We examine Škoda’s short-lived South American assembly operation.
The country with the elongated coastline and rugged backbone consisting of the Andes mountain range is hardly renowned as a hot bed of car production. But true to form, Škoda found an infinitesimally small opening to make all but a handful of cars amidst the dusty plains of Chile, some fifty years ago.
Bohuslav Čtvrtečka, who shall from this point be named BC, began his working life at Škoda’s Kvasiny plant as a welder, progressing to head the welding shop in a little under ten years. Keen, knowledgeable and highly proficient in the construction of the then ten year old Octavia Estate, an offer was made to BC to up-sticks to Chile in order to oversee limited production of the car there.
Given a mere two months to prepare, BC immersed himself in the Spanish language and culture along with an open-ended ticket to Chile, remaining there for two years. Sadly, there is no mention of the plane journey(s) he endured from the behind the Iron Curtain to a distinctly different climate, weather-wise or from a political standpoint.
The Octavia Estate of the early 1960’s was a sales hit for the Czech company. A handsome enough, three door, four metre long wagon, inspiring decent sales (in CKD form) to the Scandinavian countries; the Icelandic police force in particular being favourable to the rugged simplicity of the front engined, rear wheel drive set up. Comfort was negligible, the emphasis being more about longevity, easy maintenance with the occasional (rare) clean up session.
Powered by a OHV four-pot engine, derived from the ancient Popular model from 1938, the 1.2 litre engine was finally updated from 47 to 51bhp in 1969. Robust, not radical, this engine happily plodded away on most kinds of octane. With a chassis that, in modern parlance could be described as all terrain (using the standard fitment of a cement bag in the rear should that payload area otherwise be empty and the track prove tricky…) – one handy feature to the rear was the split opening tailgate. Should you develop a puncture, no need to empty the rear either for a separate compartment stowed the spare. Did Solihull take note?
Aged twenty eight, BC found himself in the town of Arica, Chile’s most northern port where handfuls of Škoda’s were already being made – 1201 pick up’s, the odd saloon here and there. In truly basic conditions, with workshops more suited to that of a farrier, the Octavia estate was shipped over in crates, a chassis in one, bodywork and interior in another, often the mechanical side in yet another for customs purposes, for the locals under Čtvrtečka’s command to construct.
In those dusty, rustic workshops, production rates were a heady two cars per day, three being a peak. The local populace were incredibly resourceful though, using any kind of pulley, frame or farm tooling to assist production. It took many men to haul in chassis’ or operate the chains to lift axles and engines.
This unfortunately resulted in a DTW favourite, the panel gap, being measured in finger widths, as opposed to the modern fraction of millimetres. BC found some of the locals to be supremely skilled. Whilst taciturn, former smiths and farm workers could produce parts and effect repairs or remedies with basic tools – BC frequently described them as ‘miracle workers’. In his two year Chilean sojourn, somewhere between three and four hundred wagons were made and sold. It is doubtful any remain.
The Chilean Government soon demanded an increased local supply of assembly components; tyres and batteries being the easiest to obtain, but with no qualified mechanics, the fantastically Heath-Robinson process, which managed to eke out working vehicles until 1971 when the political situation took a nosedive, Škoda’s Chilean adventures were over for good. BC returned home to the Kvasiny plant for many more years, where upon retirement, he continued his long-lived Škoda links as a factory tour guide.
Quite how Motokov, the Prague-based export agency dealing with selling Škoda’s worldwide actually operated is difficult to discern. Mentions of underhand dealings, spies and covert operations are but rumours. Money and deals were had, though in this Chilean project, amounts must have bordered on parsimonious. The Octavia estate crates were also shipped to Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and Australia. Locally made bodies could be applied to the chassis, depending on the deal.
Which takes us to a Czech-New Zealand collaboration to produce a vehicle with peculiar looks, an odd name and the occurrence of some good, old fashioned skullduggery to spice matters up. But that, as they say, is another story…
All images: (c) Škoda-storyboard.com