All the cars I’ve owned : Škoda Estelle 120L

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

In a driving career spanning 25 years and over 150 cars, Keith Adams highlights some of the highs… and lows.

In the first of the series, it’s time to recall a couple of months in 1989 behind the wheel of a Škoda Estelle 120L, a car that did its best to put its owner off driving for life.


Czeching my sanity

Skoda Estelle was a memorable steer
Škoda Estelle was a memorable step into the murky world of Communist motoring

My first foray into Škoda ownership came pretty much by accident. How could it not. My early years of car ownership were defined by my lack of money, willpower and an aversion to walking and public transport. By that, I mean, I earned far too little cash to own anything approaching desirable; with no willpower, I was completely unable to save any of the meagre funds I had; and as for walking, I’d done far too much of that before I passed my driving test. So, why would I want to do more?

Between 1987 and 1990, I went through a hair-raising collection of snotters that would turn the stomach of the most ardent of car enthusiasts – but my string of mobile munters definitely hit its nadir one summer weekend in 1989, when I thought it would be a good idea to swap my broken Vauxhall Chevette for a bright orange Škoda Estelle 120L. I was staying at my girlfriend’s place, and after fretting about my three-speed (and no top) Vauxhall Chevette, saw salvation when I spotted a local trader heading to my tame mechanic’s place in said Škoda.

Sensing a deal, I put my trousers on, dashed over the road and explained my predicament. I was skint, I had a Chevette with no fourth gear, and I needed to be back at work (in Doncaster) on Monday morning. Clearly, he saw me coming, offered me his Škoda, for my shiny Vauxhall, plus £50. To be fair, I’ve always been curious about the Estelle – it was a rear engined, had the look of a BMW 5-Series (when viewed through beer goggles), and this one proudly wore an X-plate registration, compared with my aged Vauxhall’s tired old V-plate. It’s funny how when you’re desperate, you’ll do anything to justify a crazy decision – and this was mine… I was getting a newer car, with the correct number of gears, to boot.

A quick look round the Estelle revealed that all four tyres had just enough tread to pass an MoT, the bumpers and bodywork were reasonably straight, and the interior was in one piece, even if it was unremittingly black inside. The paint had lost all of its lustre, and matched a new-build Wilson home in hue, and to anyone even half-way sane, this car had all the kerbside appeal of a freshly-laid pile of derring-do.

Needless to say, when I crossed the road back to my girlfriend’s house, and explained I’d cleverly done a deal to get me back on the road, she seemed pleased. Until she asked me what the car was. Back then, owning a Škoda was akin to admitting you were a were a serial nose-picker. Or maybe not. But when she clapped eyes on my new steed, she exploded with silent rage, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the weekend in silence. And alone.

Still, st least, I was properly mobile again. Phew.

After that, I decided I really should take my new steed for a drive. And at that point, things actually started off pretty well. The body panels felt cheap and the doors were thin, but it seemed like a reasonably cohesive structure. The driving position (off-set pedals aside) and visibility were first class, and although it was stark inside, I didn’t mind the interior’s back to basic feel and lack of style. I quite liked the floor-hinged pedals and the choke lever located by the handbrake, too – and when the engine burst into life, it did so with an endearing clattery hum (from the rear), after with relatively few churns of the lazy starter.

Once underway, it went well enough too. The steering was impossible to fault, and the gearchange relatively pain-free through the wand-like lever. The ride was firm, but well damped – and in all, I began to wonder why people held these cars in such low esteem, as it all felt so solid and planted.

But that honeymoon of discovery soon faded. A random homebrew switch hanging in the footwell on the end of some mains flex had me wondering. Flicking it soon revealed a bodge – the engine cooling fan came would come on with it, humming so insistently, the body started vibrating. But, hey, that’s not a problem – just stick it on in traffic jams. It soon became clear this car had cooling issues, with it running hot at the merest whiff of traffic. Best way to deal with that was by leaving that fan on permanently, and turning the radio up a little more. Fixing or even investigating the issue wasn’t going to happen – even if I did depend on this old heap.

Sadly my Škoda adventure turned for the worse after a bit of a front-ender involving a hapless soul in a 1978 Mazda 323, which left it looking the worse for wear, and the radiator even more damaged than it was before. But my way of straightening it out and fixing the Škoda was to take it into a friend’s garage, unscrew all the front panels, remodel them the best I could with a rubberised hammer, and put them back on. Liberal amounts of duck tape gave it a desirable (in my mind) Lancia Montecarlo-style black rubberised front-end – and on I carried motoring.

With its cooling system knackered, it was only worth driving at night, when the temperature was lower. Travelling during the hours of darkness also meant fewer people would see me in it, too. Despite that, I was stopped by the police in it. Regularly. Once, when travelling through Halifax, I was pulled, by a traffic officer who clearly just wanted to know what kind of a loser would drive a car like this. There was no reason for him to do so, and when I clambered out of the car, he turned to face me with the question, ‘what are these things really like to own?’

Then there was another time in Blackpool when after throwing it round a 90-degree bend near the railway station, pleased with my on-limit driving at 30mph, I was pulled by the Rover 827 driving traffic cop behind me. A breathalyser session was the reward for my efforts. Obviously I was given the all-clear with the parting message, ‘take it home sonny, and buy a new car.’

The final straw came in August 1989, when I ended up driving down to Milton Keynes. My girlfriend (yes, she hadn’t left me) had bought a couple of tickets to see Bon Jovi, and against her better judgement, refused to accept my offer of rail tickets, insisting that we drive down instead. The journey down was uneventful – I did it at night with her sleeping alongside most of the way down. We parked up at the MK Bowl in dawn’s early light, and went on to enjoy a brilliant show. It was an unseasonably warm weekend, though, and by the time it was time to head back (we stopped over night, worn out after a packed programme of Europe, Bon Jovi, Skid Row and Vixen) the following morning, temperatures were pushing 30 degrees.

That vinyl and nylon-clad interior soon became a hot-house torture chamber, and within miles of leaving Buckinghamshire, and heading back to the civility of the North, the overheating Škoda started to protest at such a stern drive. I decided to find the A6 and stick on it all  the way home – but the bank holiday traffic was no help. It was gridlock, and that was further punishment. The Škoda overheated regularly, and after every five miles or so. It consumed water like a dying man in a desert, and my own sanity began to falter. My girlfriend, ever stoic, remained sane, and refused to be brought down by our limping progress.

The hellish heat continued to punish the Škoda, though, and at some point just north of Leicester, I decided the best thing to do would be to dump it in a field, set fire to the sodding thing and catch the train home. But she wouldn’t let me – and persuaded me to pitch up at a road-side cafe and wait until dusk. It wasn’t a bad idea – and as the day cooled into evening, we resumed our journey, making it back to Blackpool in one easy drive.

The next weekend, I had free, so did what I was right. And scrapped the Škoda.

Strange thing is, I look back on this few weeks of car ownership hell as character-building. From that point on, I’d look on basic maintenance and repairs as a necessary evil, as opposed to something to be ignored. And that no matter how desperate you are, never, ever give up. I think I’d also have another Estelle, and give it a proper chance. The poor thing did have some redeeming features, and now over 20 years on, I think I’m recovered enough to have another go…

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)

36 Comments

  1. I first drove a new one of these,F plate 1998 and i thought it was ace,totally changed my mind,it was solid and drove really well considering it was an eastern bloc car,far better than any lada i think.

  2. Ahh the Estelle. My uncle bought one new in 83/84 was either a Y or A reg anyways, in the same yellow as the one above, but the go faster twin headlight model. Always liked the thrum of the engine note, and it always had that cheap plastic and glue smell, although one I didn’t find offensive. Took a few in PX when flogging the Ladas, and for what they were (same as the Ladas really) you couldn’t fault them for being cheap basic transport and better than having to walk or take the bus. Yes I would have one tomorrow.

  3. I remember a bunch of these later Skodas came to NZL some with the larger rectangle headlights and alloy wheels. I always thought they had nice lines, quite an accceptable looking car. they made some of the Japanese cars look odd. not sure if any of them are still going I havent seen one for years. I think new plymouth / waitara (here) was the national distribution centre for them too…Im quite sure it was. alex

  4. I learned to drive in a brand new E reg Skoda, My one enduring memory is the harsh rough plastic of the steering wheel, Actually made my hands bleed 🙁

  5. Not without character or charm and I imagine they were a good servant for some.

    But, ‘looked like a BMW 5 Series when viewed through beer goggles’?!?! Must have been bloody strong beer goggles!!!!

  6. My dad had three of these, S Reg (at the end), D reg and G reg. I was only ever old enough to drive the G Reg one. It was actually fun, I a few of my mates said they would never knock them again (but i think that was more down to me having a licence and ability to borrow it)

    They were no more or less bothersome or reliable than anything else he had. Although he’d trade in before they were 4 yr old.

  7. In 1988 My girlfriends father had one brand new in a mustard colour, and it was his second new Skoda, he did his best to convince me to buy one from his local dealer.
    So one day in a low point of my week i visited the dealer to test drive a white Rapide which came complete with a colour coded body kit and alloy’s.
    I took the Rapide for the drive on a wet day and i was shocked,it was awful the wipers on their fastest setting was slower than the slowest speed on my 1978 MK1 fiesta 1.1L and the road holding in the wet going round a roundabout was terrifying,and the build quality, well lets not even mention that.
    My 1978 fiesta at the time felt light years ahead and it made the Skoda feel like a pre war vehicle, needless to say i never bought a Skoda, but my girlfriends father went on to buy a further two Skoda’s but this time the new front drive Favorite! remember them?.
    The Favorite now there’s another story waiting to be written.

  8. “the look of a BMW 5-Series (when viewed through beer goggles)”

    You’ve definitely got a different prescription in your beer goggles to me Keith!

    Always had a bit of a soft spot for these, especially the Rapid coupé, which I thought was really well=styled.

  9. I think it was car magazine described them at the time as “The most dangerous handling new car on sale, in the UK” I believe there were suspension mods which tamed the handling a bit, fitted towards the end of its life.
    In terms of build quality i always thought of them as better than a Lada

  10. My Great-Aunt had a Estelle in Purple (or Maroon.. not 100% sure) with quad-headlights prior to replacing it with a 5-door Austin Metro.

    One time when I was much younger I remember that every time my Great-Aunt turned left the right rear passenger door where I was sitting at would keep swinging open with the Estelle having a nasty habit of inclining/swaying every time it changed direction so that I always felt like I was about to be thrown out of the bloodly thing.

  11. Lets put this handling stuff into perspective:

    Drive them as you should drive a cheap saloon car – Fine

    Drive them like you stole it – Wonky

    Morris Marina anyone?

    Simples!

  12. In 1991 I wemt down a similar route, I traded my knackered Dolomite for a B reg Skoda Estelle 105 Lux with 9000 miles on the clock. It was great fun in the first few weeks, butas the months went by the experience worsened. The electric fan thermostat failed, and I bodged in a manual switch (like Keiths), as the cooling system was horrendously complicated. From that point on it constantly overheated, on a holiday to Cornwall I had to stop every 20 minutes on the journey from South Wales once we left the motorway.

    In the end the clutch failed two weeks before I got married, we hired a VW Polo Fox for our honeymoon, and sold the car for £50 to a Polish chap on our return. It didn’t put me off Skoda completely, as in 1996 I bought a brand new Felicia, and that was a brilliant liitle car.

  13. i had a 120LX Estelle , we liked it but not good in side winds , very comfy to drive not the fastest of cars but we did max it out only reason we got rid of it is that it got written off by a white van man ramming it and pushing it into another car.
    i miss the storage behind the back seats though fair to say the boot in the front wasn’t the best… the main reason we didn’t get another . it was nice to drive and they had a big rally history , ours handled ok. just not fast but mostly kept up with normal traffic . it was a E-reg and was in good nic till the end. on our trip to Germany we popped over the boarder to the home of Škoda but only saw one sorry looking one …

  14. For the price of and electric switch, these poor cars were bodged, boiled, ruined and scrapped!

    Any car not maintained properly will ultimately fail. And this is sadly what happened to a lot of Skodas; they were bought by people who could not afford to run a car

    Then the car is blamed for poor reliability!

  15. Keith
    Just try reading your Skoda piece in the voice of David Sedaris, It immediately becomes really hilarious!

  16. A good friend of mine owns 9 Estelle based vehicles, including an off road buggy known as a Bugrat. One of the cars is an absolute minty fresh 120LSE, and a custard yellow Rapid. He is madder than a box of frogs is Dave.

  17. Actually the worst car I ever owned was a car supposedly famed for its reliability, a Toyota Corolla. I bought an 11 year old one in 1996 and in the year I had it, the clutch died, the engine was reduced to firing on two cylinders, the head gasket blew,and then having had enough, I sold it for scrap for £ 30. When I hear of newer Toyotas suffering from reliability issues, I always think of mine and what a load of rubbish it was.
    Then I bought a Rover 213 S, which ran sweetly for a year and never missed a beat. Honda engineering must obviously be better than Toyota then.

  18. It is quite incredible how Skodas are now viewed. In many ways they make the best cars in the whole VAG catalogue while at the same time burying all the old jokes. Amazing

  19. My father was in a similar predicament way back in 1990 when he was about to start a new job and his Morris Ital decided that it would be better if it disolved the floor. He was offered an equally orange Y reg 120L.

    It was quite solid and apart from the fact the engine ran on only 3 of its 4 cylinders it ran amazingly trouble free, even travelling down to North Wales for a holiday which it did without complaint.

    So lovely was the car, my dad decided when things were going better in the job, to upgrade to a beige 1986 D reg 130 LSE with a vinyl roof, 5 speed box and centre console with Philips stereo!

    As a precocious child, I would often air my disapproval at such an uncool car that despite a trip to Burrelton to see Thompson & Potter’s garage (who the owner was a top bloke who loved his cars) who showed us his little collection which included an early 20s Laurent & Klement he was restoring and the garage was full of Morgans (he was also a Morgan dealer) which started my love of the Mog.

    He gave up trying to make it cool (rally spots & alloys etc) and chopped it for a X reg Cortina 2.0 Ghia Mk5 which I was much happier with…

    However, as I got older, I decided that I was too harsh on my father and as he was adamant that they were really good cars I stumped up for a G reg 120L 5 speed which was the worst car I ever had the misfortune to own (worse than the drive by wire Xantia 2.1 TD I had which was really bad)…

    In the end, I am certain I had the worst one that was available for sale with an MOT… Would I ever try the old Skodas again? Not an Estelle/Rapid. While I do admit to liking the styling, the nightmare of mine still haunts me.

    However, if a clean Favorit Silverline came up, I’d been interested…

  20. I’m currently back in the Czech Republic for the first time in many years. How it has changed with only one Estelle spotted so far which is a shame. I recall mother test driving one years ago and it was just awful when cold, she then looked at a fiat panda before opting for a Volvo 240 estate. Would quite fancy an Estelle though.

  21. Isildore
    There is still a Favorit estate doing the rounds at Eskdalemuir. Must say something for the ruggedness of the car that it has survived eighteen winters in the Scottish Borders, where heavy rain and snow are frequent.

  22. I somewhat lament the fact that at least in the U.S, there are no more “bad” cars like this on the market. Maybe in the U.K. cars like the Proton still qualify but overall even the cheapest cars have reached a home appliance like level of basic quality and reliability along with a complete absence of character. Canada got the Skoda and I live close enough to Canada whereby I sometimes see Canadian registered cars on the road and occasionally they are models we don’t get here. However I never recall seeing a single Skoda or Lada. We need cheap cars with character, cars you need some degree of driving skill and an abundance of patience to get the most out of.

  23. There are no really awful cars on a par with the East European makes from the eighties. Even the cheapest ones like the Indian Suzuki Alto are reasonably reliable and well put together, will cruise happily if a bit noisily at 70 mph and still offer the refinements found in more expensive cars( contrast this with the vinyl and bare metal interiors found in eighties FSOs).
    However, the Skoda Estelle, for all it was crude and built to a budget, but actually not that unreliable if looked after, was quite a unique product featuring rwd and a rear engine that only Porsche featured. Also the Rapid was said to have the handling of a Porsche 911 for a tenth of the price.

  24. Keith. I believe that the Estelle was going to have the BL ‘B’ or ‘O’ series engine at some point plus conversion to front engine rear wheel drive. Do you know why this did not happen? I am sure in one of my mags there are details of this.

  25. I loved my 89 Rapid…no trouble at all. Great to drive…better than any BL car I’ve driven. Car magazine said it was great.
    Autocar said it handled like a 911 and was more fun than a golf gti…. they loved its charm and so did I.
    Nasty swing axle handling was sorted by around 83

  26. My very first car was a 1983 Estelle 120LSE, and I bought one through choice rather than lack of money, largely because I was a huge fan of the Lombard RAC rally and the fact that I just wanted something different to all my Fiesta owning mates.

    It was a fantastic little car and I have some very fond memories of it. Of all the cars I’ve owned since then, it is still the one that performed the best in snow too!

  27. Wait a minute, I’m hoping to buy an “E” reg Estelle Two 105S, THE base model of all Skodas in the 1980’s… Wish me luck!

  28. My Estelle 120 was a great car, mostly; but quirky. It was better with weight in the boot (front) that got rid of a little understeer. Czech friends said there’s was much better on their snowy hills than their Citroën Xantia (1995, not long after the Velvet Revolution).

    I found out the cooling system needed to be distilled water, as tapwater reacted with the alloy block to create a gel-like compound in the pipes from front to the rear engine, blocking them. Hence the cooling problems mentioned above. Mine melted the HT leads when I missed the overheat. Oh, and on one occasion it blew a core plug, and dropped its oil over the M6 in Cheshire.

    It also had an endearing habit, if parked on a steep camber, of pumping petrol out from the filler cap. I asked the mechanic why – he said “No idea. You’ve heard their advertising slogan, ‘Surprising Skoda’?”

    But the rest of the mechanics were great. It actually got quieter the faster you went; and not a scrap of rust anywhere.

  29. I owned a 120L many years ago.I used it daily to commute to work.I had it for about a year sold it without ever having a problem and then bought a motorbike.This year I wanted to buy an old 80’s classic and spotted a 130L which I bought.I absolutely love the car. It is a 1988 model which has the modified rear swing arm. It is lowered and stiffened and handles a dream. I just love all the mechanical checks you have to do during a service. They take a bit of minding so if you are not into looking after cars properly I would advise against buying one.Parts are cheap as chips from the Czech Republic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*