Around the world in 97 days - a remarkable 1936 car trip remembered

Bohuslav Jan Prochazka and Jindrich Kubias arriving in Lahore from Pakistan

Bohuslav Jan Prochazka and his companion Jindrich Kubiasa set off from the Prague Auto Club on Opletalova Street 70 years ago, on April 25, 1936. They were driving a Skoda Rapid car - and their aim was to set a new record for travelling 360 degrees around the world. In this special programme, Prochazka's son Bret tells us all about this remarkable journey.

BJ Prochazka's son Bret - who is in his early 80s - lives in Westhampton, New York State. On the phone from there he told me a little about his father's life.

"He went to Prumyslovka [technical school] in Prague to study engineering. One of his classmates was President Havel's father, who studied architecture. Right after World War I, because dad could speak English, they asked him to represent the school in New York at a student congress. He had to report to Havel, because he was the chairman of the student body...

"And that's the way he started reporting. He wrote for many car magazines. He was a car fan all his life, and he died also in an auto accident, outside Washington DC, on October 29, 1971, when he was 74."

When BJ Prochazka set off around the world in 1936 he was partly inspired by a boyhood dream. And he also wanted to help put the Czechoslovak state - then less than two decades old - on the world map.

"He was inspired by the Count Borghesi, who went from Beijing to Paris in a car called the Italia. He read about it when he was a child - my grandfather actually knew the count - and that's the way it started.

"In 1936 he thought nobody knows much about Czechoslovakia. Intelligent people knew that Czechoslovakia existed but the common man in the street didn't even know where Czechoslovakia was located. So he thought if he gets a car and makes some statement...if he goes around the world with a Czech flag everybody will notice."

The vehicle in question was a Skoda Rapid, which had been launched two years previously in 1934.

"It was a Skoda Rapid, 31 horsepower, and the displacement was 1.4 litres. It was a front-engine rear-wheel-drive car, with three-speed transmission. It was a standard car except they put an extra-large gasoline tank, so he could go quite a distance - he could go a thousand miles without refuelling. At that time in Asia there were no gas stations - he used to get gas from drums, directly with a hand pump. That was the only modification to the car...and I think they raised the springs - they put blocks underneath the springs so the car was higher from the ground."

BJ Prochazka didn't make the round-the-world trip alone - he was accompanied by Jindrich Kubias, who was a trained mechanic. I asked Bret Prochazka whether Kubias had been a friend of his father's or a mere hired hand.

"No, he was a friend of his for years, Jinda Kubias. He was a very likable guy and he decided he would take him around, because they were very compatible."

After leaving Prague in April 1936 Prochazka and Kubias went east.

"They went through Germany, Poland, Latvia and Russia. In Russia they had a problem because they wouldn't let them go through. Even though he had a letter of recommendation, they had to call Moscow. They had a delay of a couple of days there, until they gave them an escort. A soldier escorted them through Russia and they had to drive at night, because Stalin suspected they were spies."

The two men's trip through Russia was also recounted at the time by a publication in India called the West India Automobile Association Magazine (the author simply given as 'a WIAA Member').

"One of the reasons Mr. Prochazka gave for the permission granted him to travel through Russia was that he was known in that country as much as his own, as a keen racing motorist. He is on the committee of the AA Club in Czechoslovakia and is the European correspondent of the American journal American Motor."

The article also recorded the conditions the adventurers met in Russia in 1936.

"Most of the common people met with in Russia, Mr Prochazka said, were unkempt and in rags, and at out of the way halting places, after overcoming an initial timidity, the peasants had no hesitation in begging for bread.

"Living at a Russian hotel was also an experience not easily forgotten. The food though passably good is more costly than the dearest hotels in New York, London or Paris...Every bucket of bathwater had to be paid for separately. And the service, Mr Prochazka observed, was anything but service. Waiters thought nothing of leaving diners to fend for themselves if they thought the work was a little tiring."

Bret Prochazka takes up the story of his father's journey through the Soviet Union.

"At that time Stalin believed that if there was an invasion the only way to slow it down was by not building good roads. Most of the roads were dust roads. They were fine in the summer time but in the spring they turned into mud roads. In many places they used railroad tracks, because the roads were impassable."

The car may have been a more or less standard Skoda Rapid. But one of its features was unusual to say the least.

"They had a secret compartment in the car, and they were afraid of bandits, especially in Pakistan, because there were drug traffickers. I think [Czech arms manufacturer] Ceska Zbrojovka gave them two hand guns. And he also had a Thompson sub-machine gun."

We heard a few moments ago how Prochazka and Kubias were less than impressed by the standard of hotels in Russia. But there must have been times when, far from civilisation, they would have happily settled for even the poorest Russian hotel.

"Many times they slept in the car, and they bought supplies on the way if they could. But they had canned goods, they had even chocolate in a can, supplied by a Czech chocolate manufacturer. And they had canned water, cans of water, because they went through the desert."

The Czechs were apparently the first people ever permitted to drive for any great distance through Russia. But wherever they went they caused a stir, often making the local newspapers.

Here's a passage from the Illustrated Weekly Bombay, dated Sunday May 31, 1936.

"Dusty and travel-stained, a Skoda car decorated with miniature flags of several countries through which it had passed drove into the Fort the other afternoon. The two young men who had alternatively driven the car 10,000 miles were young Czechoslovakians who had left their native city of Prague on April 25 last and were only half way on the their journey round the world."

The article was accompanied by a photograph taken from the Illustrated Weekly's office window, showing a crowd of around 50 people gathered around the Skoda car. The picture's long caption included an interesting aside: "The bare-headed gentleman is Mr J.V. Polak, of Bombay, who showed them around the town".

Bret Prochazka says crowds gathered wherever the car stopped.

"People were curious, especially when they saw a car with different flags on the hood and a Czech flag...they inquired, where's Czechoslovakia? They could speak English in India so it was quite easy to communicate...Wherever they stopped they had many people around, 20, 50...especially in Persia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia."

You might expect that the media in Czechoslovakia would also have followed Prochazka and Kubias's journey around the world. But that would have been difficult in an age when communication was often infinitely slower than it is now.

"At that time communication wasn't so good, so embassy people would come and greet Persia they had a big party for him, they had even the minister of the interior, around 300 people - it was one of the biggest parties he had on the trip, outside of the US.

"It was sponsored by the Czech[oslovak] Embassy. Usually the embassy people would see it that press people were informed ahead of time. But nothing like today when you have email and TV - at that time you had only newsreel and newspapers."

After all their trials and tribulations, things became significantly easier for the two Czechs when they reached the United States.

"Once they reached San Francisco that was a piece of cake. They had gas stations, for the first time they got a good service on the car. Everything was downhill going east."

The Western India Automobile Association Magazine followed Prochazka and Kubias's trip, although this account of a special reception for the two in New York was published some months later.

"The American Automobile Association gave a banquet in their honour at the Lexington Hotel, New York, where the speaker of the evening, Mr Thompson, the father of American motoring, presented a gold medal to Mr Prochazka. Mr Prochazka also received a silver map of the world, the Waldes Trophy, for a record of a round the world trip covered in less than 100 days."

Bret Prochazka: "All the people in the car industry attended and he made a speech...he got some silver cups and decorations. They were quite impressed because at that time going around the world in a car had never been done completely - 360 degrees. They had races like Paris to Seattle, Washington...from New York to Paris, but not a single trip that was 360 degrees by car, so it was unique.

"It's not like today - today there's nothing to it. But in 1936 there were not too many roads and not too many gas stations. And only the upper class had cars, except for the United States where you had Fords."

As we've heard, once Prochazka and Kubias reached the United States it was all plain sailing and two motored eastwards as fast as they could in order to complete their record-breaking attempt. When they finally reached the Czechoslovak border there was a big reception waiting for them.

"The president of ASAP, the Skoda works, organised a welcoming trip and he had around 100 Skoda cars escorting him from the border all the way to the Auto Club in Prague. And there was a big reception afterwards. I remember that distinctly, because I attended. And Jara Pospisil, at that time he was the big singer, he sang at the reception.

"Originally when he started Skoda kind of...laid back, they didn't want to get involved because it was kind of risky. But once he completed the trip they all came out and gave him a big reception."

A full seven decades later Bret Prochazka has clear memories of the day, June 31 1936, when his father BJ and Jindrich Kubias finally arrived in front of the Prague Auto Club, from where they had set out 97 days previously.

"I was 11 years old and I'll never forget that, because there were thousands of people in front of the people and we arrived and we couldn't get to the building. We had a police escort so that we could get through and I could embrace my father after not seeing him for three months."

And the state of the car after travelling over 27,000 kilometres? The Western India Automobile Association Magazine recalls the following.

"A diary written during the trip is interesting. The front spring had to be repaired 18 times, out of this no less than 16 times in Russia, once in Iran and once in China...Tyres had to be repaired 22 times, mostly in Russia. Out of the total six tyres, four originals completed the trip. The original set of sparking plugs was used throughout; and one ignition cable was replaced on account of faulty insulation."

Bret Prochazka: "At that time Skoda built good cars. And would you believe - the springs were checked over and some were replaced - but otherwise the car was in good condition. And he kept the car as the family car...We had it through the war - it was in the garage. After the war it was confiscated.

"But right now I'm looking for the car myself, and I would be willing to buy it and recondition it, because I would like to plan a trip around the world, caravan style, where we would have a film crew and make a documentary about it. It's in the planning stage, we have the financing, we're still looking for sponsors. But first we have to get the car and rebuild it."

After World War II the Prochazka family decided to leave Czechoslovakia for the United States. Bret Prochazka says his father BJ stayed involved with cars for many years before entering the aviation business - a field Bret himself also worked in.

"He was always involved in the car business...he imported Skodas for a while, and then he was writing for car magazines a lot, freelance. Then he got a job as an export manager. He was representing a company throughout the world. Then he started his own company - flight information for airlines.

"I'm an aeronautical engineer by profession, but I was always interested in cars. I worked for Lockheed aircraft...I collect a few cars. And right now I'm retired and planning a trip around the world!"