Mladá Boleslav – an industrial town with an ancient history

Mladá Boleslav, photo: Miloš Turek

A rumbling engine drowns out the sounds of fellow passengers on the bus –somehow fitting on a visit to Mladá Boleslav, a town synonymous with cars and car engines. A little over a century ago, the first Czech bicycle, the first motorcycle, and eventually the first motorised buggy rolled out of what was then a modest factory in the town owned by mechanic Václav Laurin and former bookseller Václav Klement. Mladá Boleslav has been known for its car production ever since.

Vaclav Laurin and Vaclav Klement founders of the Czech automobile industry. In 1895 they began making motorcycles,  followed by cars in 1905. The first Skoda was made in 1925. This card depicts the first Laurin and Klement car,  the Voiturette,  of 1905. | Photo: ČTK
Town museum head Luděk Beneš:

“In the 1890s, bookseller Václav Klement opted to go into business on his own to try and produce a Czech bicycle and he was joined on the project by mechanic Václav Laurin of Turnov. They were successful and produced their first bicycle, the Slavia, in 1895. Not long afterwards, they produced their first motorcycle – effectively little more than a bike with an engine and electric starter – and gradually shifted to car production. The first model to roll out of the factory was the famous Voiturette.”

Škoda Auto Museum,  photo: Ralf Roletschek,  CC BY 3.0 Unported
The car – like the motorcycles which preceded it – was a great success, and one of the attractions of Mladá Boleslav is that visitors can still see the original car today, not far from the massive Škoda Auto manufacturing plant. Škoda spokesman Jaroslav Černý:

“The vehicle exists, you can see it at the Škoda Auto Museum and it still runs. Visitors can see not only this car but also many other models as well, including many prototypes which for various reasons were never built.”

Among those is the Škoda Supercar nicknamed the “Ferat” for its role in the 1981 Czech vampire-inspired comedy Upír z Feratu. It looks like a charcoal-coloured cross between a DeLeorean and Bruce Wayne’s Batmobile and in the film it ran not on gas but blood.

The classiest cars on display are without question Škodas from the 1930s which saw production, including a limousine once used by the government, lovingly restored from functioning engine to shiny front grille. The museum is one reason Mladá Boleslav sees a fair share of visitors each year:

Škoda Auto Museum
“Yearly we see around 100,000 people visit the museum and that’s not all they have a chance to see: they can also visit the factory itself, to see the engine plant, the body shop, and final assembly.”

Historian Luděk Beneš stresses it is an understatement to say the firm has had a strong impact:

“The plant of course offers many locals employment opportunities but people here are really genuinely proud of the brand and its reputation in the world.”

Škoda spokesman Jaroslav Černý agrees:

Škoda à Mladá Boleslav,  photo: Zdeněk Fiedler,  CC BY-SA 4.0 International
“These days Mladá Boleslav has around 45,000 inhabitants and about 22,000 of those work for Škoda Auto. That basically means that each family has at least one member employed at the company.”

Škoda Auto has been part of the Volkswagen Group since the early 1990s and one of the most reliable brands, today producing four separate lines from the luxury, top-of-the-line Superb to the popular Octavia sedan to the more economic Fabia, one of its bestsellers, both here and abroad. Aside from excellent service and reliability, the cars also benefit from intelligent marketing. Want an example? Some will recall an ad produced for the UK market several years ago which successfully captured the smaller Škoda Fabia’s verve.

“The idea came from Britain: the UK market is a little bit different and therefore our importer in Great Britain produces their own TV commercials themselves, advertising which has now been seen as a good example for the rest of Europe. In the commercial chefs ‘bake’ a Škoda Fabia the way one would bake a cake: putting the car together from different ingredients to make the glass, the oil and so on. Basically, they bake a cake.”

Mladá Boleslav,  photo: Miloš Turek
With so much emphasis on modern manufacture – and with half of Mladá Boleslav’s inhabitants housed in surrounding pre-fab apartments, it can be easy to forget the town boasts a 1,000 year history, with several notable historic sites. But one has to travel beyond the industrial grid, beyond the modern pastel-coloured apartment buildings to reach its historic heart: namely Mladá Boleslav’s Old Town Square and, beyond that, its castle, a massive structure dominating a vast promontory, away from the modern districts below.

Historian Luděk Beneš:

Castle in Mladá Boleslav
“Looking back to the arrival of the Slavs, we know they founded a fortified settlement here in the early 10th century, and later in the century the first foundations for what was to become the Old Town were laid. It is thought that the name of the town, originally called Nový Boleslav, was named after Boleslav II. The town’s role under the Přemyslid rulers was to oversee surrounding territory all the way to the borders of Saxony. Later, it was adopted by the Hussite reformers and the Bohemian Brethren, who founded schools and other institutions here, in what was seen as the town’s Golden Age.”

Old Town Hall,  photo: Jan Polák,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
But the Protestants’ defeat at the hands of Catholic forces at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and repeated destruction during the Thirty Years’ War spelt decades of regression: the royal town Mladá Boleslav fell to being a backwater and would only begin to regain stronger footing two centuries later. Luděk Beneš:

“There is quite a lot one can see in the Old Town and there are a good number of historic buildings including a renowned Renaissance Palace one should see. But other areas weren’t so lucky: some in the 1960s and 1970s destroyed to make way for pre-fabricated apartments. The northern side of the town are all pre-fab buildings where more than half of the town’s inhabitants live.

“At the end of the day, it’s true that Mladá Boleslav is not at all a typical tourist destination. On the other hand, the town lies along a main artery to the nature park Czech Paradise and the Krkonoše Mountains, so we do get a lot of people, both Czechs and foreign visitors, passing through, stopping off for a meal and visiting for example the Škoda Museum. Cars, naturally, remain the main draw.”