3) Škoda Museum in Mladá Boleslav – a car lover’s dream
A popular mainstream car brand today, Škoda Auto also boasts one of the oldest histories among the still operating car manufacturers. In the Škoda Museum in Mladá Boleslav, just outside Prague, the car maker puts its rich history on display, in an exhibition that is especially likely to appeal to aspiring engineers.
Whether you park your car or just walk towards the entrance of the Škoda Auto Museum in Mladá Boleslav, the first thing that greets you is a pair of statues depicting the founders of the famous car brand. Václav Laurin and Václav Klement were two Czechs living in Austro-Hungarian Bohemia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The story goes that Klement bought a Germania bicycle from the Dresden-based company Seidl & Naumann in 1894. The bicycle soon broke and so Klement wrote to the company’s local branch in Bohemia asking for it to be repaired. However, the company gave him a short reply stating that the customer must address them in a “coherent language”, in other words German. Klement felt so insulted by the reply that he decided to start developing his own bicycles with his friend Václav Laurin. The name they chose for their bike was – Slavia – and it is indeed a bicycle that stands right by the entrance, at the beginning of the exhibition. Next to it, in a contrast of tradition and modernity that is frequent in this museum, stands Škoda’s FABIA Rally2 evo model, the latest technological development of the car brand’s World Rally Championship team.
As we deposit our coats at the reception, we are greeted by the museum’s curator Michal Velebný and taken on a tour. Rather than bicycles, the initial stage of the tour contains early forms of motorbikes – the machines that Laurin and Klement started focusing on shortly after they founded the company in 1895.
Michal Velebný points to the motorcycle exhibits, many of which were ridden by the company founders themselves.
“The first motorcycle types A and B were financially successful from the start. Václav Klement was a very savvy businessman and managed to secure the sale of several of the company’s motorcycles in England, already at this early stage in the company’s history. He also personally took part in several competitions, such as the Paris to Berlin or Paris to Vienna races. The motorcycles were also successful in competitions that required up-hill riding.
“The A and B types were the breakthrough models for Laurin and Klement, but it was the CCR two-cylinder motorcycle with which they crowned their triumph. It won the 1905 Coup Internationale in France. Back then, the tournament was a sort of unofficial motorcycling world championship. Václav Klement was very proud of this victory and would mention it in his memoirs. It was one of the greatest successes of his life as a businessman.”
After winning the title, the company soon started marketing their machines with the slogan: “Laurin & Klement is the best brand in the world.” They also entered the automobile market that same year with the 7 horsepower Voiturette A. This model, which can be found in the museum, was another success, says Mr Velbený.
“It was bought by rich customers from the ranks of the nobility, but there were also smaller models made for doctors and the middle classes. Initial sales always first took place on the domestic market, but the company was very much based around exports. In the period before the First World War, Laurin & Klement sold a third of their vehicles in Austria-Hungary, a third in Russia and the remaining third in other countries abroad. What’s interesting is that already at this early stage, some of their vehicles appeared in Japan, China and New Zeeland. They did have a world-wide reach.”
It is with the Voiturette A that the main automobile exhibit of the Škoda Museum begins. Dozens of cars are arrayed the museum’s great hall tracking the chronological development from early two seaters, to modern hybrid and electric mass consumer vehicles.
Several of the oldest cars on show at the museum still display the original Laurin & Klement logo. This was used for the first three decades before the company was purchased in the 1920s by one of the largest industrial enterprises in Europe – the Škoda Works. One of the most lasting consequences of this merger was the development of the arrowhead Škoda car logo that we all know today. Its history is explained in the section of the museum tour devoted to the company’s tradition, says Michal Velebný as he leads me towards an array of photos, documents and design prototypes.
“You can see the development of our company’s logo and its name in this vitrine. First there was a Slavia factory focused on manufacturing bicycles and motorbikes. It was called Slavia and Laurin & Klement Mladá Boleslav. The name of the factory was depicted in the letters L&K. A laurel wreath, surrounding the L&K, was added after the first motorsport successes.
“Once Laurin & Klement merged with Škoda in 1925, some models started bearing the symbol of a winged arrow, while others still had the L&K logo. The motif of the winged arrow eventually became permanent and marks Škoda vehicles until today. The wings of the arrow symbolize expansion, the eye sharpness, the arrow a true aim. The logo’s colour also changed throughout time. In 1991, the company used a green logo covered in laurel wreaths. Today, our logo has more of a sharp, crystal design.”
The evolution in logo designs and of the various engines that Škoda used is also visible as we pass through the vehicle exhibition itself. Some of the engines are anatomically dissected next to the cars and it is as we study one of them that Michal Velebný starts pointing with excitement at several nearby cars.
“We are now standing next to several automobiles that have a significant place in the history of the Škoda brand. Here is the first ever Škoda Octavia model, which was manufactured between the years 1956-1964. This is the last Škoda car to feature the ‘backbone chassis’ that was used successfully in pre-war designs.
“The next model we see is the Škoda 1000 MB, which replaced the Octavia in 1974. This was another ground-breaking model in the company's history. It was the first car to have a self-supporting body, the axles and the unit was mounted directly in the body. It also encompassed a big concept change, because the engine moved back. This concept remained the standard design for Škoda cars until the end of the 1980s.”
It is not just a passion for engineering that makes Michal Velebný attached to the vehicles on show. The museum’s curator is a member of the Velebný clan, which has been tied to the Škoda brand since the 1920s. It was Michal Velebný’s grandfather, Josef, who led the company’s chassis design department after World War II and was responsible for the development of the many elegant Škoda designs between the 1940s and the 1960s. His father Dušan was in charge of the company’s R&D department.
As we walk towards the curator’s office, we pass another feature of the Škoda Museum, an exhibit of bronze sculptures crafted by the famous Czech provocateur artist David Černý. The 12 sculptures depict scenes from Czech history and culture that are stylised to look like the traditional Czech wood carved nativity scenes. The set was originally made for the EXP0 2000 exhibition in Wolfsburg.
With high ceilings, wide halls and interactive panels accompanying the exhibits, the whole museum building has a very modern feel. But do not be fooled by its recent renovation. The Škoda Museum building is the original location of the oldest part of the Laurin & Klement factory in Mladá Boleslav. The building was only converted into a museum in 1995. However, the origins of the company museum itself stretch further in time, says Mr Velebný.
“The company used historical vehicles for propagation purposes already from its early days. In fact the Laurin & Clement Voiturette automobile, the first four wheel vehicle that Škoda made, was in the company’s possession since the 1930s.
“Then, at the beginning of the 1960s, Škoda bought two further Laurin & Klement cars. In 1968, the company decided to maintain a collection of its historical vehicles and started posting ads into newspapers looking for sellers. They received a lot of offers, so the marketing department started visiting prospective sellers and documenting the condition of the vehicles that were on offer. From 1968 to 1974 Škoda bought roughly sixty cars and motorcycles.
“This purchase secured the foundation of today’s museum collection. We are still working on expanding it. Every year we get the latest models from the current production line as well as design studies. We currently have 350 exhibits, which are mainly cars.”
For those who want to get a feel for what it was like to drive the original models, there is also a virtual reality driving opportunity, says the museum curator.
“With the help of virtual reality glasses, you can take a drive through a 1920s Prague setting in the Laurin & Klement 110. We have a whole selection of 1930s cars for virtually driving. You can choose the Škoda 422 or 860 models, select their colour and set-up. There is also information on how much such a vehicle would cost.
“Aside from the interactive panels and VR car rides, we also have a small cinema where we show a short film detailing the production line process. During thematic exhibitions, the cinema also plays accompanying films.”
Less than an hour’s drive from Prague, the Škoda Museum in Mladá Boleslav used to welcome an average of 280,000 visitors a year before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The museum was forced to close for a time when the epidemiological situation was at its worst in the country, but reopened this summer. A virtual tour is now also available online, on the museum’s website. A joint tour of the museum and of the Skoda car manufacturing plant, used to be on offer as well, but is currently still on hold due to the pandemic.
As we walk through the section of the museum dedicated to Škoda’s accomplishments in the area of motorsport, we run into several visitors studying the 1949 Škoda Sport model, the last ever Czech car to compete at the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race. We catch an older man from Prague enthusiastically discussing the car with his son.
“I am always very impressed by the museum. I have been here many times. The style feels a bit German, very precise, and the exhibits are amazing. They keep a fresh, constantly changing range of car exhibits which they renovate in the assembly hall.”
His son, a student, says that he is especially interested in the design aspect of the cars on show.
“It is amazing that you can see how the car models gradually evolved. Personally, I liked the old models the most. People were so precise back then.”
Passing the 1949 aluminium Škoda Sport, we enter the assembly hall, where several cars, from various decades of Škoda’s 100-year-long history are being renovated in front of visitors. Museum curator Michal Velebný says he has a surprise in store as he leads us to a door at the back.
An even bigger hall appears. This, Michal Velebný says, is the museum’s multi-purpose hall, where screenings, conferences and several other Škoda Auto events are held. The large space, devoid of the old timers so frequent in the previous sections of the exhibition, feels very modern.
But this is not the end of the journey. As we pass the big conference screen we enter through a small door into the Škoda Auto archives.
Surrounded by mountains of well-ordered boxes, Michal Velebný shows us one of the very earliest Laurin & Klement designs, hand drawn in the early 1900s.
“We have a wide array of documents in this archive which is a part of the museum. You can find designs and records stretching back to the earliest days of the company here. The materials we keep here are both a resource for us, but also for researchers looking into history.”
Below the sharp drawing lines and associated notes, one can read the handwritten name of Václav Laurin. The co-founder and engineer of Laurin & Klement would have been around 40 years old at the time, perhaps fresh off the victory at the 1905 Coup Internationale In 1907, the company produced 25 cars. A hundred years later, that figure is regularly close to a million.
The Škoda Museum is open Monday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm. Details on the latest special exhibits and price lists can be found on the museum’s website: https://museum.skoda-auto.com/