Monday September 26, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts.
If in the late 1970s you were in the market for a new car, needed four doors and a reasonably sized cabin, but had only the funds for a Mini 850, you may well have been attracted to the Škoda Estelle.
Unlike the Lada 1200 or the Polski-Fiat 125p, the styling looking contemporary, with no overtones of 1960s Turin, and the coachwork featured some clever details – the back seat folded to provide a luggage platform and the flagship version even came with quad headlamps as standard. The marque had been established in the UK for many years and who could have resisted the fine vehicles that starred in this thrilling sales film?
The Estelle was also fitted with a dummy radiator grille, as the engine was mounted at the rear. Škoda’s original plan for a replacement for their long-running 100/110 was a new FWD but there were neither the funds nor the political support for such a project and so the Estelle used much of the (Renault Dauphine derived) running gear of its predecessor.
Dealers could still point out the rack and pinion steering and the all-independent suspension but the British motoring press made unkind references to the Škoda’s tendency to oversteer. Motor was especially damning – ‘the tricky, tail-heavy, tail-happy, Škoda Estelle will not help you out of trouble and could well land you in it’.
Nearly four decades later, enthusiasts still debate how much of these traits were due to the Škoda’s engineering, as opposed to motorists who were no longer used to rear-engine swing-axle motoring, but the initial marketing damage to the Estelle remained immense. ‘Škoda jokes’ became the stock in trade of comedians who had run out of anything more to say about their mothers-in-law and Estelle owners were faced with the additional challenges of corrosion and the front mounted radiator’s habit of overheating.
However, the Estelle’s image was enhanced by a succession of class victories in the RAC rally and winning the 1981 Touring Car championship (readers are warned that this film contains exceedingly groovy music):
In 1984 the 130 series featured semi-trailing arms at the rear, a five-speed gearbox and a larger 1.3-litre engine and three years later the 136 boasted the same power plant as used in the Favorite. For budget-minded drivers who craved a Porsche, but who lacked the necessary overdraft facilities, a Rapid 136 Coupe was the ideal car. As Autocar put it ‘in an era of sameness, it offers a genuinely different driving experience. There's no better way to learn about every angle of handling – a sort of beginner’s course to the 911 if you like’.
The rear engine Škoda continued in production until 1990, the year that the Czech government announced that VW was to become the firm’s overseas partner. The rare survivors of the Estelle range cherished by a devoted coterie of enthusiasts who have heard virtually every Hale & Pace style ‘comic’ remark over the past 30 years. After all, when you own a rally proven car that has been compared to the Porsche 911, you can afford to ignore jibes that are clearly the product of envy.