Creative design and solid engineering count for little when the regime looks in the opposite direction.
When the (super)powers that be ask you to jump, you tend to ask how high – included in that equation is which way? Late 1950’s Czechoslovakia saw the Ministry of Agriculture ask their most prolific supplier of vehicles, AZNP, to solve the thorny issue of providing a vehicle that would be compact in dimensions, light on its feet, manoeuvrable and be capable of all terrain capabilities. Oh, and whilst you’re solving that conundrum, the army would like to add their input, too.
Škoda gave this machine the code name, Agromobil with project number 998. Classifying vehicles as non-military was a weak attempt at diverting NATO interests but few people anywhere knew of this diminutive workhorse. Carrying no weaponry, other than perhaps eight tightly packed and lightly armed soldiers intimately perched on the longitudinal benches to the canvas covered rear, the 1965 collaboration between Škoda and Česká zbrojovka Strakonice – who, under brand name ČZ, produced hand guns, motorcycles and bicycles – came together to produce three prototypes for governmental scrutiny. Just 3.7 metres long and 1.7 wide, the load bed stood a mere seventy centimetres from the ground, ideal for loading or unloading hay bales, livestock or crates of ammunition.
Using any Škoda parts they could lay hands on, including the engine from the 1202 station wagon, a wheelbase of only 1.9 metres bore extremely short overhangs together with front trapezoidal wishbones, independent front suspension with, at the rear, torsion bars with trailing arms. The 1,221cc four cylinder engine mustered 45PS with a four speed gearbox that, with a driver-selected limited-slip differential, could surmount most landscapes or theatres the Agromobil was subjected to.
At 936 kilograms unladen and 1,736 all up, with Power Take Off for those agricultural/forestry jobs, around half the vehicle’s total weight was concentrated to the rear giving excellent off road characteristics. Include twenty three centimetres of ground clearance when fully laden, the 998 looked to have the proverbial cat in the bag.
Two of the prototypes were taken to ČZ’s Strakonice factory, the final one returning to Mladá Boleslav for extensive testing. During a 79 day test period, this lone 998 racked up 30,000 Kilometres under all manner of conditions, topping out at 89Kmh on road along with encouraging off road pace to boot. This attracted the attention of the army top brass who wished for comparative tests to occur.
The Škoda factory produced another ten examples, convinced that would see the Agromobil win through. The only other known competitor in the test was the GAZ 69 light truck, ubiquitous with Warsaw Pact countries that had superseded wartime Leaselend Willys Jeeps which had been well and truly worn out.
Conjecture reasons those on the test panel were at best biased with their scoring but were certainly succinct in their summing up; the Agromobil marked good for off-road performance even though the 998 handsomely outpaced the GAZ out in the thick of things. Regardless of the 998’s performance, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The GAZ (or UAZ) was pumped out in great numbers either from Gorky or Romania, remaining in production until the mid 1970s – what chance this Czechoslovakian upstart, against the might of the Russian Bear’s output no matter how good?
The populace (along with, it would seem NATO) of course knew nothing of the Agromobil’s existence. It is also reasonable to assume that those working on the project were informed to forget all about the 998. That is until the end of January 1965 when the Agromobil suddenly became famous for very different reasons to the initial plan.
A Czechoslovakian musical-comedy entitled “Kdyby tisíc klarinetů’ (‘If a thousand clarinets’) became quite the box office hit at home. An anti-war film depicting how an awkward, pacifist soldier is pursued by not one but two Agromobil’s and lead back to the back to the military base where then all the handguns become musical instruments – (oddly enough, clarinets in the main) – along with television cameras, turning the base into one huge carnival. This snippet of the film may allow one to experience something of the good (and rather bizarre) feelings generated by the movie.
For those interested in seeing the new found movie star in action, this link, accompanied by tunes a lift might close its doors to, will reveal the Project 998 in all its glory. The film also includes a type 973 Babeta off road vehicle, reminiscent once more of the ubiquitous Willy’s Jeep that Škoda produced in 1952. Both vehicles now reside in the museum at Mladá Boleslav. Clarinets optional.
A video of the pick up along with Agromobil.