If A Thousand Clarinets

Creative design and solid engineering count for little when the regime looks in the opposite direction.

Agromobil. Image: autobible.euro.cz

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. 

Agromobil. Image: Skoda Storyboard

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.

Image: offroad-rc.info

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. 

Image: Skoda Storyboard

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.

Image: Skoda Storyboard

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

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

15 thoughts on “If A Thousand Clarinets”

    1. Just what I thought, but you beat me to it. The Steyr Puch Haflinger is smaller, though at 3.5 meters long and 1,5 meters wide. It weighs about 600 kgs.

    2. For an agricultural machine look no further than this:

      For small vehicle offroad fun take this:

  1. Good morning Andrew. You have to feel for the designers and engineers that worked for Škoda during the Soviet era, always being hamstrung by politically-driven decision making (and a lack of funds).

    The 1976 Škoda 105 (Estelle in the UK) should have been front-engined and FWD, but ended up as just another reboot of the ancient 1964 1000MB. Rear-engined cars were disappearing from the C-segment (The Renault 10 was discontinued in the same year) so the new Škoda was obsolete from the get-go. It’s a moot point as to whether Škoda simply couldn’t afford the investment in FWD technology or the Soviet government refused to allow the Czech company to embarrass Russian domestic manufacturers with a more modern rival, but the FWD prototype was stillborn.

    I was about to add a comment about how much more creative freedom Škoda now enjoyed, then I remembered their Wolfsburg overlords…plus ça change!

    1. The Comecon Car (or RGW-Auto) project paralysed development throughout the ’70s, despite having the opposite intention, which was to produce an internationally-acceptable replacement for the Wartburg 353, Trabant, and rear-engined Škodas. The DDR and the Czechs couldn’t agree on the basic design principles, the non-carmaking Comecon states all wanted a piece of the action, and Poland and Romania wanted no part of it at all, sticking with their Western partners.

      The whole project collapsed in 1980, mainly because of the vast amount of hard currency which would have been needed to buy tooling from the west or Japan to achieve the required production volumes efficiently. At least some elements of the project were salvaged by Škoda to create the Favorit; poor Wartburg, Trabant, and Barkas did too little, too late.

  2. Andrew – the Agromobil’s new to me. Most interesting, especially the mechanical drawings which show what a thorough job Škoda’s engineers had done; mid-front engine, all independent suspension by very long torsion bars, and these power take-offs. These farmers and soldiers would have been in for a treat.

    The Agromobil’s rear suspension is not dissimilar to what Greek Al proposed for the Morris Minor (although his had a live axle). Management imposed longitudinal leaf springs instead, quite late in the development process.

  3. Reminds me of a slightly less hardcore Volvo L-3314
    It’s a shame it never got the green light, as tiny offroad forward control vans are always cool.

  4. The visual similarities between the Haflinger and the Agromobil are certainly uncanny. But a very different vehicle to the Škoda-based Trekka, a vehicle surely intended, if one ignores the military aspect, for a similar purpose. An Agromobil has now been added to my Christmas present wish-list (you have a lot to answer for, Andrew, bringing all these temptations to my attention!).

  5. Robertas, the affection for the Solihull’s finest runs deep within me, but I can only see the 101 being driven by grizzled squaddies, or these days, those pretending to be. A friend went to look at one, test drove it and left with bleeding ears, cramped legs and the 101 remaining with the seller. I’m not saying the Škoda would be any different, mind. Anything built to these specs is hardly a paragon to comfort or modernity. But the Agromobil looks to me a little more receptive, almost welcoming. If the 101 is Meccano, the Škoda is too but has some plastic padding and that modicum of invested attitude for “comfort.”

    JTC – perhaps if we take a 101 on a mission to Mlada Boleslav, we could raid the museum! We might need a few Bob for the petrol bill…

    But the name – Agromobil – surely the real name for every modern suv and their driven manner?

  6. Very interesting, Andrew. I didn’t know that Škoda had such a varied background in 4×4 vehicles. The Agromobil seems to be a bit under-specified to me (especially against anything from UAZ) and I think they made the right choice in not taking it any further.

    I looked up the 973 Babeta you mentioned and found the short article, below, about it in Auto Express. They covered the Babeta and an earlier, two-wheel drive vehicle, the 1101 VO Tudor, as background to a modern SUV launch. Some of the detailing on the cars is charming – I love the idea of stoplights which illuminate to say ‘stop’. The 1101 was around at the time of the first Land-Rover and reminds me of it, somewhat.


    Happy Yorkshire Day, by the way (I hope I’ve got that right).

    1. Why thank you, Charles. I’m celebrating Yorkshire day in the only way possible- watching it rain and getting wet inside too by enjoying a quality ale, brewed just two miles from home.

      Škoda certainly surprise and don’t seem offended by their history as some other manufacturers do. I can’t think future generations will be overexcited at looking at their K-models though. But that also goes for many other current models from any given producer.

  7. KRAKA! Who but the Germans could come up with a foldable BMW-powered beer carrier?

    1. Here’s a folded Kraka

      In professional use – maybe they should have left off the camouflage and the enemy would have died of laughter…

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