In Memoriam : Škoda Estelle 120LS

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

The continuing series of features about cars on the endangered list in the UK, according to data supplied by the brilliant How Many Left? website based on DVLA data.

12: Škoda Estelle 120LS

Two generation Estelles - Once commonplace now almost extinct
Two generation Estelles: once commonplace now almost extinct

The years fly by as you get older, your parents and teachers would tell you that, summer school holidays seemed to last six years rather than six weeks and your pocket money would last nearly seven days. Now, as I reach the dreaded four-zero those words ring true as it literally does only feel like last month since the streets were littered with a vast array of cheap, basic and affordable cars.

Yes, you can buy base models of any makers product but where once you would shiver at the thought of your parents buying a car in City, Merit or Popular trim. All of the volume manufacturers offer the most basic features like a CD player or power steering for example. When was the last time you saw a new hatchback car with a rubber bung in lieu of a rear wash wipe?

Among the many hobbies I had ‘when I were a small boy’ (to quote the late Fred Dibnah) was visiting garages collecting brochures. Not just any marques – but all of them. Some were accommodating – such as most of the Austin Rover dealers and the huge Vauxhall dealer in Darlington, where I used to live (coincidentally, it also became my work experience placement at school, and its MD Alasdair Machonachie, MBE still recognises me to this day).

Back in the mid-80s, I lived right on the Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex borders, and our town had only three car dealers. They served Austin Rover, Ford and Vauxhall-Opel. For a brochure collector like myself, other marques would be a bus journey to Cambridge or Bury St Edmunds, where every car maker seemed to have an outlet.

Hundon is a small hamlet about seven miles west of Bury St Edmunds, where nothing ever happens. It was so quiet, even the church clock didn’t chime. Rumor has it that a helicopter once crashed in a field, and by the time the emergency services arrived, the locals were throwing bread at the stricken craft – you get the idea! But it did feature one tiny car dealer, selling of all marques – Škoda!

In those days the market place was full of cheap affordable cars offering nothing more than a viable alternative to a bus or push bike. Of course our own makers would offer ‘bobby basic’ cars like the Mini City E or Ford Fiesta 950 Popular, but if you needed a really cheap no frills car, you had to buy something from the Communist Eastern Bloc.

So for the impecunious, Hundon was the place to go if you needed a new car, and were saddled with living in this uneventful corner of Eastern England. Back then, Škodas were the butt of jokes and have been ridiculed for many a year, but somehow – to me – they made perfect sense. And after speaking to owners of these cars – past or present – they all seemed more than happy with them, bought them time after time and thought they were cracking cars. Maybe the joke has been on all on us.

Back to one hot morning in the summer of 1985. My good friend, Adrian, and I cycled on our well maintained Raleigh racers to Hundon. I always remember that my old home town of Darlington sported a Škoda dealer (which also sold Reliant), but the sales people there were miserable, and unfriendly, so I avoided them. I really hoped this wouldn’t be the case in Hundon.

I needn’t have worried. Arriving at the dealer in Hundon was like travelling back in time. There were two petrol pumps with those wonderful, yet long gone, sight glasses serving fuel to this tiny place. A rubber coated wire stretched across the forecourt sounding a bell that would summon the attendant to duty – I almost have a nostalgic tear in my eye recounting this now!

The tiny showroom housed two Škodas. One was an Estelle and the other was a Rapid Coupé, and right away I was hooked on the non pretentious charm of these cars. And just like a scene from an episode of Mr Benn, an old man appeared dressed in a brilliant white dust coat and bow tie wiping oil from his hands with a rag. To our relief, he didn’t tell us to clear off – it had taken quite a while to cycle there – but we did wonder what would he think about two teenagers milling around in his tiny showroom.

It transpired he was the sales manager, pump attendant and owner of the garage. He couldn’t have been more accommodating with our request for literature. Prior to our visit, I knew little about the product, the rally pedigree, or just how popular they really were. I think it was in this sleepy village where my passion for Eastern European cars was born. Subsequently, I went on to own a pair of Lada Rivas some years back finding them dependable, reliable, and when I rammed a Nissan Stanza from behind with some serious force – almost indestructible. Whereas FSO, Lada and Yugo were licence-build Fiats, Škoda trod its own evolutionary path with the Estelle and Rapid.

1971 Škoda Type 720 AD-3 Prototype featured front-wheel drive. Much of its stying was carried over to the 1976 Estelle.
1971 Škoda Type 720 AD-3 Prototype featured front-wheel drive. Much of its styling was carried over to the 1976 Estelle.

The Estelle was a simple rear engined, rear-wheel drive saloon. It was introduced in 1976 as an extensive rebody of the long-lived 1000MB range of cars – and although it retained that car’s antiquated layout, Škoda had dearly wanted to create an all-new car with a front-engined, front-wheel drive layout. But the budget wasn’t there – and so, the concept was watered down to the saloon we ended up with, and which remained on sale until 1990. Although it was smaller than the Lada Riva or FSO 125, it was usefully accommodating, and had a slightly more West European and aerodynamic look about it. The engines, transmissions and braking systems were all produced and made in house, and Škoda also was a large producer of commercial vehicles.

Škoda also featured some novel ideas for a Communist car including all round independent coil suspension, rack and pinion steering and a front mounted radiator with electric fan improving and aiding efficiency or economy. The Estelle’s elderly pushrod Renault-derived engines ranged in size from 1050 to 1300cc, and was inclined to right at 45 degrees to ensure tidy and compact rear end styling.

The engines featured separate cylinder liners to reduce core costs, while the gearboxes were mounted centrally in the middle of the rear axle space to redress the adverse effects of excessive weight over the rear wheels. The whole package of rustic body engineering and proven mechanics (that were an evolution of the Renault Dauphine’s) ensured that general servicing was simple and easy to carry out. Some rather odd features included a water pump fitted with a grease nipple, and a complicated heater/cooling pipe system that was a real pain to rid of airlocks. Overheating was common, especially if the coolant had been flushed through.

Like our own K-Series, head gaskets would fail and sometimes heads would crack as a consequence.

Škoda was a formidable force in rallying, shown here with this 1984 LR130

In normal service with correct levels of aftercare, the Estelle proved a reliable car that gave good fuel consumption – and that led to countless owners repeat-purchasing time and time again. With room for four adults and a decent sized front boot, the Estelle made perfect common sense.

Obviously, you had to know the car’s handling limits. High speed cruising was noisy, and earlier models with swing axle suspension at the rear could give interesting handling traits when pushed to the absolute limit. Smaller 1050cc variants were lacking in any meainingful power or torque, making a long drive about as pleasurable as helplessly watching the family dog drown. But later 1.2- and 1.3-litre models were acually quite lively.

Over time, some improvements were made to the Estelle range. Items such as larger headlamps, and a vastly improved dashboard (with dials you could read and warning lights you could actually see) went some way to keeping the car fresh and competitive. Some much-needed modifications to the rear suspension calmed down the high speed instability. What kept showroom traffic busy was the brilliant aftersales network, friendly dealers and decent warranty. But later models also became better equipped with alloy wheels, sunroofs, radio cassette players and five-speed gearboxes becoming standard equipment on the higher models as Škoda progressed towards the 1990s.

Realising that time was running out for this model that had its roots in the 1960s, Škoda replaced the Estelle with a new range of five-door front-wheel drive hatchbacks called the Favorit. In a similar manner to the Lada Samara, these new Škodas were not quite developed enough to be really competitive with European mainstream rivals, but on cost, they could not be touched.

Soon after Škoda became part of the Volkswagen Group whereby Škoda’s engineering expertise and VW’s quality became a perfect match. Škoda now produces a product of such a high quality that, as a lesser known fact, bodyshells for Bentley Motors are actually produced by Škoda – then imported into the UK for final build-up.

Gallery

 

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

17 Comments

  1. Always loved these, like a poor man’s SAAB (when they were worth having) Odd that the UK demolished almost every car wih rust yet a trip to Poland or Czech shows there are many of these in great condition (and they aret too fussed with looking after cars over there it has to be said!)

  2. I always fancied the top of the range coupé, the Black Rapid.  I thought it was a great looking car, but I foolishly cared what my contemporaries thought about me in 1994 and bought an Escort instead.  Even then, you didn’t see many of those Skodas knocking about.

  3. There was a cabrio version made aftermarket by a firm in Kent. I remember the estelle coming out and thinking it looked ‘normal’ compared to the strange 1000MB. Probably the most appealing of the eastern block cars, but I’d have taken the 2CV at a comparable price.

  4. Selling Ladas back in the day, it’d be quite often a Skoda would come in in PX for one, and the ones I drove, while nothing special, they did what they said on the tin, and for a cheap form of motoring were not a bad option.

  5. We had a dealership in a small village around here too, and they did a roaring trade. There was a Ford & BL dealership no more than 3 miles away in any direction but the Skoda drivers kept coming back and repurchasing. I knew the staff at the dealership pretty well and the standard of service was excellent.This car is on my ‘hush hush’ wish list along with a 2CV, Trabant and Renault 4………(slopes away quietly….)

  6. Mike, do you know what stands in the place of your Skoda dealer in Hundon now? Just been looking at google earth and would imagine the site wouldn’t be too difficult to find!

  7. I owned and drove Skoda Estelles and Rapids for 10 years. They were tough little tanks that never let me down, excellent budget motoring. I bade farewell to the last one, an “A reg” Solent Blue Vinyl Roofed Estelle 120 LSE with a whale tail spoiler and a 1.3 litre upgrade engine, in 2004 (Accident damaged, rear collision). I drove it to the breakers myself, and cried all the way there.Yes, it they were really that good! I still miss it.

  8. The 1971 prototype has a great deal of original (not Giugiaro) Audi 80 / VW K70 about it dontcha think? Nice looking car…….

  9. Ah yes the Sko-d-d-a, wonderful old thing! A triumph of ingenuity over impecunity with some strange and original features (sideways opening front bonnet anyone?) and entertainingly wayward handling (if a little too easy to slide the rear on wet roundabouts). A girlfriend of mine had one of these when it was already 10 years old and becoming hard to keep going but in hindsight it was probably no worse in that respect than other similarly-aged cars of the time. Very similar to the orange one in the photo.
    Yes the 1971 prototype is a handsome little beast and shows what Skoda were capable of even then.

  10. Oh, the Skoda Estelle… Some memories of these little motors. My dad replaced an 1982 Morris Ital 1.7HL with an orange Estelle 1 120L (AMS396Y) that he was given for free. It ran on only 3 cylinders but it travelled from Fife to Wales via Preston with no issues whatsoever. Apart from the social stigma for a teenager, it was a great car and it was thanks to that car I became acquainted with Morgans (the best dealer I ever came across, Thompson & Potter in Burrelton, near Blairgowrie was also a main agent for Morgan too!) and when my dad wanted a little more toys he went for a beige 1986 D reg 130LSE with the vinyl roof and centre console!

    Loved them so much as a kid that when I was driving I decided to get one (much to my then girlfriend’s chagrin) for playing with and I bought a 1990 G 120L 5speed for £50. Shame that was the second worst car I ever drove… But the memories of when I was a child, being met with the rallying pedigree and the awesome black Rapid 136 Coupe still stick with me. I may one day get a 136 if there are any left and I’m sure it’ll handle better than the blue turd (as the £50 wonder was called).

    Skoda dealers did always come across as very pleasant places to be. There used to be one in Markinch many years ago that was also a dealer for Dacia as well. But the trips to Burrelton were always special. The owner was a nice gent who took us round his barns to show of his massive collection. I wonder if he ever finished restoring his classic Laurin & Klement to drive to the factory for Skoda’s 100th…

  11. Our uncle purchased a brand new white Skoda 120 GLS sedan in Vancouver, Canada in 1986, one of the few years we had Skoda imported to Canada. We had never seen the likes of this car before or since. It seemed quite sporty at the time, and european, if simple. The front end became quite lively at 90kph, with the motor in the back, and though it became a farm vehicle after only 8 or 9 years on the road, I can still say it was the only family car that could bring in a birthed calf from the field a 3am, in the back seat! It also taught all the kids how to drive before we were road legal. Lovely memories of an rare car.

  12. i had a 1000mb for 6 months , a roomy 4 door car not fast .sold it as i found my self cauling folk for buying overseas cars. the chap who brought it kept it 3 more years ,

  13. Great story, it was the same for me here in the Netherlands. I always liked these quirky little cars, so as soon as I had a drivers licence I bought one. Never failed me too, I still have one now which I use quite often. By the way, the engines are NOT Renault-derived. Skoda developed the engine blocks themselves in the 1960’s, in that time these engines were quite modern too. This engine was used from the first 1000MB in 1964 to the last 120L in 1990, and in a slightly modified form up to the Fabia 1400MPi (last one made in 2000). In the Czech Republic quite often get transferred to Estelles by enthusiasts there.

  14. “Soon after Škoda became part of the Volkswagen Group whereby Škoda’s engineering expertise and VW’s quality became a perfect match. Škoda now produces a product of such a high quality that, as a lesser known fact, bodyshells for Bentley Motors are actually produced by Škoda – then imported into the UK for final build-up.”

    There seems to be a bit of uproar with the news that the SUV is to be produced, and the bodyshells ‘made in Europe’…

    Looks like the secret is out.

  15. There was a Skoda dealer near me, similar thing, small showroom next to two petrol pumps, run by an old man and a small workshop at the back. Yet due to the owner knowing the customer by name and the Skoda being a reasonable car for not much money, people kept coming back. I’m sure the Estelle and Favorit having a loyal following even before the Germans bought Skoda, and having a better reputation than Lada, meant the brand has prospered.

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