The Rocket Men Will See You Safe (In But Three Weeks)

Prepare for some exceptional acronyms 

No Skodas were harmed while writing this article. (Okay, that’s not strictly true…) Image: Skoda-storyboard.com

The German and Swedish car manufacturers have long tested the safety of their products, with even non-car enthusiasts applying the safe label to the solidity of a Mercedes or Volvo. But hidden behind the Iron Curtain fifty years ago, Škoda was also to participate in regular crash testing with an independent team bringing such action to light.

The ÚVMV (Ústav pro vŷzkum motorovŷch vozidel), the Czechoslovak Motor Vehicle Research Institute, were tasked with providing coherent and central research for engineering companies, not solely car manufacturers. Under leadership from ČAZ (Československých automobilových závodů), or Czechoslovak Auto Works General Division, the ÚVMV beginnings can be found at the end of the Second World War.

Soon after, a directive was procured tobuild a research base, with state support but with international cooperation.” Aimed at studying technology directions, unifying parts and measurements in terms of functionality, durability and economy and eliminating shortcomings, they would also provide research for other (former) Soviet Bloc manufacturers. 

Image: ÚVMV/Škodaklasik.cz

The ÚVMV actually became manufacturers in 1966 with the 1100 GT. Modifying a Škoda 1000 chassis, this rakish prototype was both rear engined and rear wheel drive. Development over four years saw the car debut at the Pilsen motor show, with a trip to the Palexpo for ‘71 where encouraging echoes led to a (minute) production reality – just six cars, that resemble a SAAB Sonnet appear to have been made.

Draped in fibreglass, the coupé measured 3880 x 1505 x 1125 mm with a wheelbase of 2200 mm, tipping the scales at just 816 Kgs. The revamped Škoda engine, at 1140cc with two twin-choke Weber carburettors produced 75bhp and four speed manual transmission made good for a 180 km/h v-max. 

Remarkable as the two door was, communist zeal didn’t really care for the sporting element when cold, hard, Western (specifically French at first for reasons unknown) cash could be had by utilising Škoda’s manufacturing esteem. In order to accrue the filthy lucre, the exported cars required crash testing, something of which the French car industry had knowledge. It was therefore agreed to place some French testing personnel to assist and quantify experiments, but apart from a large workshop, the Czech’s had no area for such testing to occur.

1972 saw the ÚVMV gain testing authority from the Federal Ministry of Transport of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic who could grant the necessary homologation necessary to sell the Eastern Bloc’s wares elsewhere[1]. No team of builders or contractors here, ÚVMV staff themselves layered the tarmac opposite Prague’s Ruzynê airport, along with the concrete crash barrier and all the testing equipment[2].

Pusillanimous is not a word to fit the Czech psyche. Whereas their German and Swedish cousins had invested heavily in safety testing equipment, the Czech teams, with undeniable tenacity had to endure some rudimentary, Victorian era, engineering. The first proper ÚVMV test on a Škoda 1000 was held in June 1972. 

Fancy a brew? Image: Skoda-storyboard.com

Before undertaking its more sober duties, the propulsion device was extensively tested. Basically a kettle on wheels, a wheeled water tank containing electrically heated coils made the steam. The tank was merely butted up against the test hack in order to hurl it against its concrete master. A road embedded steel rail which curtailed around five metres from the terminal edifice kept matters on the straight and narrow. The steam rocket would hit a wedge brake at which point the hapless Škoda would continue on its merry way for a few seconds more.

Using basic parameters such as weight of vehicle, amount of water in tank along with saturated steam pressure, practice runs were held in the opposite direction, away from the barrier. Such tests required an enduring human driver, if only to prevent the car disappearing toward an operational airport. The wedge brake once more halting this steam-punk’s progress.

That first rocket powered device was deemed HRB-001 – the Hot Water Rocket of the Security Group of the Central Ministry of Defence. Cold weather hampered such external experiments denying the long suffering engineers their required results. Attempting to circumvent heat loss, HRB-002 came replete with insulation along with a catchy new moniker emblazoned on its tank; FODRŠAMARUPUSOPR, which stands for FOgl DRmota, ŠAtochin, MAjetič, RUbkič, PUčálka, SOuček, PRažák, which one must hope means more to our Czech friends. But you have to admire the length and complexity of such acronyms.

Somehow when the research laboratory relocated, the original rocket ship was stolen, a replica having to be made.

Recording of the crash tests was by 35mm high-speed film with both actual and filmed results witnessed by delegates from UTAC, the French crash testers (who now, incidentally run Millbrook Proving Ground along with test centres in the US, France, Finland and Morocco) and masters of the prize – homologation. After much midnight oil burnt by the Czech technicians, the following day’s test proved successful – by the steering column not encroaching upon the driver.

Crash testing began to build momentum with the steam rocket used for several more years, the Ruzynê track itself serving until around 1995. The Ministry of Interior opened a new laboratory in Prague’s Letñay district in 1975. This included, finally, a covered hall which contained a drop tower to provide crash subjects with acceleration over that of steam power. By then ÚVMV had been privatised, in-turn taken over by TÜV Bayern who then built Škoda’s first dedicated crash test facility at Úhehnice. Operational by 1996, the original Octavia being its first victim.

However, recording of the tests was still by old fashioned film. Rudolf Tesárek, now Škoda’s crash lab coordinator, was in charge of testing at the turn of the new millennium. “I pressed one button to start the drop tower and through experience, the camera button a little later. The film had to go to the Barrandov studios for developing then returned here for a lab technician to cut and edit the reel. Afterwards, this would return to Barrandov who made the film proper and finally we could see the results. This process could take three weeks – maybe more!

Škoda continued to invest and upgrade the Úhehnice facility in accordance with VW Group’s and respective NCAP requirements, alongside digital media. The rigs are capable of 65 Km/h or propelling a single car into the wall at 120 Km/h.

These days though, the kettle remains in the kitchen.

[1] The Czech Republic still carries the E8 mark – the eighth member of the (then) EEC

[2] The tarmac strip remains visible from the Hostivice Observation Mount, the crash barrier removed

Data Sources : Škoda-storyboard.com/ skodaklasik.cz

Author: Andrew Miles

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

19 thoughts on “The Rocket Men Will See You Safe (In But Three Weeks)”

  1. Good morning, Andrew, and what a great story! The steam rocket ship must surely be one of the most esoteric ‘road-going’ machines ever covered on DTW. I love the fact that someone saw fit to put that ‘blitz’ symbol on the side of the boiler. One has to wonder to what use the stolen device was put.

    Isn’t the 1100GT pretty (apart from that rather wayward door leading edge shut-line)?

    1. Somewhere, in the Czech Republic, there is a café serving very hot tea.

      That’s a great story, Andrew. It’s funny seeing the approaches which other cultures take when there is no (known) established norm or reference point. What emerges is often weird, but good. We’ve lost some of that, with globalization (but have gained something, too, I guess). Why they didn’t just use another car to push it along until the last moment is a bit of a mystery, though. At least they didn’t try radio control…

      To be fair to the Simca, the video says that the test was conducted at 50 mph / 80 kph, which is way beyond what it was designed to withstand.

  2. A very interesting account of early safety research behind the iron curtain- thank you for this Andrew!
    I seem to vaguely remember that Mercedes-Benz also used some kind of (rocket propelled?) contraption in the fifties in crash testing.
    And old Skodas being rear engined, it reminded me of this crash test of a Simca 1000 with scary results because of the momentum of that engine combined with only a rudimentary (or possibly entirely absent) safety cage body construction. When I was around 8-10 years old one of our neighbors had one and I was a passenger many times- I’m glad we never had a head on crash:

    1. Here’s a picture of a historiy Mercedes crash test. The propelling device is described as hot water rocket.

      And a bit later when the brake for the rocket failed and created an additional rear shunt

    2. That failure actually replicates what happens in multiple pile-ups.

    3. It’s amazing how the number on the side of the Benz changed during the crash 😉

    4. Not only that, but it was propelled at such high speed it hit a time warp and came out the other end a much newer model generation!

      That’s not to take away from the pictures though: thanks, Dave and Bruno! Those Simca pictures are mildly terrifying. Fortunately the Skoda fared rather better.

      Fortunately I can also look at the pictures of the rather fantastic 1100 GT.

  3. That’s certainly something different for a Tuesday morning. The Old East remains forever a land of surprises!

    My – possibly faulty – recollection is that the UVMV / Škoda 1100GT was shown at several western motor shows in the early ’70s, with some bodywork alterations between appearances. This intricate and informative cutaway appeared in some British magazines at the time, quite contrary to the widely-held notion that Eastern Bloc state enterprises were secretive and rather sinister:

    I’m wondering if these wheels are genuine Rostyles, or Czech copies.

    1. UVMV / Škoda 1100GT is another expression of political relaxation at the end of the sixties. The production of the car was expected, it aroused great interest among the public. At the time of the coming normalization in Czechoslovakia, however, two-seater sports coupes were prohibited. The Soviet occupation after 1968 dictated a different production. For example, a weapon for North Vietnam.

  4. It’s a very long time since I studied Czech but Fogl, Drmota etc. look like names to me – presumably those of the engineers involved in the project.

  5. Poor old Simca. I don’t know how safe Skoda’s were during that time, but they had a bad reputation, and were called “moving coffins” in the Netherlands.

  6. As a Tatra owner, I was wondering if there might be info and photos of any Tatra vehicles using the test facility?

    1. Thanks for sharing that video, Martin. That looks like a pretty credible crash test performance for the Tatra.

      I wonder if there’s a greater fundamental risk with mid and rear-engined cars in having the mass of the engine and transmission behind the passenger cabin, so it continues to move forward and threatens to crush the occupants. On the other hand, I suppose there’s more room in front of the passenger cabin for a progressively deformable crash structure, slowing the rate of deceleration.

    2. As you wrote. In mid-engined and rear-engined cars, the weight of the engine and gearbox is behind the passenger compartment, so it’s always moving forward and in danger of crushing the passengers. On the other hand, there is more room in front of the passenger compartment for the gradually deforming impact structure to slow the deceleration rate. It’s all a matter of design (and money) to make the passenger compartment safe enough.
      More space in front of the cab for the gradually deforming impact structure is preferable in a frontal impact. The Tatra 613, whose bodywork was designed by Vignale in the late 1960s, could thus be produced until 1999. Not only was it based on the Tatra 700, but throughout its production the Tatra 613-5 designation was entered in the technical certificate.
      However, if a 50-tonne lorry had hit the Tatra 613 from behind at 50 km/h, it would not have fared well. But I don’t think the latest Mercedes S would be a good one either. The weight multiplied by the speed of the truck would disrupt the safety zone. That’s physics.

    3. Thanks, Martin. This is rather terrifying, the rear-engined Simca 1000 being crash-tested at 50mph:

    4. Daniel O’Callaghan
      I have to apologize.
      E = mc²
      That’s right Einstein.
      The force acting on the Simca 1100 Crashtest car at 50 mph is about 2.8 greater than at 30 mph.

      However, the force exerted on a passenger car that is rear-ended by a 50-tonne truck travelling at 30 km/h would disrupt the safety zone. Only the safety zone of a 9 tonne Cadillac One is likely to be safe enough.

  7. Thank you Martin for the T-613 test. I’ve sent the link on youtube to the Tatra Club UK.

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