The owners aren't laughing

Phil Llewellin talks to the man trying to convert British humorists to the Skoda
Question: Why do Skodas have the engine in the back? Answer: To keep your hands warm when pushing. No other manufacturer, with the possible exceptions of Lada and Reliant, has ever been the target for so many jokes.

Dermot Kelly, the Czech marque's top man in Britain, does not dodge the question or blow a gasket when asked how he feels about this. Providing so much raw material for comedians has worked wonders for brand awareness, he says. "People tell me the first thing they would do is change the name, but getting such a high level of recognition would cost millions. That gives us a big advantage. What we must do now is change the brand image. For instance, we haven't sold rear-engined cars for several years."

Mr Kelly, 42, produces impressive independent evidence to support his counter-attack on the joke front. Figures just published by the internationally respected JD Power Customer Satisfaction Survey, which involved more than 39,000 owners of cars first registered between August 1992 and July 1993, placed the Czech manufacturer seventh - ahead of Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar.

Skoda's sales in Britain actually exceeded Toyota's in 1970. But the totals were tiny - 1,532 and 1,327 - because imports accounted for only 20 per cent of the market. Skoda's best year, 1988, ended with just under 16,000 sales. Mr Kelly's confidence in equalling or exceeding that in 1995 is based on his hopes for the new Felicia. Value for money is this 1.3-litre, front-wheel-drive hatchback's main attraction. Prices starting at pounds 5,999 include the unpopular on-the-road charges levied elsewhere and are explained by pounds 37 per week being the average skilled worker's pay in the Czech Republic.

Another factor is how what used to be Czechoslovakia has changed since the "Velvet Revolution". Skoda decided the future depended on getting into bed with one of Western Europe's car manufacturers. "Volkswagen has increased its stake in the company from 30.5 per cent to 70.5 per cent and is investing pounds 600m over the next three years," says Mr Kelly. "Felicia buyers get the best of both worlds: Volkswagen quality and a competitive price. The Felicia sits between the Fiesta and the Escort in terms of size, so we're offering more car for your money."

His surname is a clue to the charm that prevents such remarks sounding like blatant sales talk. Mr Kelly was born in Britain, but his parents came over from western Cork in the Forties. His father built up a small fleet of Bedford lorries and construction equipment. No one was surprised when young Dermot decided to go into the motor industry after graduating from Huddersfield Polytechnic in 1976.

"My degree in mechanical engineering and marketing was considered to be a rather strange mixture at the time," he recalls. "But it was a good choice in view of what the automotive business is about today."

He made rapid progress after joining Ford's commercial vehicle operation and had reached director level before being head-hunted to become Skoda Automobile UK's managing director.

"Once there, I discovered the great Skoda paradox: people who own these cars really love them. Seventy three per cent of our customers buy another Skoda when it's time to change. The only manufacturer with a higher loyalty rating is Mercedes. The fact that we were 21st in 1993's JD Power ratings, 13th last year and seventh this year speaks for itself."

He pinpoints loyal customers as one of the marque's greatest strengths. Recent experience with an 18-page, 88-question survey suggests that fanatical might be a more appropriate word than loyal. Almost a quarter of the 5,000 questionnaires posted one Thursday had been returned by the Monday.

A few years ago, Citroen attempted to dismiss its own history in a manner worthy of George Orwell's sinister Ministry of Truth. This was because previous generations of trail-blazing cars, such as the 2CV and the DS19, had delighted connoisseurs while allegedly creating an image that related innovative, character-packed engineering with unreliability.

Mr Kelly took the opposite view on joining Skoda. A delve into the marque's history revealed roots that go back to 1856, when an aristocratic family started a small ironworks near the Bohemian beer town of Pilsen. Emil Skoda, a local doctor's son, bought the business in 1869. It earned a world-wide reputation for its products, which included components for ocean liners, howitzers, aircraft engines and tanks, as well as cars.

Skoda built expensive and exclusive Hispano-Suiza cars under licence in the Twenties. At the other end of the scale, the Type 932 prototype, unveiled in 1932, had a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine and looked remarkably like the original Volkswagen. The engine's designer left Skoda to work with Dr Ferdinand Porsche, who gets the credit for creating the epochal Beetle.

Skoda's advertising campaign for the Felicia is nothing if not bullish. The theme is: "We've changed our car. Can you change your mind?"

"We decided to wear our heart on our sleeve and challenge the prejudices head-on," says Mr Kelly. "There's more to a car than the name on the badge. If you're into badges, you should join the Scouts."