Velorex - How tinkering in a wartime workshop led to one of Czechia’s most famous vehicles
Velorex is the name of a unique, three wheeled vehicle which runs on a motorcycle engine. It was designed by brothers František and Mojmír Stránský during World War Two. Over 15,000 Velorex’s were made until the 1970s. Today, thousands of these machines are still registered in the Czech Republic and have become somewhat of a collectors item among historical vehicle enthusiasts.
Birth in the workshop
At first glance, there is something endearingly pathetic about the Velorex. It is not a car that is likely to score points among the ladies for any man who may be driving it, but it is also a vehicle that is guaranteed to get anyone who sits inside a few stares.
The story of the Velorex three-wheeler begins in wartime Bohemia, specifically around the town of Česká Třebová. František Stránský, and his brother Mojmír Stránský got the idea to construct a motorised tricycle. They used a Sachs 98ccm motorcycle engine and constructed the chassis of the vehicle with the help of bicycle parts. The whole machine was then covered in a dural sheet and given the name OSKAR.
As Mojmír Stránsky recalled when speaking to Czech Radio, it was not an immediate hit.
“We eventually made a chassis and drove it around. You can not imagine the feeling of fulfillment and happiness when something you built works. We screamed with joy as we drove the vehicle. No doubt people must have thought that we had gone mad after spending all that time in the workshop.
"You had to be careful though, because there was almost no petrol at that time. You had to buy it on the black market. When we arrived in nearby Strakonice, they told us: ‘Guys, pour some gasoline on it and set it on fire.’
"There was Mr. Koch, a brilliant engineer, who said: ‘I make scooters. What is this? This is bad.’ I told him: ‘Yes mister engineer, but we have a canister. We can drive all across the country in this. We can not fall over and when it rains, we are protected from the elements. It may look ugly, but that is because we do not have many components to use.’”
The brothers refused to give up and spent more time tinkering with their design, changing the cover of the chassis from metal to leather. Mojmír Stránský says that they would often run into retreating soldiers as the frontline reached Bohemia in the closing months of the war.
“As the war drew to a close and we continued our little journeys in the machine, we started coming across retreating German soldiers on the road. They would get confused and ask us what is going on. They’d say: ‘Go faster!’
"Then the front advanced and we started driving on roads where there were Russian soldiers advancing. They started getting interested in who we were, so we got a bit scared.”
After the war, the brothers patented the design and founded the company MOTO-VELO-SPORT. The two siblings began constructing their Velorex’s on demand for clients, who seem to have come mainly from the ranks of small business owners and invalids.
Mojmír Stránský again.
“When 1945 came and the war was over, we founded the Stranský and Co. company. I had the paperwork done, because my brother was a little worried. He’d tell me: ‘Hey, you know the Communists don’t like this business stuff.’ I told him: ‘Who cares? We have a company now, so lets do it.’
"Things were getting nationalised back then and we didn’t want that. But we just had a workshop in a barn and the necessary paperwork, so we managed to avoid it.”
The company’s continued existence came more under threat after the Communist coup d’etat in 1948, after which most of Czech industry started to be nationalised. Nevertheless, the brothers managed to avoid this by officially classifying their machine as a vehicle for invalids.
In 1950, the Velorex was warmly received in Prague. The brothers decided to ask for their business to be nationalised after the project started gaining the attention of the Velo company in Hradec Králové and, a year later, their workshop became part of Velo under the plant name - Závod 09 Parník.
The textile, or leather covers were made by Mojmir Stransky’s wife, recalls the designer.
“My wife sewed it out of overall textile, but when you put it on the vehicle it loosened up. We started using leather, but she didn’t like it. She said: ‘I am not going to make it.’ I said: ‘But you have to make it. Look, the chassis is finished. We can not use the textile, because it gets wet. Leather does not get wet.’ She said she would do it, but that I would have to help her. So I sketched where the leather had to be cut with chalk. I showed her how to cut and sew it. It turned out well.”
The glory days
The workshop eventually grew to house six further workers, but it soon became apparent that this was still not enough to cover the rising number of orders. Production was therefore moved to a new manufacturing plant in the town of Solnice in North-East Bohemia. The machines also got an upgrade, now using the JAWA 250 motorcycle engine and 19 inch wheels.
The company was now able to move from custom construction to mass production and soon 30 or 40 Velorex’s (still called OSKAR at this point) were being constructed every month. The price of the vehicle was set at 60,000 Czechoslovak crowns.
Tragedy struck in 1954, when František Stránský crashed while driving his OSKAR on an icy road and died of his injuries. He was replaced by Jaroslav Ehl who became the head of the Solnice production plant. Meanwhile, František’s brother Mojmír decided to move back to the original workshop and focus on improving the vehicle’s design.
The original models were still far from uniform, the head of the official Czech Velorex club Ladislav Šustr told Czech Radio.
“The original version of the Velorex is contested. It was made out of those materials that were available at the time. If there were some blinkers available, then these were bought and installed. The same counts for the leather cover - you used it whether it was bright or dark. Whatever the other factories could supply was used. It was not as if there were 100 components of a single type to be used on the production line.
"The early Velorex was made out of the components of several different machines. It is true that later on the Velorex models were all brown, with brown or black mudguards, and that they had specific types of engines installed. However, there is no way you can definitively identify the type of Velorex by its appearance.”
In 1954, the three-wheeler’s roof was expanded and it was renamed to Velorex OSCAR 54. By now, hundreds of Velorex’s had been produced and the vehicle started being exported to nearby foreign markets. In fact, half of the Velorex’s that were produced would go on to be sold abroad, particularly in East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. By 1960, demand had grown so much that another plant was set up in the nearby town of Rychnov nad Kněžnou.
The following decade would see the Velorex’s outfitted with a more powerful JAWA 350 engine and a new series of vehicles started being produced under the designation Model 16.
Eventually, the company moved away from the three wheel design and in 1971 started producing the four-wheeled Model 435-0. It was not a successful design and could not compete with the arrival of new competition, such as the cheap, duroplast coated Trabants which started arriving on the markets of the Eastern Bloc.
Production ceased completely two years later in 1973. However, more than 15,000 Velorex three wheelers had been constructed by then and more than 60 percent of the Velorex’s made for the Czechoslovak market remain as registered vehicles until today. What helps is that, because the Velorex is a three-wheeler which uses a motorcycle engine, drivers only need an A1 class driving license which can be acquired from the age of 16.
A mainstay in film and historical vehicle shows
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its unique design, the Velorex has also frequently appeared in film. Perhaps the most famous of its silver screen performances is in the classic 1981 comedy Vrchní, Prchni! In which the main character, played by Josef Abrahám, gets several humorous scenes while driving his Velorex, which centre around the awkwardness of the vehicle.
As Ladislav Šustr explains, the Velorex does come with some unorthodox tendencies.
“It is said that you are not a proper Velorex driver until you experienced being in the vehicle while it capsized. It has happened to me twice. It didn’t cause much problems, just tore up some of the vehicle's sail coverings.
"You do have to be very careful when making turns while driving the Velorex, because it has a very sensitive centre of gravity.”
The Velorex was also featured in one of the episodes of the TV show Top Gear, in which the host, Andy Wilman, jokes that he bought it for a potato.
Today, there are several Velorex clubs, where owners regularly meet up to show off their machines. Some have even dared to take their beloved three-wheelers on epic expeditions, driving their vehicles through the deserts of Africa or the polar regions. In the USA, Velorex owners organised a 5,000km trip along the famous Route 66 highway in 2008.
There is also a myth that some Velorex’s were covered in jean textile. However, this was not the case according to Ladislav Šustr.
“The jeans covered Velorex is more of a myth that comes out of the song written by Ivan Mládek. People only started making them after the song came out. I know of about three. The jeans cover is certainly not a very good choice, because it eventually shrinks in size due to being exposed to the outside weather.
"But there were other covers that were also used. For example, one of our fellow members from the town of Humpolec has his vehicle registered as covered in transparent plastic.”
Others have put much effort into modifying other parts of their Velorex’s. For example, one vehicle, which could be seen at the Telč exhibition in 2019, had Formula 3 brakes installed and control panels from the famous Škoda Octavia.
Ladislav Šustr says that historical vehicle enthusiasts still have a soft spot for the Velorex, both in Czech Republic and abroad.
“It is true that when foreigners with an interest in antique vehicles come here, they do generally try to acquire a Velorex. For example, we have a group in the Netherlands who are Velorex owners. There are also quite a few in Germany. They like it. It is something they haven’t experienced before.
"You could say that the Velorex is a sort of unique Czech national heritage. Foreigners love it and are proud when they can drive in a vehicle like this.”
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