Handmade In Chile

We examine Škoda’s short-lived South American assembly operation. 

One from the museum. (c) Škoda-storyboard.com

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.

BC (to the right) with colleague on the busy, Santiago highway. (c) Škoda-storyboard.com

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.

Rudimentary conditions, startled employee (c) Škoda-storyboard.com

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

Author: Andrew Miles

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

12 thoughts on “Handmade In Chile”

  1. I’ve really been enjoying all the features on the COMECON motor industry lately, but this really is something else! What a gloriously obscure corner of car production. Is it known who the target market for Skoda estates might have been in Chile? The police, perhaps, as in Iceland?

  2. What a great story! Just imagine the adventure of leaving Czechoslovakia in the early 60’s for the other side of the world and a country about which you probably knew nothing. Thank for bringing it to us, Andrew. I hope you’re hinting that there’s a further piece concerning Škoda’s New Zealand exploits on the way.

  3. Thanks Andrew for another excursion into the obscure. Škodas built in Chile – who’d have thought it. The Octavia Estate sold reasonably well here for a while; Car (or maybe Small Car) did a comparison road test with the Hillman Husky, I recall..I do hope you are wrong in supposing there are no Chilean survivors. After all, there are at least three Jowett Javelins and two Jowett Jupiters out there so maybe…..

  4. Interesting little cars, the 440/445/Octavia. The backbone chassis with all-round independent suspension was also a carry-over from the pre-WW2 Popular, although the principles go back to much older Hans Ledwinka designed Tatras.

    The last of the line Octavia got coil spring front suspension rather than a transverse leaf spring. The Combi and van were available in the UK until 1971 and were absurdly cheap – in late 1970 the Combi was priced at £687, £18 more than the base model S100. The van must have cost about the same as a BLMC Minivan. The Combi’s natural predator, the Morris Minor 1000 Traveller, cost a dizzy £864.

    The Octavia’s all-iron ohv engine , which originated in side-valve form in the mid-1930s was stretched to 1433 cc for the TAZ 1500 van, produced until 2010.

  5. It is fascinating that Socialist Country origin Skodas had to cease production due to the activities of the Socialist Allende Regime.

    I have read in many sources that Chilean economy was almost destroyed by Allende.

    Only the 1973 Pinochet coup stopped the disaster, albeit with unfortunate bloodshed.

    1. To keep things brief, polite, and to protect my blood pressure I shall say only this – there are two sides to every story, and history is written by the victors.

    2. Maybe you should deepen your readings, for instance with something related to the so said “invisible blockade”.
      Afterwards your opinions about the Chilean economy in 1971-73 might vary.

    3. Spanish Reader: I would politely request you refrain from making these kind of sweeping, unsubstantiated overtly politicised comments on what is ostensibly, a non-aligned automotive site. Failure to do so going forward will result in action being taken. Thank you. The Editor.

    4. You are the administrator here, therefore of course I shall follow your rules.

      I am sorry if anyone was disturbed by my strictly factual commentary.

      E pur si muove…

  6. I promise to find out if any octavia is known to any of the major classic car clubs here in Chile, just give me a couple of days. I do remember having seen Octavias in service in the 80’s
    And many thanks for this piece of automotive history of my home country Andrew!

  7. Hallo everyone, sorry for the delayed response; yesterday seemed to contain enough red tape to run a rail car off rails, but no matter.

    Roberto, your are welcome and I do hope you’re are successful in your search. Back, or indeed future stories to these pieces are most welcome, if it helps find extra jigsaw puzzle pieces.

    Michael; this is purely personal speculation that with the cars being built near to the port, naval or armed forces but also local merchants, greengrocers, farmers. Let’s hope Roberto can reveal something for us.

    Paul H; I wanted to keep my powder dry, sir. But all will be revealed , soon and I do mean all.

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