Le Mans 1950 was a year for plucky outsiders, few more so however than this Iron Curtain entrant.
The Circuit de la Sarthe has been a Mecca for speed and endurance since 1923. History records the many who have attempted to conquer the 24 heures du Mans; from those dusty, wide boulevards of old to today’s billiard table smooth tarmac, and rightly lauds those victorious few.
But not every entrant can wear the garlands, or milk the applause. For every Duncan Hamilton or Tony Rolt, leagues of initially hopeful entrants have had their dreams dashed by many-varied means; an unsympathetic driving style, weather conditions, bad luck, inexperience or those infinitesimally small items costing pennies to fit that wreak race-ending havoc. The latter: a piston pin circlip causing the demise of the first and only attempt for a class win by practically unheard of (en France) Škoda Sport Team.
From their bicycle making beginnings to early motorcycles, two wheeled competitions had been the Škoda mainstay. With their cars, a similarly judicious approach was taken but it was not until 1949 when Škoda Sport came into being, preparing race cars for internal use or for sale. Having tasted victory in their homeland events with the only slightly modified from standard production Tudor series 1101\02 cars, history has not recorded the person who deemed a trip to France as viable in the difficult political situation of those early, postwar years.
One known character was Frank Kopečny, who transformed a production two-door Tudor saloon into a race car on a shoestring budget. The central tube chassis remained the same as did the axles. The only changes? Beefed up brakes and gearbox. The trim aluminium bodywork with distinctive grille feathered the scales at 590Kg. The engine, that tiny eleven hundred cubic capacity four pot shoved out 32bhp in home trim; for the track, a Solex carburettor, running on a methyl alcohol mix managed fifty brake horse, enough for an untested 140 kmh top speed. Build time was forty two days.
In the hands of the Foreman, one Vàclav Bobek, not only a seasoned campaigner in many Czech races but also the Works Test Department supervisor, compatriot racing driver Jaroslav Netušil along with a handful of mechanics set off from behind the Iron Curtain to seek their fortune in the 1950 running of the circuit de la Sarthe.
Entered under the team name Automobilové závody, národní podnik, AZNP, the Tudor was placed in the S1 class along with six Gordini’s, Renault 4CV’s and Simca racers with similar engine outputs. With excellent fuel efficiency, doubly so with a long range tank, four hour stints behind the wheel became the norm. A steady start and prodigious driving saw the number 44 Tudor climb the positional chart as other competitors fell by the wayside, with none of the much-heralded Gordini’s making the chequered flag.
With their stealthy yet pragmatic approach, the Czech team were running like a Bohemian Watch as dawn approached when the bubble burst – that circlip undoing all their good work – ominous engine noises causing a coasting back to the pits and retirement. ACO rules at the time stipulated you could repair the car if you carried the spares on-board, but who carries a spare circlip?
Classified in 39th place, managing thirteen race hours, 120 laps, up to second in class and an amazing fifth overall just before their engine disaster struck. Game over for the proud Czech’s in their crisp white overalls. Mind you, a certain J. M. Fangio (partnered with J. F. González) in a Gordini suffered a similar engine fate, twenty five laps earlier.
Returning to Mláda Boleslav with their heads held high, plans were immediately drafted to build a second car for another French excursion the following year, however, that political situation put paid to those plans. As with the circlip, odd noises could be heard, momentum was lost and the French program cancelled. Škoda did return to international motorsport when Volkswagen money came on stream but in different categories – comprehensively cleaning up in rallying, not to mention their ongoing sponsorship of pro-cycling events.
The Le Mans race car survived and indeed, a sister car was made but these vehicles were simply not allowed to play outside the Czech Republic. They contested over eighty races up to 1962, taking many victories but against what type of opposition is largely unknown. Developments included more power extracted from that tiny mill – up to a ludicrously sounding 190bhp with a V max of 160kmh on Barum tyres.
Abandoned then forgotten, the Tudor race cars fell from grace within the company and were considered lost. Over many years of careful detective work, Michael, the grandson of Frank Vlebney, found and restored a race car back to its former glory and Le Mans specification. The car was then handed to a chap who knows a thing or two regarding the track at Le Sarthe; Hans Joachim Stuck. The accompanying video* shows his gratifying views on this tiny, white hope.