Cars of a given era tend to look alike. They’re designed with a common design vocabulary of the time and often follow common trends. Even so, cars that are dead-on doppelgängers for one another (that aren’t badge-engineered twins) are pretty rare, especially when one of the cars is one of the most-recognized vehicles ever made. That’s why I froze like I just caught my junk in my zipper when I saw pictures of the Pilát Lidovka R6.
Even more remarkable is that the Lidovka was an early adopter of a technical innovation that wouldn’t become well-known for 30 years after the car was built. I’ll get to that soon.
Now, there are many obvious visual differences between the Lidovka and a Volkswagen Beetle, but there’s something about the curves, proportions, and overall look of the car that just feels more like an old Beetle than almost any other car I’ve seen. This is especially remarkable when you consider that the Lidovka is a front-engined car with a grille and everything.
Upon first glance at the Lidovka, I thought I was looking at an engine-swapped Beetle of some kind, some well-executed project where some Eastern European kook shoved a DKW two-stroke three into the nose of a Bug, or something.
The truth isn’t too far off, really, but is actually much more interesting. Zdeněk Pilát was a Czech engineer who worked with the Czech motorcyle-and-automaker Jawa, where he developed, among other things, a prototype transverse-engined car in 1935.
Around 1943, Pilát began development of a small car with a two-stroke, 500cc air-cooled inline-twin making about 15 horsepower—a DKW motorcycle engine. What was interesting about this design was that Pilát used a rear-mounted transaxle—a combination transmission and differential—pretty much exactly like a scaled-down version of what Porsche would use in the 1970s on their 924s and 928s, and what modern Corvettes use to this day, among a number of other cars.
A front-engine, rear-transaxle setup allows for great weight distribution and good packaging, and would have been remarkably forward-thinking for 1943. Another Czech company, Škoda. introduced the front-engine/rear-transaxle car in 1934, but this setup was by no means common, especially for what was to be a small economy car.
Porsche also used a transaxle design when developing the VW Beetle in the mid-late 1930s, but with a rear-engine design instead of a front-engine like the Lidvoka.
The little prototype was built on Sundays and in the evenings, with the chassis completed by 1943, and the body built with the assistance of famous Czech carmaker Tatra.
Tatra would have been aware of the VW Beetle’s development (still known as the KdF-Wagen at the time, and perhaps there was some influence from the Beetle’s design on the Lidvoka. The similarity of the shapes and detailing of the hood and fenders lead me to think it’s possible, though the rear, with its exposed spare tires, is a bit more traditional.
The overall look of the car is astoundingly similar to a Beetle, just without a rear seat and with a grille up front. I’m still doing double-takes.
Some sources suggest the Pilát Lidvoka 500 became the prototype for a production Lidvoka R6 in 1946. Others say the prototype was the only one made. At this point, I’m not entirely sure what’s true, though historical pictures and recent pictures of the car show the same number plate, suggesting that perhaps there was only one.
It’s a fascinating little car even if it didn’t strangely resemble one of the most iconic cars of all time. There’s other cars that resemble a Beetle, sure, like the related Porsche 356, or the Fiat 600 or the Subaru 360. But all of those share a general layout with the Beetle. To have something so similar and yet so opposite just makes the Lidvoka even better.
Now I really want to bring the Pilát Lidvoka (500 or R6, whatever exists) to a Volkswagen show and just drink in that sweet, sweet confusion.