The first, the best
Classic Car: Skoda 1000 MB
If you happened to visit the Czech Republic or Slovakia before Y2K you could see an abundance of small trailers hooked behind all sorts of passenger cars. This was a sight far more frequent there than anywhere else in the region. There is a historic reason for this: in 1964 Skoda bid farewell to the old Octavia, a favourite among gardening hobbyists, DIY'ers and generally everyone who had need for a spacious boot. The model was replaced by the 1000 MB, a modern, spacious and handsome motor vehicle that had just one tiny (literally) drawback: its rear-engined layout practically allowed for no useable trunk. But because people had stuff to carry they embarked on what apparently became a trailer cult which remained an integral part of owing any Skoda model until the front-engined Favorit came around.
Although Skodas, alongside certain Japanese Kei-cars, Latin-American Beetles and the Porsche 911, are generally considered typical representatives of aft-positioned engines, in reality the Czech brand jumped the rear-engined bandwagon relatively late. By the early 60's it was obvious the future belonged to front-engined FWD layouts, forcing all companies but the most severe traditionalists (see above) to opt for this new concept. But the Eastern Bloc was fairly out of tune with the modern world.
The decision to create a brand new Skoda for the masses was made already in the early 50's. The front-engined, rear-driven 440 Series (later Octavia) was therefore considered an intermittent, makeshift model. With a manufacturing capacity of only a few hundred cars a week the Octavia was simply unfit for export, resulting in heavy losses for the Czechoslovakian economy. The country needed cars they could build by the thousands to satisfy the needs of the three main markets (domestic, Eastern Bloc and Western Europe).
Because this was a priority project Skoda could count on the generosity of the State. Designers were therefore given the green light to come up with anything they could think of - as long as it was modern and affordable to manufacture. Even though the Octavia had plenty of potential for further development, the management shunned the idea of creating a mule of any sorts. By 1955 there were clear-cut directions regarding the expectations. The new car was to be a 700 kg four-seater with a fuel consumption no higher than 6-7 litres/100km.
This could have been achieved by creating a smaller car, but remembering how the Western markets disliked microcars, Czech designers chose to keep the new vehicle family sized, but lighter. That was only achievable by abandoning the traditional body-on-frame structure. The only experience Czech engineers had had with any kind of unibody construction was the Jawa Minor, so all early prototypes of the new Skoda were two-door vehicles.
By 1956 engineers presented three alternatives. One had a front engine and rear-wheel-drive (Type code 978), one was a front-engined FWD construction (976), and the third was a rear-engined car with both liquid-cooled (977) and air-cooled (977/I) engines. The classical layout soon proved to be too costly to make because of the driveshaft and the separate gearbox and differential gear. The 'everything up front' concept, although promising, was also abandoned because Skoda was not allowed to import parts or technologies, and domestic suppliers could not build sufficiently strong (or properly articulating) half-shafts. This left positioning the engine in the rear as the only viable alternative.
Because the air-cooled engine was overly noisy decision-makers began to focus on the 988cc pushrod (OHV) engine. Liquid cooling not only resulted in lower noise levels but also increased performance and made heating the passenger compartment a whole lot easier. Because of the complex mold shape and in order to achieve lower weight engineers opted for aluminium press molding technology.
The decision was made to establish an in-house aluminium foundry to build not only the engine block but also 58 other parts, including the two halves of the gearbox housing. The 9.6 kg engine block was specifically built for rear-engined applications. The design was finished by the end of the 50's; final tweaks were completed by the Italian specialist, Fonderpress.
This was to become the foundation upon which all subsequent Skoda engines were built, up to the recent Fabia. Antonín Richter, member of the Czechoslovakian Vehicle Research Institute thought it would be a shame not to use the in-house foundry to its full potential, so he persuaded decision-makers that the cylinder head should also be made of aluminium. This meant this Skoda engine was the first powerplant in the world with full press mold construction: the technology was not used in the European automotive sector at that time; there were some high capacity engines manufactured in the USA using this method.
The State rejected the two-door concept featured on the prototype vehicles so designers got down to work and by 1957 the first four-door study vehicle (989) was born. This had a long tail and a short nose, making it highly aerodynamic but rather ugly, so Skoda called on his high ranking designers. After finding their true strength they came up with the Favorit in 1960, a concept that looked almost exactly like the subsequent 1000 MB. The only modification they did in 1962 was to move the headlights 120 mm backwards. This was intended to make the car less sensitive to cross winds but it also enhanced its looks.
By 1962 Skoda had fifty pre-production cars ready, tested all over the Eastern block over millions of kilometres. The cars ran the gauntlet from the deserts of Azerbaijan through the ruthless wintertime rush hour traffic of Moscow to the cracked-up concrete highways of the GDR. No other Skoda had received this much attention: this model was a departure from everything the company had done in the past.
Our test vehicles
Some claim the 1000 MB is the best rear-engined Skoda of all times, and unless you are hung up on top speed it's hard to contest their opinion. Mr. Fellegi has not one but two MB 1000's, similar in age, to prove the truth in the claim.
The grey one is newer, built in 1967, although he bought that one first, in 1996. The original owner was a countryside doctor. Mr Fellegi found it on a farm and bought it for peanuts. He drove it home and had it reregistered without hassle. He later decided to restore the car, something that cost a whole lot more than the car itself. He replaced the rocker panels and the right rear wing, and welded the edges of the trunk and the corners of the doors. Although recently refurbished, the engine needed to be overhauled again because the oil ring on the innermost piston was loose. Front suspension kingpins also called for replacement, and because the locally commissioned chrome job did not work out well he needed to find new bumpers in Slovakia - remember, the car is Hungarian. He also had to have the nose ornaments and the blinker casings recast from iron.
He found the red car, built in 1966, in 2000. It had been a car lottery prize and its first owner had managed to save the engineering content as well as the upholstery from utter decay. Chrome parts were also pretty but the front wings would have made excellent strainers. Needless to say the rocker panels and the rear wings also needed repair. The roof was also damaged, but that was already in the time of Mr. Fellegi's possession: disassembled for restoration, the car was mistaken for an abandoned wreck and kids from the neighbourhood used it as an (urban) jungle gym. On second thought the new owner also decided to restore the engine and the chassis.
My first drive was in the grey 1000 MB. After I recovered from the shock of seeing how feeble all the controls were, I reached for the gear shift lever. Rear engine means long linkages, I reminded myself looking for the first gear. By the time I was up in third I was in control. With the engine all the way in the back, pushing the 1000 MB hard will only increase noise levels, not the speed so it pays to shift up early.
Driving the red car you could feel the mechanics had learnt a lot from restoring the grey one: all its controls feel smoother, the engine is less noisy and the coolant won't boil at extra-urban speeds. Although fans admit the MB 1000 was nowhere as robust as previous front engine cars, this particular car was completely noise free, providing for a pleasant low-speed cruise – emphasis on low speed. The chassis, while stiff, did a good job holding onto the tarmac, considering its age. Even the drum brakes were functional, although for full disclosure I must admit that I was reluctant to drive this pearl of a classic car hard.
Overall impressions are enhanced by the attention to detail during reassembly but also by the fact that the 1000 MB was a more refined and robust structure than subsequent rear engine Skodas. This was due to both the limited engine power, easy on the chassis and the suspension, and the slower pace of production that sped up invariably with later rear-engined models.
A bit of history
Local car magazines published the first image of what was called the Skoda 1000 in the February 1964 issue. In the picture no other than president of the USSR Leonid Brezhnev was sitting behind the steering wheel, with factory director Josef Kaderavek explaining the vehicle from the front passenger seat. The two of them certainly made full use of the spacious interior...
One month later the car was already known as Skoda Favorit 1000, and a host of technical specifications were unveiled. The first lengthy report came in June. It was a cover story illustrated with the fancy image of a 1000 MBX Coupé with frameless windows and a young lady dressed in polka dots. Further images showed the rear and the side of the sedan version, as well as the engine bay and the production line where the cylinder heads were manufactured.
The article described the new, 800,000 m² plant and quoted production numbers: plans called for 100-150 thousand MB 1000's a year, promising to supply sufficient numbers to all interested markets. But this was not to be: annual production never exceeded 95,688 (1967)
The car indeed looked modern and was generally a pretty sight. Even Western journalists praised its novel and innovative solutions. This was no lip service to the Eastern Bloc: the 1000 MB was indeed a modern car of his time. It had sophisticated details such as subframe-installed front and rear suspension, a 42 PS aluminium engine, modest fuel consumption, a spacious interior and a fully synchronized gearbox. The car cost as much as the Felicia (the drop-top version of the Octavia) and about 15% more than the outgoing Octavia. Further variants such as a station wagon with a horizontally installed engine and a retractable top cabriolet were originally slated for introduction but development costs were expected to soar high and therefore these plans were cancelled.
Four-door 1000 MB's were sold outside of the Eastern Bloc, from Great Britain to Greece and beyond, even in New Zealand. In 1966 the sporty 1000 MBG came to the market with double carburettors and 52 PS. One year later the 1100 MB was unveiled; it yielded similar power levels with a single carburettor and a 1.1-litre engine.
There was also a pretty coupé version with no B-pillars, the 52 PS 1000 MBX (1966) and the 1100 MBX, introduced in 1967. 1403 units were made of the former, 1114 of the latter. In 1965 the oval grille was replaced by an upside down trapezoid. Rear side air intakes were simplified and straightened in 1966; one year later the curved rear windscreen was gone and the nose received a long and straight ornamental stripe.
The S100/110 should also be mentioned alongside the 1000 MB. The car, introduced in 1969, was nothing more than a facelift. Skoda dusted off one of the original prototypes that were deemed too plain back in the early 1960's. Lubrication points on the front suspension were reduced from 11 to 4, and front disk brakes (made under a license agreement with Dunlop) were installed, making the predecessor an unlikely successor to the MB.