Here’s to heritage and 120 years of Skoda

Matt Kimberley drives a 1929 Skoda 422 four-door saloon.

Matt Kimberley drives a 1929 Skoda 422 four-door saloon. - Credit: supplied

Matt Kimberley gets behind the wheel and enjoys a trip back in time to celebrate 120 years of Skoda history and heritage.

You'd probably be excused for seeing Skoda only as a Volkswagen Group company. After all, its resurgence in the UK has only happened since the early Nineties – after VW had taken over.

But there's more to the Czech brand than that – 120 years, in fact. There's some dispute with other companies as to whether Skoda is the third or fourth-oldest car-maker still running, but nonetheless it's pretty old.

And, firmly donning my national pride hat for a moment, Skoda UK is the biggest collector of classic Skodas outside of the brand's home country. It has some absolutely mega cars on its books including a mint condition Favorit, bought recently with less than 2,500 miles on the clock since new.

With the shutters raised on a series of garages at Bicester Heritage in Oxfordshire, the fleet is something special to behold. Everything from a 1929 422 four-door saloon in a buttery cream colour to the very latest Superb stretches out before your eyes, with some seriously notable highlights.

The jewel in the fleet's crown is a 1958 Sports Racer, the 1100 OHC Spider. My hosts tell me it's one of only three left in the world, while Skoda HQ in the Czech Republic says it's one of only two that work. It owns the other one.

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Sporting heritage

Sadly, the weather is not playing ball. It's chucking it down. I daren't risk going out in it. Instead I go for the genesis of Skoda's sporting arm – the Octavia vRS. Around the turn of the millennium the company realised it needed to cash in on its surprisingly impressive motorsport pedigree. The RS badge is trademarked by Ford in the UK, so a little 'v' was added and the hot Octavia was born.

Spacious, practical and perfectly proportioned, it's no surprise the car was such a hit. That it was also faster, much cheaper and a lot better looking than the wheezy VW Golf GTi of the time guaranteed its success. It was a performance bargain.

This one has covered plenty of miles but still drives very well. It's the refinement that strikes me – it's so grown-up and comfortable for its age. The light gearbox lets the short-throw lever flick deftly between ratios as the turbocharged 1.8-litre engine pulls up to the speed limit without drama. The red and green instruments are as cool now as they were back then, too. As an everyday all-round performance car it doesn't get much easier to get along with, and when you see how affordable they are, you'll think seriously about joining a queue of buyers that's only going to grow.

Bounce and charm

I can't resist a go in the Favorit. You wouldn't call it pretty, but with its fresh tyres and new Skoda badges it's full of bounce and Eastern European charm. And you'd be a real Muppet to turn down the chance to drive something in such time-warp condition.

The soft seats accept your weight willingly as you settle in behind wonderfully-dated clocks, and the smell inside this oh-so-lightly used one is magic. Shame about the mould on a section of the passenger seat belt, but nobody's perfect. It's astonishing how fresh the car feels mechanically. It's genuinely quite sweet to drive, even managing a confident overtake on a quiet stretch of A-road. The squidgy suspension is a revelation, floating and wobbling its way through life with not a care in the world. Brilliant.

Different Age

Anyway, time to move on to a car I have history with. The Felicia Convertible here was my own wedding car, but time pressures ('can't the wedding breakfast wait!') meant I never got chance to actually drive the thing. Until now. A 1963 model, this little beauty is quite the head-turner wherever it goes. It's also hard for modern criminals to steal, because to start it there's a choke – and a pull-starter that isn't marked as such. I find myself fumbling around for ages until admitting defeat and asking someone. You'd almost certainly have time to have come back to your car and nab the would-be thief.

This and the very similar 1964 Octavia parked next to it feel, unsurprisingly, quite a lot alike. Slow, soft and loud, they embody a different age of motoring. The Octavia and Favorit feel, in a lot of ways, like current cars. Not so with these two. Imagining a journey to the seaside in one of these puts me in mind of medieval torture. I'd do it once for the experience, but not twice. Call me spoiled.

Still, it's fantastic to get a flavour of Skoda's heritage and achievements. Go as far back in its history as you like and you'll find luxury, speed and great styling. Perhaps not always at the same time, but it's all there. Here's to the next 120 years.

Do you drive an old Skoda? Tell us about it – and send a pictured of it? Email motoring@archant.co.uk