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Skoda Estelle

Published: 14th Feb 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Skoda was once the butt of many jokes – but the handling of its Estelle was no laughing matter. But the Czech carmaker had the last one on everybody

Say what you like about today’s cars, but without exception nobody makes a bad one anymore. Sure, some are better and more desirable and better than others but, whatever badge you buy, you’re getting decent transportation. As an example, we’ve just had a Dacia Duster on test and at under £8000, it’s excellent value – for a 63-plater.

Which is just as well because motoring magazines don’t pull their punches when bad mouthing a car like they used to do. Back in the days when your classic was contemporary – say the 1950s and ’60s, magazines sat down with the manufacturers and wrote the test together, which is why any criticism was watered down with flowery words and phrases.

So when a magazine actually said “We can’t recommend this car” you know it was not just bad – but bloody awful. The Skoda Estelle was one such car – and Motor’s leading editorial made mention of it in October 1977.

It was blistering. “These days we seldom feel called to condemn outright a car… This week we must make an exception: the handling of the Skoda Estelle is, in our opinion, so poor that, under certain conditions, it can become dangerous”. It went further and criticised the Government for allowing a car into the UK. “If the Department of Transport examiners truly regard this car as safe, as reported recently, then they have very low standards.”

Now of course, Skodas are great – because they are virtually VWs but cheaper. But back in the 1970s Skoda relied upon its own designs, which were none too good, a far cry from its early pre-commie days when Skoda was a BMW of its day.

RUSSIA RULES

The Estelle should have been a good car, because unlike the horrid 1000MB – which was pretty much a Czech take on the old Renault Dauphine – it was supposed to be all new and a forerunner to the Favorit and be similarly front-wheel driven. However, a late change of plans – said to centre around Soviet car makers not liking the thought of being upstaged – saw the Estelle becoming a virtual mechanical carry over of the 1000MB and the S110.

In Skoda’s home country this wasn’t too bad a thing because many roads were poorly made and any help with traction, such as a rear weight bias, was beneficial.  It didn’t do Porsche any harm at all but Skoda wasn’t interested in performance in those days so up to 1.2-litres sufficed until 1984. In the UK the range was called Estelle and 105 and 120 to denote their engine sizes.

Launched in 1977, the mid range 1.2-litre 120L retailed at £1699, which put it pretty much on par with other undesirables like the Polski Fiat 125P (£1717) and another Fiat cast off called the Lada 1200 (£1755). Citroën’s quirky 2CV at £1579 was far more acceptable of course, but most folks didn’t get on with the odd tin snail look. They wanted a proper car, like the cheapest four-door Ford Escort. But even the Spartan Popular was priced at over £2000 which was a far cry from its attractive £1299 starting price back in1975.

I AM THE VERY PROUD OWNER OF A...

Motoring 40 years ago was a far cry from today and owning a brand new one was a big deal indeed. For the budget-minded Brit, the Skoda offered real value for money. Heck, a plastic Reliant Robin was dearer and was lacking an essential front wheel at the same time! The Estelle was a genuine family-sized car that looked smart enough to be seen in and proud enough to own (remember the days when readers wrote to car magazines proclaiming “I am the proud owner of a certain car”?). What’s more, the Czech looked a better prospect than some dodgy second-hand car bought for the same money from the likes of A Daley Esq – of which there were a lot around back then…

Just how bad was the Estelle? Well, according to Motor, who had never before given a car a ‘one star’ rating for handling, it said the Skoda could “only be described as nasty”. It added the Herald-like switch to oversteer “can be quite violent” and “the normally excellent Michelin ZX tyres cannot really cope” with such a poor suspension.

Fair enough – but if Triumph had still been making the Herald, could – and would – the same criticism be levelled at that similar layout? That said, at least the Triumph had a wonderful steering, in sharp contrast to the Skoda’s which the weekly reckoned was almost as bad as the rear set up…

An often quoted reply to road tests, then and now, is does the average conservative British driver really drive the car like a road tester? Course not. And so for many, the lowly limits of the Estelle weren’t even touched let alone exceeded. Motor, not surprisingly, rubbished this notion implying that the Skoda would sooner or later catch out its owner, even those, who traded up from the even more horrid 1000MB and knew the score.

Undeterred by increasing criticism, Skoda even made a ‘Capri’, the S110R which ran from 1970-80. Costing £1050 it was almost as thrilling as that lovable Dagenham Dustbin V6 – albeit in other ways. However, it also led Skoda into entering in motorsport more seriously. Well, if a Russian Moskvich could win the 1972 Group1 British Saloon Car Championship, there was hope for anybody.

SAFE CHANGE OF DIRECTION

Although Skoda quickly issued a statement saying that it “totally repudiates the criticisms made of the car”, the UK concessionaires quickly conceded that the Estelle’s funny handling was actually no laughing matter and before 1978 made changes to certain models, which included Spax dampers, sports suspension springs, straps to control the rear suspension’s movement, and alloy wheels shod with wider tyres – all good boy racer stuff, really. This neat kit was also made as a retro fit if scared owners wanted it.

When Skoda introduced the 120 Garde in 1982, the car featured an improved rear suspension across all ranges. Later that year the 120LE was introduced, the ‘E’ standing for Economy thanks to a higher top gear ratio.

Despite the revisions and equipment enhancements, the damage was done and it led to fashionable Skoda jokes where we’ve all got our favourite. The one about why do Skodas come with a heated rear window? It keeps your hands warm when pushing it (ho-ho) was the most ironic because one thing Skodas weren’t was unreliable. That and their inherent strength led to considerable success and class wins in international rallies.

Skoda kind of had the last laugh when it launched the new 130 Series. Fundamentally it was the same car but thoroughly updated to cope with its new 1289cc engine which saw almost 60bhp!

WHO NEEDS A 911?

The suspension was again further refined and there was now five-speed transmissions and four-pot front disc brakes. The resultant flagship model, the coupé-styled 135/136 Rapid was quite a goer leading the now combined Autocar & Motor magazine to comment that the Skoda “handles like a Porsche 911”!

No wonder it sold well; in 1987, with the car coming to the end of its life, it shifted 17,000 Rapids. In all just over 120,000 Estelles were sold in the UK between 1977 to 1990 and it converted more than a few sceptics along the way, Car magazine being one of them. It once dubbed Estelles as ”Very possibly the worst new cars sold in Britain” but in the mid 80s it pitched the Czech against other untouchables which included the Reliant Rialto (a jazzed up Robin) and a Lada.

The Skoda also came through well and, surprise, surprise, was considered a decent new car purchase for the money and a better prospect than a three year old repmobile cast off of similar value – from just £2400 in 1984.

To put this in perspective, a new basic Metro was £1000 dearer and a five-door 1.1-litre Escort was ticketed at £4835. Granted, the Ford was a hatchback – but Skoda had been fitting fold down rear seats since the 1960s!

The hatchback Favorit which replaced the Estelle showed what the Estelle could and should have been from the outset and was further improved by Volkswagen with its Felicia (another upmarket Skoda name from the past) where top models even boasted leather trim.

Fast forward to 2014 where a model line up that boasts a 180bhp projectile and Skoda has come a long way in a relatively short space of time, still providing budget-based motoring but with designs that are as good as any.

How much is an Estelle worth as a left field classic? Not much – depends how much petrol is in the tank! Sorry, had to get a joke in there at some point didn’t we?



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