rear-window heater ?

To keep everyone's hands warm when they are push- ing it!

* What's the difference between getting out of a Skoda and getting out of a sheep?

You don't get so embarrassed if someone sees you getting out of a sheep.

* What do you call a classic Skoda?

A Lada.

Actually my classic Skoda was called a Saab because I stuck a Saab badge over the Skoda one on the steering wheel. They had the same plastic texture, and the Saab one looked just right. (Blu-Tack was the engineering medium chosen for this exacting exercise in brand reorientation).

So when one girlfriend hopped into the passenger seat and said, "Oh, I didn't know Saabs made cars like this," I'd knowingly and condescendingly assure her that the rear-drive range was little known but much appreciated among motoring cognoscenti. Which, it was, but, then as now, for all the wrong reasons.

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