Czech mates: 60 years of the Skoda Octavia

If you have never driven an Octavia, chances are you’ve travelled in one. Probably late at night, slightly inebriated and post-kebab. The multi-million-selling Skoda is one of Britain’s most popular taxis, and for good reason: it’s affordable, reliable and practical. As we’ll see, it can be exciting too.

The Octavia was first launched 60 years ago, so to mark this milestone we drove all four generations back-to-back. Turns out quite a lot has changed…

Skoda Octavia Combi (1964)

The Octavia took its name from the Latin word for ‘eight’, being the eighth post-war car built at Skoda’s Mlada Boleslav factory in the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at the time).

Its 1.1-litre four-cylinder engine sends 40hp to the rear wheels, giving a top speed of 70mph and 30.5mpg economy. Double wishbone suspension was considered innovative in an era of leaf springs, and the Octavia earned positive reviews from motoring magazines. The 50hp Touring Sport version later claimed three class victories in the Monte Carlo Rally (1961-1963).

The Octavia Combi estate – seen here – followed in 1961, with three doors and a horizontally-split tailgate (they’d probably call it a ‘shooting brake’ in 2019). It has five seats and a 690-litre boot, swelling to 1,050 litres with the rear backrests folded.

A total of 51,086 Combis were made by the time production ceased in 1971, versus 309,020 Octavia saloons.

On loan from the Skoda Museum, this flawless 1964 Combi arrived with its own – justifiably proud – chaperone. Nonetheless, I seemed more nervous than he did. Its chrome grille and tail fins are clearly influenced by American cars of the 1950s, while its two-tone interior oozes retro cool.

A huge, thin-rimmed steering wheel is flanked by a column shifter: push away and up/down for first and second gears, then pull towards you for third and fourth.

On today’s roads, the ‘family-sized’ Skoda is dwarfed by bloated SUVs. Its engine is thrummy and willing, at least until 40mph or so. Beyond that, acceleration is best described as ‘glacial’.

Stick-thin roof pillars mean excellent visibility, but the drum brakes are heart-stoppingly feeble. Seatbelts or crumple zones? No chance. Truth be told, I’m relieved to return the Combi safely to its keeper.

Skoda Octavia Mk1 (2002)

Trapped in the Eastern Bloc, Skoda struggled throughout the 1970s and 80s with a succession of outdated, rear-engined cars that sold primarily on price. The Octavia name wouldn’t return for another 25 years, then was revived under Volkswagen ownership.

An injection of Volkswagen cash from 1991 transformed the brand, starting with the 1995 Felicia, then the all-conquering Octavia a year later.

The Octavia shared its underpinnings with the Mk4 Volkswagen Golf, but was roomier and cheaper. Understandably, that sounded like a win-win for many buyers. Available as a five-door hatchback or estate, nearly 1.5 million were eventually built.

Its no-nonsense design, the work of Dirk van Braeckel, defined Skoda styling for generations to come. Indeed, you can see its influence in the current Octavia.

Fittingly, the 2002 Octavia on Skoda’s heritage fleet has covered a meaty 136,000 miles. An ex-taxi? Quite possibly, although it wears those miles impressively well. Its 110hp 1.9-litre diesel engine is good for 119mph and a thrifty 54.0mpg.

Inside, the cabin is functional and solidly built (Germanic, even). ‘Infotainment’ comes via a cassette player, but it feels positively futuristic after the classic Combi.

It’s effortless to drive, too. The bulbous, airbagged wheel is light, the five-speed gearbox is Teflon-slick and the gruff diesel pulls strongly from low revs.

It feels somewhat detached, but that’s perhaps the point. After a nine-hour night shift of pub pick-ups and airport aggro, I suspect I’d be thankful for such easygoing affability.

Skoda Octavia vRS Mk1 (2004)

The Mk1 Octavia also did performance, not simply private-hire. The first vRS debuted in 2001, providing a springboard for Skoda’s return to top-tier rallying.

It was the fastest production Skoda ever when launched, reaching 62mph in 6.7 seconds and 144mph flat-out.

While the WRC version boasted 300hp and four-wheel drive, the road-going vRS shared its fundamentals with the Golf GTI. That meant a 180hp 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, driving the front wheels via a five-speed manual ’box.

Subtle spoilers, spidery 17-inch alloys and green/red/grey vRS badges gave Skoda’s hot hatch a suitably sporty makeover. Nonetheless, it’s pretty tame (and tasteful) by modern standards.

A launch price of just £15,100 (a Ford Focus ST170 was £15,995) made the vRS even more tempting. In terms of performance-per-pound, little else came close.

It’s a cracker on the road, too. The steering is swift and precise, while handling is poised and predictable. There’s more body-roll than some rivals, but a pliant ride more than compensates. It’s been many years since I’ve driven a Mk4 Golf GTI but, from memory, the Skoda seems more fun.

The hot Octavia’s double-whammy of space and pace made it a popular choice with UK police forces. Seeing one of these in your mirrors usually spelled bad news. Skoda later launched an estate version, offering ultimate Q-car kudos.

Perhaps the finest compliment I can pay the vRS is that I’ve been browsing the classifieds for good examples ever since. And yes, they’re still a bargain now.

Skoda Octavia Scout (2008)

Today, Skoda has fully jumped aboard the SUV bandwagon; its line-up stretches from supermini-sized Kamiq to seven-seat Kodiaq. The Octavia Scout was arguably the first step on this (unclassified, boulder-strewn) road – and it remains a standalone model today.

The original Scout joined the Mk2 Octavia range in 2006. It followed the example of the Audi A6 Allroad, first launched in 1999.

In essence, the Scout combines the rugged styling, loftier ground clearance and four-wheel drive of an SUV with the superior dynamics and fuel-efficiency of an estate car.

An extra 40mm beneath the wheelarches and Haldex variable 4WD mean it will tackle gravel tracks or muddy lanes with confidence. But the rear wheels are only engaged when needed, so quoted fuel economy is a car-like 44mpg.

The Mk2 Scout still looks the part, thanks to muscular body cladding and skid plates beneath both bumpers. Inside, snazzy kickplates and a ‘4×4’ logo on the gearknob hint at its added potential.

Buyers could have a 150hp 2.0-litre petrol version, but most opted for the 140hp 2.0 diesel. It produces 140hp and propels the 1,625kg Skoda to 122mph.

On the road, the Scout feels as intuitive and inoffensive as a regular Octavia. Granted, there’s a little more lean when cornering, and perhaps a smidge less precision from the steering. But it’s certainly more engaging than a contemporary SUV. Less ostentatious, too.

Sadly, I didn’t get chance to sample the Scout on rough terrain. Suffice to say, the original press photos – which show it clambering over rocks and dive-bombing through streams – are testament to its prowess.

Skoda Octavia vRS Mk3 (2019)

My fourth and final drive is the current-model Octavia – again in sporty vRS guise. Its 245hp 2.0 TSI engine packs a healthy 65hp more than the original, cutting the 0-62mph dash to 6.6 seconds. Top speed is limited to 155mph.

A base price of £27,640 still undercuts most rivals, although my test car cost £29,360 after options. These included the Audi-style Virtual Cockpit display (£450) and lane-assist with blind-spot detection (£400). Both were, of course, unheard of back in 2001…

In time-honoured tradition, the Octavia doesn’t shout about its added performance. Despite hip-hugging sports seats, red stitching and a smattering of vRS badges, its interior lacks the wow-factor of a Golf GTI. No complaints about build quality, though.

The eight-inch touchscreen media system is a highlight. It syncs seamlessly with your mobile phone via Apple Carplay or Android Auto. There’s also a choice of driving modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport and Custom.

The spiciest Octavia comes in three outputs: 184hp diesel, 230hp petrol and the vRS 245 petrol tested here. The top-dog 245 has a limited-slip differential as standard, but four-wheel drive is only offered on the diesel.

That diff makes a marked difference on the road, tightening turn-in and helping you slingshot out of bends. Switching to Sport sharpens things further without ruining the ride. The gruff growl of its engine sounds slightly synthetic, but there’s something addictive about its elastic mid-range punch.

The Octavia has been on quite a journey. It’s changed beyond all recognition, yet remained true to its roots, providing sensible – and sensibly-priced – transport for the masses. Even the vRS is a remarkably level-headed hot hatch.

So, všechno nejlepší k narozeninám Skoda Octavia (that’s ‘happy birthday’ in Czech). Here’s to another 60 years.

Conservatoire Citroen

Inside Citroen’s ‘secret’ car collection

Conservatoire CitroenNestled between the appropriately named Boulevard Andre Citroen and the sprawling 170-acre Aulnay-sous-Bois site, where 8.5 million vehicles rolled off a busy production line, stands a rather anonymous looking building. Within the grey walls sit more than 400 old Citroens, preserved for future generations and maintained by a man in blue overalls.

His name is Yannick Billy and the cars form part of the Conservatoire Citroen: the largest collection of Citroens in the world. For a company with such a proud history, Citroen is reluctant to throw open its doors to the general public. Which only served to make our visit to the house of Citroen all the more special.

More French cars on Motoring Research:

Yannick BillyConservatoire Citroen

Conservatoire Citroen isn’t open to the public, so it cannot be classed as a museum. Instead, entry is via invitation only: not even a sheik armed with two million bucks could rock up and demand entry, said the Citroen UK press man, perhaps flippantly. Indeed, when we turned up at the agreed time, the reception area was cloaked in darkness and nobody was answering the door.

We wandered around to the back door, where we were greeted by Yannick Billy, a long-standing member of the Citroen Heritage team. Our lack of French was matched by Yannick’s lack of English, but eventually we were guided through the workshop – enriched by an intoxicating and evocative blend of oil and petrol – and to the doors to the collection.

A feast for the eyesConservatoire Citroen

As a Citroen fan it’s almost impossible not to be initially overwhelmed by the spectacle of 400 Citroens in one very large room. But even a non-car person would be amazed by the sheer scale of the place. Citroen’s complete history is here, from the Type A to the latest production models and concept cars.

We were given until noon before we’d be shown the door and told to leave. A little over three hours to immerse ourselves in the history of the world’s most innovative and eccentric car brand. So where do you start?

Top gear wheelsConservatoire Citroen

You start, much like Andre Citroen, with the Type A. Citroen’s first vehicle was launched in 1919, but the company’s roots date back to 1905, with the creation of Citroen et Cie. Back then, the company manufactured double-helical gear wheels with V-shaped teeth, the design of which inspired the famous Citroen logo.

Andre Citroen had first seen gear wheels such as these during a visit to Poland in 1900, and he returned to Paris where he took out a patent for their design. A factory was built to house the production facilities and soon his gear wheels were being used across the world. Famously, his wheels formed part of the steering system in the Titanic.

Andre CitroenConservatoire Citroen

In 1912, Andre Citroen went to America where he met Henry Ford and marveled at the production facilities used to build the Model T. He returned to Paris with the aim of building a car of his own, but his plans were put on hold by the outbreak of the First World War.

But from adversity came an opportunity. As an officer, Andre Citroen witnessed his army running out of shells, and he approached the government with plans to mass produce them. He won the contract and by the end of the war he had built 23 million shells from a factory in Paris.

Citroen Type AConservatoire Citroen

With the experience gained through the production of gear wheels and shells, not to mention the capital and production facilities, Andre Citroen was well-equipped to build his first motor car. The Type A arrived in 1919 and was, quite simply, a revelation.

Not only was it Citroen’s first car, but it was also the first mass-produced European vehicle. For the first time, motorists could buy a car ‘ready for the road’. Little wonder, then, that Citroen managed to shift 12,000 Type As within the first two years.

Andre Citroen: industrialist and marketeerConservatoire Citroen

But Andre Citroen was more than simply an ace industrialist. He knew the power of promotion, which is why his name was displayed on the Eiffel Tower at night. Once a month he took out a full page advertisement on the back of France’s biggest newspaper, while aircraft were sent into the skies to write the Citroen name in smoke.

In 1926, Citroen opened a new showroom in London’s Piccadilly, reported to be the grandest and most expensive ever built. The interior was clad in marble and the place felt more like a cathedral than a car showroom.

The icons: Citroen Traction AvantConservatoire Citroen

In 1934, Citroen launched the Traction Avant, widely considered to be the godfather of the modern motor car. Three years earlier, Andre Citroen had travelled to the US to visit the Budd Corporation in Philadelphia, where he was shown a front-wheel-drive car featuring a monocoque bodyshell.

He knew that it would be possible to build a shell capable of holding the engine, transmission and suspension together, freeing up space and reducing weight. The Traction Avant was the first mass-produced front-wheel-drive car and it changed automotive production forever. But the cost of development crippled the organisation and Citroen was declared bankrupt in 1934. Seven months later, Andre Citroen died, having lost his health, company and the rights to his name. Michelin Tyres took the reins, with the Traction Avant helping to return the company to profitability.

The icons: Citroen 2CVConservatoire Citroen

In 1935, Citroen started working on the idea of a ‘people’s car’, the so-called TPV, as it was then known. The idea was simple: to create a basic French car for the masses, with Citroen’s chairman, Pierre-Jules Boulanger, describing the design as “a deck-chair under an umbrella”.

Prototypes were built in 1939 and then hidden away during the Second World War, with the French keen for the Nazis not to discover their revolutionary little car. It would arrive at the 1948 Paris Motor Show, with production continuing until 1990, by which time more than 30 different versions had been built.

The icons: Citroen DSConservatoire Citroen

The one other Citroen worthy of the icon tag is the DS. The ‘Goddess’ was unveiled at the 1955 Paris Motor Show and such was the response, 12,000 orders were taken on the first day of the show.

It was the first production car to be equipped with front disc brakes and featured revolutionary hydropneumatic suspension. The car pictured is a DS 21 Pallas, showcasing the restyled front end complete with innovative directional headlights.

The legends: Citroen SMConservatoire Citroen

Take the technology found in the Citroen DS, add a Maserati V6 engine and house them in a streamlined body and this is the result: the delightful Citroen SM.

On the right is an original press car from 1970, built at the start of production. On the left is a later, fuel-injected model. Production was short-lived, partly because of the fuel crisis, partly because of reliability issues, and most certainly as a result of Peugeot’s takeover of Citroen in 1974.

The legends: Citroen GSConservatoire Citroen

Imagine being at the Paris Motor Show in 1970. Not only was the achingly beautiful SM first shown to the public, but Citroen also unveiled the brilliant GS. A year later, the GS scooped the European Car of the Year award, leaving the Volkswagen K70 and Citroen SM to finish second and third, respectively. Oh, what a time to be alive.

The GS was designed to slot between the Ami 8 and the DS in the Citroen range, delivering hydropneumatic technology to the everyman. The air-cooled flat-four engine gave it an evocative soundtrack, but a hatchback wouldn’t arrive until 1979, with the launch of the GSA.

The legends: Citroen CXConservatoire Citroen

The CX had the unenviable task of following the iconic DS, but while it wasn’t a game-changer like its predecessor, it certainly captured the true spirit of Citroen. Unveiled at the 1974 Paris Motor Show, the CX featured a futuristic and achingly cool dashboard, hydropneumatic suspension and a concave rear window.

A facelift was introduced in 1985, as showcased by this stunning GTI of 1989. Earlier, in 1975, the last Citroen DS had rolled off the production line: vehicle number 1,330,755.

The presidential cars: Citroen DS 21Conservatoire Citroen

Nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of this thing. Designed by the Citroen style department, the DS 21 Presidentielle was built by Henri Chapron and was used by Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou.

Its dimensions are: 6.53m length, 2.13m width and 1.60m height. Oh, and it weighs 2,660kg. The gearbox is designed to maintain a speed of 6 to 7km/h for several hours.

The presidential cars: Citroen SMConservatoire Citroen

Unsurprisingly, the Citroen SM Presidentielle of 1972 is far more elegant and less imposing than the car it replaced. Once again, Henri Chapron was tasked with handling the build of two majestic presidential cars.

They were delivered in May 1972, just before Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Paris. Her Majesty was pictured in the back, travelling with Georges Pompidou.

The presidential cars: Citroen DS5Conservatoire Citroen

A classic case of ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’, this is the Citroen DS5 used by Francois Hollande in 2012.

Today, DS Automobiles has separated from the mother brand.

The concepts: Citroen Project LConservatoire Citroen

The Project L was the final Citroen designed by Robert Opron and was intended to be a replacement for the DS. It features what’s essentially an SM dashboard with a GS steering wheel, and Citroen called for enough space under the bonnet to house Maserati’s V6 engine.

The concepts: Citroen ActivaConservatoire Citroen

The Citroen Activa of 1988 featured four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer and active suspension, the latter of which would appear as the Hydractive system in the XM. The original Activa concept could also boast ABS brakes and traction control, both of which were considered to be high-tech at the time.

The concepts: Citroen EoleConservatoire Citroen

This is the Citroen CX-based Eole of 1986, which claimed a drag coefficient of just 0.19Cd, around half that of the CX. Note the covers over the wheels, which are linked to the car’s hydraulics to lift them clear when steering. The design was intended to showcase the estate car of the future.

The concepts: Citroen KarinConservatoire Citroen

The Karin of 1980 presented the idea of a three-seater, with the driver positioned centrally and ahead of the passengers, some 12 years ahead of the McLaren F1. It was designed by Trevor Fiore but never made it beyond the concept stage. Shame.

The crazy stuff: Citroen RE-2Conservatoire Citroen

Yes, Citroen really did build a helicopter. It was designed by Charles Marchetti and first took to the skies in 1971. It used an evolution of the rotary engine found in the Citroen GS Birotor, but flew a mere 38 hours before Peugeot pulled the plug on the project. The RE-2 was grounded.

The crazy stuff: Citroen U23Conservatoire Citroen

The Citroen U23 was produced between 1935 and 1969. This particular bus was built in 1947 by the Besset facility in Annonay, France. The 18/20-seater was found in Corsica in 2006 and subsequently restored to former glory.

The crazy stuff: Citroen 2CV 007Conservatoire Citroen

Remember the Citroen 2CV from the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only? It was powered by an engine from a GS and reinforced with a host of safety features, including a roll cage, reinforced plating and raised suspension. Legendary stunt driver Remy Julienne was the man behind the wheel.

The crazy stuff: Citroen Evo MobilConservatoire Citroen

Looks a little out of place in these surroundings, doesn’t it? Look again and you’ll see that it was inspired by the design and build of the Traction Avant. Clever, eh? French designer Ora-Ito used an icon of the past to present a vision of the future. Or something.

The racers: Citroen MEP X27Conservatoire Citroen

The X27 was the final development of the Citroen-Panhard racecar produced from 1964 to 1975. It competed in the final years of Formule Bleue, which ended in 1975.

The racers: Citroen BX 4TCConservatoire Citroen

The Citroen BX 4TC is one of the least successful rally cars of all-time, managing just three races before Group B was banned in 1986. The project was so disastrous, Citroen attempted to buy back all road-going versions in order to have them destroyed.

The racers: Citroen ZX Rallye RaidConservatoire Citroen

You’re unlikely to see more Citroen ZX Rallye Raid cars in one place. In the 1990s, these were formidable machines, taking no fewer than four Paris-Dakar victories and winning the World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for five consecutive years.

The hot hatches: Citroen ZX 16vConservatoire Citroen

The Citroen ZX 16v is an increasingly rare sight in Britain, with a mere seven registered as being on the road. Thanks to passive rear steering, it’s a genuine delight to drive on a B-road.

The hot hatches: Citroen AX SportConservatoire Citroen

The Citroen AX was a hugely successful car, with around 2.4 million cars produced over a 10-year period. The AX Sport was introduced in 1987 and was a prelude to the more familiar GT and GTI models.

The hot hatches: Citroen Visa GTIConservatoire Citroen

According to the DVLA, there are just five Citroen Visa GTIs on the roads of Britain. Which is a shame, because the Visa GTI is a genuinely good hot hatch, with powered sourced from the same 1.6-litre engine you’d find in the Peugeot 205 GTI. And quad headlights are cool, right?

Citroen DS ID19

Sitting pretty: 48 hours with a broken Citroen DS

Citroen DS ID19Nobody talks to their neighbours in London, right? They do if you park a Citroen DS outside your house. This classic car did more for community cohesion than a jubilee street party.

The key word here is ‘park’ – but we’ll come to that. First, a bit of background. The 1961 DS you see here is actually an ID19: a cheaper, less powerful and (slightly) less complicated version of the DS19. Used for ‘press and publicity purposes’ when new by Citroen UK, it has since returned to the company’s care as part of a growing heritage fleet.

As the most iconic and beautiful French car ever made (discuss), the DS seemed ideal for the Retro Road Test: our weekly classic car review published every Thursday. With everything crossed, I called the ever-helpful Craig at Citroen and, just a few weeks later, the DS was delivered.

Street art

Citroen DS ID19“Lovely, just lovely,” said the man from the corner house who’d asked me to sign a petition about bin collections. “That’s my kind of car,” cooed the lady who runs the pub across the road. “Looks like it’s been lowered,” mumbled the 16-year-old lad from next door.

Indeed, the only car that’s come close for sheer street spectacle was a buttercup-yellow Lamborghini Huracan I tested earlier this year. But while the Lambo got envious looks and grudging remarks about “winning the lottery”, the DS drew nods, smiles and genuine affection.

Wildly futuristic and yet timelessly elegant, the DS literally stopped traffic as drivers slowed to stare and take photos. It was probably trending on social media, for all I know. One can only marvel at how this car, with its spaceship styling, must have appeared in 1955.

Feeling a bit flat

Citroen DS ID19

The DS arrived late on Monday afternoon, but I resisted the urge to jump straight in and cruise the streets of Croydon. I’d set my alarm early for a long, cross-country jaunt the next morning. With 67hp and 0-62mph in 22.1sec, progress would be as relaxed – and as pleasurable – as a Beaujolais-fuelled Sunday lunch.

Tuesday dawned bright and fresh, the DS draped in morning dew. I sank into the soft leather seat, grasped the Bakelite wheel and twisted the key… Silence. I tried again: the dials on the (UK-specific) English walnut dashboard sprang to life and I heard the faint click of a solenoid, but nothing more.

I called Craig, expecting – hoping – there was some Gallic quirk of the starting process that I’d overlooked. “No, just put her in neutral and turn the key,” he proffered. Hmm.

The battery voltage gauge showed a full charge, but I decided to attempt a jump-start using my old Ford Focus. Still nothing. Admitting defeat, I telephoned Craig again to request a recovery truck. The dream was over.

Plank on itCitroen DS ID19

The nightmare, however, was just beginning. As any student of old Citroens knows, hydropneumatic suspension only pressurises and rises up when the car’s engine starts: without power, the DS is effectively ‘slammed’. This would prove problematic.

Danny arrived with his low-loader on Wednesday lunchtime. He was sceptical about our chances: with no towing eye on the front, the DS would have to be winched up the ramp backwards. And the downturned tips of its exhaust were virtually kissing the Tarmac.

Inching the DS back, it quickly became clear this stubborn lady wasn’t for towing. So, in a further boost to neighbourly relations, I knocked on the door of John the roofer, returning a few minutes later with some scaffolding planks. Danny and I wedged them under the wheels, reducing the angle of approach. And slowly, steadily, with mere millimetres to spare, it edged up the ramp and onto the truck. We’d done it.

Retro Road Test coming soon

Citroen DS ID19

The DS had been sent to Coventry (literally, not figuratively – that’s where Citroen UK is based) and it hadn’t even turned a wheel. But as I watched this magnificent car being carried away, a princess in a sedan chair, I felt surprisingly buoyant.

For starters, I’d spoken to Craig (yes, again) and he promised we’d have the car back for a Retro Road Test soon. Secondly, a few awkward moments with wooden planks aside, my two days with the DS had been an absolute pleasure. I’d gazed longingly at it whenever I looked out of the window – and met friendly, enthusiastic people every time I went outside and, well, tried to start it.

In more than a decade of writing about cars, I’ve never returned one without driving it. C’est la vie. Sometimes beauty is its own reward.