Czech Made: The Jawa motorcycle
Few Czechoslovak products have been as internationally successful as the Jawa motorcycle. For a period of more than a decade the company’s models dominated their respective international markets, while at the same time helping Czechoslovak racers win several competitions. Despite a fall from grace in the last decades of the twentieth century, Jawa continues to exist as a brand and its machines are still produced at home and abroad.
Origins of Jawa
The story of Jawa begins with its founder, František Janeček. Born in 1878, Janeček was technically gifted and originally wanted to study medicine. However, he ended up opting for an education in engineering upon advice from his father. He first studied mechanics at the Prague Technical School before moving on to the Berlin College of Engineering.
After finishing his studies, Janeček returned to Prague. There he worked under one of the great Bohemian industrialists of the nineteenth century, Emil Kolben. The later was so impressed with Janeček’s work that he appointed the 23-year-old as manager of a new factory in the Netherlands.
Janeček decided to end his collaboration with Kolben in 1909 and chose to start his own company in Prague. Over the following 10 years, the engineer would develop several unique designs, securing over 60 patents. His inventions ranged from the “pneumograph” – an early form of a multiple ad screen – to hand grenades.
It was in 1927 that Janeček saw the opportunity to turn an old dynamite factory into a motorcycle production facility. He drew on his knowledge of engineering and his experience with mass production techniques in factories, basing his new motorcycle designs around an existing 498cc engine made by a German company called Wanderer. It is from the combination of the words Janeček and Wanderer that the Jawa got its name.
Production started in 1927 and the first Jawa motorcycle to come out of Janeček’s factory was the Wanderer model, with a four-cycle engine that packed 18 hp. It was considered to be a reliable machine, but was expensive and did not garner much success. The economic fallout of the great depression soon called for the production of a cheaper model.
The answer came in 1932 with the introduction of the Jawa 175. At 3.6-kW, its engine was considerably less powerful than that of its predecessor, but the 175 model made up for this with its relative lightness and was capable of achieving speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour.
With the marketing slogan “Lepší stroj méně peněz (A better machine for less money) the JAWA 175 was above all cheaper and quickly became the company’s first great success. Selling over 27,000 models Jawa would continue to produce the 175 until 1946.
Janeček’s ability in marketing went beyond catchy slogans. At the Prague exhibition in 1939 he showed that the best way to attract a customer was to pull them into the action as this quote from the exhibition’s stand shows.
“You can spend an hour or more at the Jawa stand and discover more and more things about our new models, their variety and the many photographs of sporting trophies won by our machines. Every visitor can measure the components of our motorcycles, check the x-ray images of our metals and look at how the engine functions and sounds.”
Just two years after the exhibition, in March 1941, Karel Janeček died of lung cancer. It is said that his last words were: “Keep working, I am departing now”. The business was taken over by Janeček’s son František Karel. Jawa motorcycle production continued after the end of World War II, with new models such as the Jawa 250 and 350 (also known as Pérák) springing up.
The company was nationalised after the Communist takeover in 1948, but this did not immediately bring a slow-down in quality. The Communist regime was aware of the great commercial success of the company’s motorcycle’s and the money and reputation it brought through sales abroad.
It was in the 1950s that the most famous Jawa models were introduced. These were the upgraded JAWA 250 and 350, both known as Kývačka (Swinger). Known for their ease of maintenance and high reliability, the Kývačky could reach speeds of up to 120km/h. Their nickname was based on the fact that they had rear suspension springs.
The Kývačka was exported to more than 100 countries across the world. Production was also expanded into India in the 1960s through the company Ideal Jawa India, which set up its factory in Mysore. This facility seems to have produced the motorbikes as late as 1996.
The Pérák, Kývačka and Panelka models were the most popular of the Jawa bikes. The company’s exports reached a peak in the 1950s, with the most important export destination being the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s Jawa saw its centre of production move from modern facilities in Prague’s Pankrác and Libeň to factories in Prague’s Strašnice and the original production facility in Týnec nad Sázavou. The decade also saw the next generation of the 250 and 350 models - the Automatic. The 350 version came in several further sports versions, featuring increased performance and an original clutch solution. The high-brow Californain model was developed especially for the export market.
The Swedish Army received a special military design, the company’s executive director František Hruška, told Czech Radio.
“Jawa made and exported this model, known as the Libeňák, to the Swedish Army in the 1950s and 1960s. We have documentation that it was in service by the Swedes as late as the year 2000. It had an aluminium engine just like those in the racing Jawa’s, but it also had a rather exceptional feature - skis. The rider had two skis that he could deploy and put his feet into in order to have more balance while riding the bike in rough terrain.”
However, as time went on, Jawa found it increasingly harder to innovate fast enough and started facing tougher and tougher competition as Japanese and German manufacturers started coming up with increasingly more complex designs that provided greater performance.
Attempts to keep up with the competition were made during the 1970s and 1980s with the 634 and 638 models, both of whose engines received a significant upgrade in horsepower. There were also attempts at modernising the motorcycle’s design.
What seems to have contributed to Jawa’s downfall was Czechoslovakia’s satellite status towards the USSR. While on one hand, the company benefited from what was essentially a guaranteed, large export market, the demands of this market for reliable, cheap and uncomplicated motorcycles meant that there was little tolerance for experimenting with new models.
That said, there were also lasting benefits to the simple but reliable design. Pavel Suchý, who used his 1978 Jawa 350 to tour around the world, told Czech Radio in 2019 that the motorcycle’s reliability proved particularly effective in harsh conditions.
“As far as the motorbike is concerned, I based my choice on this reason - this bike was specifically designed for the Soviet Union. There is nothing more demanding than a Soviet villager. Such a machine has to be able to survive anything. It has to be able to best the Gobi desert in Mongolia for example. When I rode through that desert I actually came across several more modern types of motorcycles. So many of them looked very worn down. It made me wonder whether it would actually be more brave to ride through that desert in a modern bike.”
The company sold over 3 million machines by 1987, but once the Eastern Bloc fell, Jawa suddenly lost the vast majority of its export markets. Financial difficulties plagued the Czech brand until 1996, when it entered into a strategic partnership with hydraulics and aero tech manufacturer Jihostroj a.s.
Today, Jawa Moto, as the company is now called, still produces the 350cc-type motorcycles, with two-tier engines, such as the retro styled Jawa 350/640. Jawa trade manager Jiří Kraft took Czech Radio on a tour of the facility.
“Since 2004, we have tried to offer 650 and 660cc motorcycles. However, recently, it has been more profitable for us to focus on 350cc motorcycles. Currently we are therefore producing the Jawa 350 OHC with a four-tier engine and then the sportier version - Jawa 350 Special - which is designed to evoke the 1960s and the style of the famous Jawa race bikes.”
The Jawa factory, he said, still rolls out several thousands of motorcycles a year.
“We currently have two ways of how we make our motorcycles. One is the standard production line model, through which we make the two-stroke engine 350s. Then we have special manufacturing stands where we build the entire motorbike from scratch. We can make between 1,500 - 2,500 Jawa 350s a year. They are especially popular in Central and South America.”
Five years ago, the Indian producer Mahindra agreed to conclude a license agreement with Czech Jawa for the use of the brand and manufacturing in India was restarted.
Aside from its continued production, the Jawa remains a culture symbol in many parts of the world today. In Turkey, for example, the reliable vehicles are often passed down from father to son.
“There are people who keep Jawa’s as a family heritage. They spend a lot of money on repair the old Jawas. However, they would rather do that then get rid of their grandfathers old motorbike.”
There are also dedicated workshops which specialise in restoring the old machines as one Turkish engineer told Czech Radio.
“I get about 10 calls a day asking me to help repair their Jawa. I can make about 90 percent of the Jawa bike’s parts, with the exception of the engine. This includes reflectors, breaks, chrome exhausts and more. I sell most of the parts to the Czech Republic.”
In the Czech Republic, the Jawa is of course still very popular as well, with several motorcycle clubs meeting each year to compare their Jawa machines. The company will celebrate 92 years of existence this August 17. While its international glory days may seem long gone, as a symbol it is still very much alive.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words “Czech Republic”?