'Gentlemen, start your engines'

Zbraslav-Jiloviste motor car race, photo: CTK

Founded in 1908, the Zbraslav-Jiloviste motor car race can claim to be the oldest up-hill -- as opposed to flat track -- car race still going in Europe. Since 1968, the race has been organised by the Veteran Car Club of Prague and it has become more of a beauty pageant for restored vehciles than a contest of speed.

Zbraslav-Jiloviste motor car race, photo: CTK
The organiser and director of the contest, Pavel Naroda, rattles off a list of famous race-car drivers who have driven the Zbraslav-Jiloviste course over the decades. Eliska Junkova, the most celebrated Czech woman driver in history, first competed here in 1923, in a state-of-the-art Bugatti race car. Jiri K. Lobkowitz of the Czech aristocratic family took first place in the international competition here in 1930.

The course has changed from their day; it used to start at the old Zbraslav brewery -- now an herbal remedies factory -- and run for six kilometres. The course had to be rerouted to avoid the highway that now runs along the Vltava River, and is a mere three kilometres long.

What's more, speed is no longer of the essence. It's a labour of love. Just getting up some of these old-timers up to the starting block is a minor engineering feat.

Mr Naroda himself has restored dozens of cars over the years and still has all kinds of makes in storage. A Ford Model T and Model A, Praga Piccolo, Pontiac, Jaguar XeS — the list goes on and on.

Roughly every fourth car competing on Saturday was a Czech-made Skoda, Aero, or Tatra but historic foreign cars are making a comeback. During communism, says Mr Naroda, every Czech collector "to a man" sold off his Rolls Royces and Bugattis; even though the state took 65 percent of the proceeds in taxes, it was too great a chance to earn hard currency. Nowadays, Czechs are importing such vintage luxury models.

Anatol Danha is one such collector. He's the owner of the oldest car in the competition — a three-seat touring car built in 1907 by the Premier Motor Manufacturing Company of Indianapolis, Indiana. Mr Danha says that from 1922 to 1939, the famous Rothschild family owned the roadster, which was later held in the private collection of a London museum. Mr Danha bought it about five years ago.

It is the only working 1907 model "Premier" touring car left in Europe, he says. Every part is original; only the front seats have been recovered. Largely constructed from hardwoods covered in metal, the headlights are actually brass oil lamps. After countless hours of work, the 97-year-old engine, which starts with a hand crank, is in working order — with a little coaxing.

Jindrich Kriz attended the Zbraslav rally for the first time in 1968 but immigrated to Germany that year, after the political climate in the former Czechoslovakia "turned sour" and hadn't taken part again until this year. On Saturday, he was driving a Ford "Model T" from 1915, actually a light truck made for farm work, shiny and slick with a fresh coat of bee's wax on the wooden panels.

The truck comes from the Brass Era, which ended in 1917 when the First World War brought about a shortage of the metal. Known affectionately as the "Tin Lizzy," the Model T was the first range of cars to be mass-produced on the assembly line.

I moved on before Mr Kriz got the engine to turn over but later did see him putter across the finish line.