This week marked the 40th anniversary of the Skoda Type 762 series of cars: The Skoda 105, 120, 130, 135, Rapid and so on. Though pretty much unknown in America, these were very popular in Eastern Europe, especially what’s now the Czech Republic. They’re among the last of the general-use rear-engined cars developed, so they have a special place in my rear-engined heart.
When they were being developed in early-mid 1970s Czechoslovakia, the goal was to produce a more modern-style front-engine/front-drive car like most of the other major automakers were doing. The future looked like the Volkswagen Golf and Honda Civic, and Skoda wanted to be part of that.
Of course, Skoda couldn’t just do anything they wanted. As part of the Soviet Bloc, they had to get approval from Moscow for a major project like this. The Soviets realized that if Skoda was going to develop a completely new and modern style FWD car, it would immediately make all the Soviet cars for sale look old-fashioned and obsolete, and there’s no way the Soviets were going to let that happen.
Skoda was denied funding to develop a whole new car, and instead had to rework their successful but aging Skoda 100/110 platform, which was rear-engine/rear-drive. Rear engines had their peak in the 1960s, when they seemed like the future of small cars. Everyone was making them: Renault, Fiat, Simca, Volkswagen, hell, even Chevrolet. But eventually the benefits of transverse, FWD layouts won, and that was that.
I’m glad the Soviets were so insecure; if Skoda had made another capable but boring FWD car back then, I’d barely have paid attention. By reworking their rear-engine design into something more modern and capable, I think they ended up with a unique little gem.
While the basic layout was the same, they changed some key things: they moved the radiator up front, which added a lot of long plumbing lines but cooled the inline-4 much better. It also made the car sort of a stealth ass-powered car, because the front radiator made the car look like most other front-engined cars of the time.
Of course, it wasn’t and you’d see that as soon as you opened its bizarre front trunk, with a lid that opened sideways like a grand piano. I used this quirk as the key element in the second Max Hardigrew Car Mystery, you may recall.
The Skoda Type 742 (and later 745) came in several forms: 105 (1048cc, 44HP), 120 (1174cc, 50HP), 130 (1289cc, 58HP), a sporty 130 RS version, and the Rapid/Garde 2-door fastback coupé versions. They were cheap and capable family cars, and had impressive successes in rallying as well.
The Rapid was often called a “poor man’s Porsche,” and, while some complained about the rear-engine oversteer, that same trait also made it arguably more entertaining to drive than the average, understeering FWD econobox, and, once mastered, maybe even gave some cornering advantages to rally drivers.
Versions of these rear-engined Skodas remained in production until 1990. While we still have some rear-engined cars left, most that came after these were either sports cars, like the Porsche 911, or small city cars like the Smart or the new Renault Twingo. Oh, I suppose there’s also the Skoda’s fellow Czech Tatra, but those weren’t really mass-production vehicles.
The only rear-engined four-door car intended for general family/sedan/non-niche use I can think of that came after the Skoda 120/130/etc is probably the Tata Nano. Maybe the Tesla Model S, if we’re counting electric motors?
So, as you start your weekend, take a moment to reflect and send a little burst of respect to the last real attempt to keep rear-engined cars relevant for everyday, everyman use. Perhaps the Nano will one day expand beyond its cheapest-car-ever niche and pick up the Skoda’s torch. Until then, happy anniversary, you plucky little ass-engined Czech.
(big hat tip to Thomas!)