Czech Mate, the Skoda Estelle

Criticised, made of fun of and now forgotten, Skoda would rather forget the Estelle. And yet the car was incredibly popular, setting the company on its current path to mainstream success

It’s safe to say the Estelle wasn’t the greatest car ever made, or even the greatest car Skoda has ever made. And yet it was successful and, more importantly, kept the company’s profile high enough to be taken over by a much bigger player.

This was the car that inspired the many Skoda jokes that last to this day

In the early seventies Skoda had wanted to design a totally new front-engined car but there simply wasn’t the money to do so. And so the Czech company simply updated its existing rear-engined, rear-wheel drive car – the S100 – giving it a black plastic grill that gave it the appearance of being front-engined. As a result, compared to cars that were coming out of Europe and Japan, the Estelle was hardly the last word in modern engineering. It had the choice of either a 1046cc or 1174cc engine so speed wasn’t a priority while its handling was appalling, suffering from dreadful oversteer. Skoda responded with a serious of improvements in 1979 but they didn’t really work.

And so this was the car that inspired all of the many Skoda jokes and the company’s terrible reputation that lasts to this day.

And yet despite the problems when it went on sale in 1976 owners found the Estelle to be robust, spacious and – more importantly – very cheap. Publicity came from huge successes in motorsport. Thanks to an almost unheard of levels of reliability it won the under 1300cc class in the British rally for 17 years running. In 1982 the saloon was then joined by a handsome coupe, the Rapide. As a result it was incredibly successful and between 1976 and 1990 when it was finally phased out it sold just under two million cars. Despite the negative image and outdated technology it was particularly popular in the UK and in 1987 Skoda’s dealers sold a massive 17,000 examples.

But more importantly it launched Skoda into the mainstream. Up until then Skoda’s presence outside of the Iron curtain was almost none existent. The Estelle, though, showed there was a place for its cars on the European market. This was further proved by the car’s replacement. By the late eighties, and with Skoda having a much higher profile, it was time produce a more mainstream car and so the Favorit was a front-wheel drive, five-door hatchback. Although quality wise it was no Ford Fiesta, it had a greater potential than the old fashioned Estelle. Further vindication arrived in 1990 when – following the fall of communism – the Volkswagen Group took a 30% share in the firm (by 2000 this was 100%).

As for the Estelle, its place in Skoda’s fortunes have been forgotten, reduced to being an embarrassing footnote in the company’s history. And yet if it wasn’t for this car VW and the rest of Europe wouldn’t have been interested in this tiny Czech minnow.

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