Škoda brightens up the dreary Soviet automotive landscape.
Coupés and convertibles, by their very nature, are rather frivolous cars. They typically cost more(1) than their more practical saloon, hatchback or estate equivalents and offer less in the way of space and versatility. Their appeal lies in their (not always) more attractive styling(2) and, more subliminally, in what they imply about their owner. He (usually) is, apparently, a free spirit, not weighed down by familial responsibilities, and sufficiently affluent to afford such an automotive indulgence.
The post-WW2 Soviet Union was a serious place run by deadly serious people. Preoccupied with five-year plans and other weighty matters of state, they had little time for frivolity. They had even less time for conspicuous individualism in their egalitarian utopia, so passenger cars were earnestly practical saloons(3) and estates. Coupés and convertibles(4) were regarded as symbols of capitalist decadence, and had no place in their five-year plans for the auto industry.
In one of the Soviet Union’s satellite states, however, a defiantly independent spirit survived the dead hand of communist control. The Czechoslovakian state-owned Škoda Auto tested the patience of their Soviet masters by producing a series of quite pretty (or, at least, characterful) convertibles and coupés. The early convertibles were simply soft-top versions of the company’s two-door saloons, including the 1955 Škoda 450 and its successor, the 1959 Felicia.
When Škoda switched to a rear-engined platform in 1964 with the 1000 MB, it produced a distinctive looking two-door notchback coupé version called the 1000 MBX with a wraparound rear screen and reverse-rake C-pillar which was, whisper it, almost stylish. The 1000 MB was heavily facelifted in 1969 to become the 100. Facelifted is probably not the right word, however, because the 100 looked really rather dowdy compared to its pretty predecessor, losing most of its brightwork and gaining a slightly morose look to its newly blunted front end.
Škoda, however, countered the disappointment by launching a fastback coupé version of the 100 at the Brno Engineering Fair in September 1970. Developed under the rather cryptic project code Typ. 718, the production 110R coupé shared the saloon’s 2,400mm (94½”) wheelbase but was distinguished by a rather elegant glasshouse with frameless door windows and very slim B-pillars, giving it an almost Italianate flavour, at least above the waistline.
Despite the shared platform and some superficial similarities, the coupé’s bodywork was almost all-new, with a much faster rake to the windscreen and a 40mm (1½”) lower roofline. The interior space was similar to that of the saloon, apart from more limited rear headroom. Luggage space comprised 250 litres (8.83 cu.ft.) in the shallow front boot and a further 120 litres (4.24 cu.ft.) behind the rear seats.
The dashboard was appropriately sporty, with its black vinyl covering and a speedometer and tachometer positioned directly in front of the driver, supplemented by three centrally positioned smaller gauges for fuel, water temperature and oil pressure. The steering wheel had twin metal spokes with circular perforations, another contemporary signifier of sportiness.
Power was provided by a slightly enlarged 1,107cc OHV twin-carburettor inline four-cylinder engine with an aluminium block and cast-iron cylinder head. It produced maximum power of 62bhp (46kW) and torque of 64 lb ft (87Nm), driving the rear wheels through a four-speed transaxle gearbox. 0 to 62mph (100km/h) took 17.7 seconds and the top speed was 90mph (145km/h). Independent suspension used coil springs all round. Braking was by front discs(5) and rear drums, with optional servo assistance.
Despite the modest performance, the swing-axle rear suspension could cause unwanted and unexpected camber changes and snap oversteer. In this respect the 110R was compared, rather ambitiously, with the contemporary Porsche 911, which could be similarly tricky in extremis. As if to emphasise the point, later 110R models came with wheel covers that mimicked the classic 911 Fuchs five-spoke alloy wheel.
Production started slowly and just 121 cars were manufactured in 1970, all sold on the domestic market. The 110R was, however, primarily intended for export, to generate valuable foreign currency earnings for Škoda. As production numbers grew in subsequent years, the vast majority were exported and an RHD version became available from September 1972.
The 110R remained on the market for a decade, during which time a total of 57,085 were manufactured, 93% of which were exported. Updates were modest, but the car received a new twin-headlamp front end in 1973. The 110R also provided the basis for rally and Touring Car racing derivatives.
The 1976 replacement for the 100/110 saloon was originally intended to be a front-engined, FWD design and (at least) one such prototype was built. Whether it was lack of funding or Russian interference that forced Škoda to reconsider is a moot point, but the existing rear-engined RWD floorpan and mechanical package, already twelve years old, was instead rebodied for a second time to produce the 105/120(6). Although the new model featured worthwhile improvements over its predecessor, its mechanical layout was by now almost universally regarded as anachronistic and hopelessly outdated.
Škoda nevertheless pressed on and developed a replacement for the 110R coupé under the project code Typ. 743. Launched in 1981, it was initially called the Garde, although an alternative name, Rapid, was used in certain export markets including the UK and West Germany. The formula reprised that of the 110R: the Garde / Rapid was heavily based on the 105/120 but featured a fastback body that was 15mm (½”) longer and 20mm (¾”) lower than its saloon counterpart.
Sadly, its predecessor’s light and airy DLO with its frameless door windows was replaced by a more clunky looking arrangement, ameliorated somewhat by a sinuous curve in the waistline over the rear wheel arch. The engine was a further enlargement of the evergreen unit to 1,174cc, which was shared with the 120 saloon. It produced maximum power of 54bhp (40.5kW).
A UK engineering company, Ludgate Developments, was commissioned by Škoda to develop and produce a manufacturer-approved convertible version of the Rapid. The rigidity lost in the decapitation was restored by way of a stout T-bar rollover hoop, painted black to disguise its rather ungainly appearance.
The Garde was facelifted in 1984 and renamed Rapid 120 in all markets. The facelift brought a new smoother front end, with the indicators relocated from the bumper to outboard of the new, flush-fitting headlamps. More significantly, the swing-axle rear suspension was replaced with semi-trailing arms, giving much safer and more predictable handling.
A year later, the engine was enlarged to 1,289cc, producing maximum power of 58bhp (43kW) and torque of 72 lb ft (98Nm). This was mated to a new five-speed transaxle gearbox, giving the car a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 16.5 seconds and a top speed of 95mph (153km/h). This model was badged Rapid 130. The Rapid was sufficiently improved by the suspension revisions that Car magazine promoted it from Boring to Adequate in its GBU(7) listing and described it as “Spectacular value for money.”
In 1987 a new alloy eight-port cylinder head raised maximum power to 62bhp (46kW) and torque to 74 lb ft (100Nm). Maximum speed remained the same, but the 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was cut to 14.9 seconds. The car was renamed Rapid 136.
Autocar and Motor magazine featured a teaser photo of the Rapid on the front cover of its 28 September 1988 issue, together with a very complimentary headline.
The Rapid remained in production until 1990. A run-out model, the 135 RiC, was the first Škoda model to feature fuel injection. A total of 44,634 Garde / Rapid coupés were sold over its nine-year production life.
The continuing affection for Škoda’s coupé models defies rational explanation. They were crude, slow and idiosyncratic, and outdated virtually from the off. Build quality was pretty good, but the materials and fittings used were often cheap and fragile. The front footwells were cramped, with the pedals offset towards the centre tunnel, forcing an awkward driving position. The tortuous run of cooling pipework from the Rapid’s front-mounted radiator to the engine caused frequent overheating problems, often exacerbated by poor maintenance.
For all those shortcomings, the Škoda coupés that survive are cherished by their owners. Perhaps it is, in part at least, for what they represented: plucky little Czechoslovakia metaphorically thumbing its nose at the Kremlin and refusing to be cowed. Škoda’s survival against the odds and the ability of its engineers to make much out of very little prompted Volkswagen Group to acquire the company and turn it into the commercial success it is today.
It is, however, a matter of regret for me that Wolfsburg succeeded where Moscow had failed, forcing bland conformity on a previously independent-minded and innovative company.
(1) Ignoring the Morris Marina Coupé (always a sensible course of action, I think).
(3) Egalitarianism didn’t prevent there being a hierarchy of models, from small and crude to large and luxurious, the latter reserved for the ‘more equal’ senior members of the ruling communist party.
(4) Apart from parade cars, roofless limousines that allowed heads of state to salute their military and bask in the entirely spontaneous adulation of the crowds on state occasions.
(5) Supplied by the British company, Dunlop.
(6) Christened ‘Estelle’ by Škoda’s UK advertising agency.
(7) Good, Bad and Ugly.