Škoda 1200 & 1201: Modern for Mladá Boleslav

It wasn’t the most exciting car, but what an evocative photo! The car is a Škoda 1201, an outgrowth of the closely related (and visually almost identical) Škoda 1200. The basic vehicle was the second new post-war Škoda car, but the first one that was available to the general public (more on that later).

The 1200 and its two descendants – the 1201 and 1202, are mostly forgotten today outside of central Europe, but they were important cars for Škoda and though slow, they had a good reputation for quality in keeping with its earlier cars. It was a car of a transitional time, and Škoda had already survived a great deal to get it built.

As a company, Škoda pre-dated cars, and was founded as an arms manufacturer in 1859. It was the later concern of Laurin & Klement, founded by Václav Laurin and Václav Klement in 1896, that first built bikes, then cars, in Mladá Boleslav on the banks of the Jizera river. Eventually, Laurin & Klement was the largest automaker in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though it was still small by international standards.

A major fire disrupted the factory in 1924 and left the Václavs looking for a new partner. That led to a sale to the much larger Škoda industrial concern in 1925. Škoda was looking to furtehr diversify, and the two companies were a good match. Eventually, Laurin & Klement cars became Škoda Auto. Before 1930 most of these cars were built in very bespoke ways and L&K built expensive, fancy cars.

The depression and new management led to a redesigned line of mainstream volume cars featuring a unique backbone chassis design (sort of similar to much later Lotuses) in the 1930s. This, and volume production techniques, greatly boosted sales. But after the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the factory was requisitioned to make war material for the Axis powers and repeatedly (and heavily) bombed.

After the war Czechoslovaia found itself firmly in the Soviet Sphere, but things were hurriedly rebuilt and prewar designs put back into production. New cars were for just over two and a half years before the 1948 coup d’etat, which made the country a Soviet satellite and made companies like Škoda property of the state.

Škoda after WW2

The first postwar Škoda was the 1949 VOS (Vladni Osobni Speciál or “Government Special Car”), a huge limo built for state dignitaries in tiny numbers. The priority for this car was one of the state – it was meant to give Czechoslovakian pols a limo of their own to rival diplomatic Cadillacs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Rolls-Royces. The huge car, which looked a little like a ’49 Plymouth with a much fancier front end, was basically a truck with an armor plated body and a top speed of less than 60mph.

Needless to say it was only for party elites, and Škoda needed to come up with a new mainstream car in a world where other manufacturers were moving on from prewar designs. Škoda was a big company by Czechoslovak standards but still weak in the postwar environment, and resources were limited. At the time, it had two products – the slow-selling big Superb and the volume 1102, both pre war cars with modest updates.

A German ad for the 1200, circa 1953.

Fortunately two longtime Škoda veterans were there to make it happen – chief engineer Vladimír Matouš and body designer Josef Velebný. Matouš, with Škoda since 1928, was the father of the backbone chassis design the cars all used and the lead designer of the OHV four-cylinder engine in the 1102. This was a modern powerplant even by 1952 standards, but had actually been introduced in 1939. Škodas were advanced cars, and respected for their engineering and quality.

Velebný had been at Mladá Boleslav for about the same time as Matouš, and had been styling and designing bodies for much of his time there. But even in postwar times, Škoda’s bodies were antiquated wood-framed things. The new volume production car Matouš, Velebný, and their staff were working on would be much more advanced in this respect.

The Škoda 1200

The new car, a direct replacement for the Popular/1102 line, would be as forward thinking as their old ones, and Velebný designed Škoda’s first all-steel bodies with aerodynamic “pontoon” lines. Even the door handles were faired in. Velebný was no doubt influenced by the ‘49 Ford, the Fiat 1400, and especially the 1947 Kaiser Special. To be called the Škoda 1200, the new car bowed in the spring of 1952 – quite a long time after these other cars, but looking very contemporary and clean.

The inside was not quite so modern. The 1200’s mechanicals and backbone frame were evolved from the prewar Popular/1102. The OHV four, while advanced, was not a big engine and the 1200 made due with a new 1,221-cc, 36-hp version of it. A more powerful 1.5 liter version was considered but rejected on the grounds that it would cost too much. The 1200 could barely reach 55mph.

The 1200 was meant for families and workers, unsurprisingly, and unlike the outgoing 1102 did not come with coupe or convertible bodies. A sedan and two-door and four-door wagons were offered, as well as a pickup, a van, and an ambulance conversion.

Slow or not, it was frugal, durable, and drove well. Power came by a four-speeder transmitting to the rear wheels, with no synchro on first or second. It still ended up running in the Monte Carlo rally in 1953, though it was not exactly podium material.

In early 1954 the company added a 45-hp high-compression version good for 63 mph and new trim – the 1201. The 1201 had more brightwork and detail, but was still fundamentally the sober, clean 1200 with some updates.

The 1201 two-door wagon (Rendering: Škoda Auto).

Never fast, the cars were notably easy to maintain and very durable. Pickup and Van versions were very popular with tradespeople in Czechoslovakia and Hungary and in other nearby places were the cars were exported.

The real goal of designing a new car in Socialist times was, of course, export and bring cash home – and the 1200 and 1201 (along with the related, later 1202) was exported to 64 different countries in time. Mokotov, the Czechoslovak Government agency responsible for exporting them, did a good job trying – including a major push in the United Kingdom in 1954-55. This was long before anybody made jokes about Communist Škodas and the cars were well respected if seen as slow and unusual.

The real handicap was tariffs, which often made Škodas a poor value on pricing with similarly-sized and more powerful cars.

The Škoda 1200 and 1201 ran concurrently into 1956, when the original 1200 was dropped. From then on, the 1201 was Škoda’s mainstream family car into 1961. It had been joined by the smaller and cheaper 440/445 in 1957, which quickly became the volume leader and also saw wide export (including to the United States) and a revision into the original Octavia in 1959.

The 1201 ran into 1961 before being replaced with the related 1202. With the Octavia selling very well, there was less need for a sedan, so the 1202 got a light restyling along the lines of the Octavia and continued only as Wagons, Pickups, and Vans into the early 1970s. A version produced in Turkey under license with a reworked body, was built into 1983. The long-running 1202 can still be seen in service in the Czech Republic and Slovakia today.

We don’t know where the photo at the top of the page, from the Old Motors archives, was taken but it’s almost certainly in Czechoslovakia or Hungary. The statue looks a little like Budapest’s Freedom Statue, but it isn’t that statue. Do you know? Tell us!

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