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
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.
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.
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.