From Behind The Curtain Into The French Sunshine

Le Mans 1950 was a year for plucky outsiders, few more so however than this Iron Curtain entrant.

1950 Skoda Tudor at Le Mans. (c) theclassictimes

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. 

Image: ridemedia/ extratouch

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.

This happy breed. (c) motorsite.gr

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.

A sobering fact for you: When Škoda entered the 1950 Le Mans race, no German-made competitors were to be found. The following year, Porsche entered the S1 class with their fledgling 356, posting lap times slower than the Tudor race car. Suffering a DNS (Did Not Start race) due to an accident in practice, the efforts of Zuffenhausen took a French turn for the better over the intervening years. Consistency brings its own rewards.
 
*Watch the film clip here.
 
 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

10 thoughts on “From Behind The Curtain Into The French Sunshine”

  1. Thank you for reminding us that engineers behind the Iron Curtain could achieve astonishing results on a shoestring budget and in a hostile political enrivonment that had no interest in decadent pastimes like motor sports.
    Czech motorcycles like Jawa (Jawa engines were and are poöular in speedway racing) and CZ were very successful racers on an international level and Skoda always had something interesting on offer like the 130 RS (140 PS, no less)

    1. Seconded regarding Skoda and other’s ability to astonishing results on a shoestring budget.

      Is it known whether Skoda attempted to compete in the BTCC or were their cars ineligible or unable to compete there due to the hostile political enrivonment?

  2. Good morning, Andrew, and thanks for sharing a heroic tale. As Dave said above, such stories demonstrate the engineering talent in the Eastern Bloc that was often frustrated by lack of finance or arbitrary political desisions.

    Your piece also reminded me of the 2002 Škoda Tudor concept, a large GT coupé based on the contemporary first generation Superb, which was in turn based on the Chinese market LWB VW Passat:

    I thought it was an exceptionally handsome design, but was never going to make production under any circumstances. A large coupé from a non-premium marque is the very definition of unsellable, sadly.

    1. Thank you Daniel for introducing me to a fine machine of which I’d never heard. The first car I’ve seen on which large wheels with low profile tyres actually look right. I want it!
      I might have sold if it had an Audi grille – but it wouldn’t have looked so good.

    2. Hi JTC. Yes, the Tudor really is a lovely design, nicely muscular without being overdone, and better looking than either the original or current A5. Is it stretching a point to suggest it’s the Škoda that Bruno Sacco might have designed?

      It was nominally aimed at a similar market as the (also stillborn) 2004 Rover 75 Coupé concept:

      An enterprising man in Wales called Gerry Lloyd liked the 75 Coupé concept so much that he built his own from a 75 saloon and an assortment of BMW 4 Series coupé parts:

      Perhaps someone might like to do something similar with a Mk1 Superb? Unfortunately, most have by now been driven to the moon and back by mini-cab companies!

  3. Lovely story, lovely car, but the whine from the differential brings back bad memories ….

  4. An only marginally less obscure (to the French) entry at Le Mans that year was the Jowett Jupiter driven by Tom Wisdom and Tommy Wise. Apart from a quickly-fixed broken fuel pipe, it had a problem-free run, breaking the 1500cc class record (held since 1935 by Aston Martin) in the process and finishing 16th overall (11th on index of performances).

  5. Škoda has quite a history of sporting success. I think this model, produced to celebrate Monte Carlo victories, is, er, superb:

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