Curbside Classic: 1961 Škoda Octavia Combi – Boxy Czech Checks Boxes

When I was a kid in high school, I remember an older student had a bright yellow VW Type 3 wagon, which he and his buddies called “the Yellow Submarine”. This all came back to me in a (yellow) flash when I saw this Octavia in the streets of Yangon this week. Granted, this is not a Type 3 Variant, but as ‘60s cars go, it’s pretty damn close.

I never expected to see one of these here – though I should have known better. Looking into it, it seems Škodas used to be exported to Burma back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, before the country more or less closed its borders.

Škoda was first and foremost a steel works and weapons-maker before they started making cars in the ‘20s.

 

Škodas were exported to many countries around the world: Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, China, Australia, the Americas – everywhere! They were quite cheap, extremely rugged, relatively well-built, easy to maintain and very reliable. This little Czech car checked a lot of boxes for a lot of folks.

This particular model, the Octavia, was one of the Eastern Bloc’s most successful exports in the ‘60s, streets ahead of the shoddy Moskviches and smelly Wartburgs offered by other COMECON automakers. The Octavia came as the last in a line of small RWD Škodas going all the way back to the mid-‘30s. The basic chassis was typical Czech fare: backbone tubular chassis, all-round independent suspension with rear swing axles, front engine and RWD. This concept was pioneered by Hans Ledwinka on the Tatra T11 in 1921 and was cribbed by various automakers over the years, from Lotus to Toyota.

The Popular 1100 (1939-1946) ushered a more modern OHV engine that subsequent small Škodas would be using for decades. After the Iron Curtain came down, all big businesses were nationalized – Škoda being no exception. Yet production continued unabated: the Popular was restyled into the 1101/1102 in 1946, which was superseded by the 1200/1201 in 1952 – now featuring a slippery all-steel four-door body and a 1.2 litre version of the Škoda OHV engine, among other refinements. The 1201 saloon was discontinued in 1958, but the three- and five-door wagon carried on, restyled as the 1202 in 1961.

Above: 1955 Škoda 440; Below: bizarre 440 fiberglass roadster made by Karosa (a.k.a Sodomka) in 1956.

The two-door 1.1 litre Škoda 440 “Spartak” bowed in 1955, soon followed by the 1.2 litre 445 and the 450 cabriolet. The creation of a two-door Škoda was mandated by the fact that the 1201 had aged very quickly and was a bit too large for its own good (and for its engine).

Furthermore, major export markets such as Benelux, Scandinavia, South America and India, did not necessarily care for a four-door configuration – and fewer doors meant lower weight, lower costs and better rigidity. Our Octavia was a competently restyled version of the 440, launched at the March 1959 Geneva Motor Show as a two-door sedan; the combi version was introduced a year later.

The Octavia’s ageing chassis now featured coil springs at the front, a revised dash, a restyled front grille and, after 1961, tiny fiberglass rear fins. The convertible version was renamed Felicia and found quite a few buyers in the Western world at the time, as a cheap yet rather glamorous open-top car. It is the last factory-made Škoda convertible to date.

Above: Škoda 1000 MB combi prototype; Below: 1962-68 Škoda Octavia combi.

About 230,000 Octavia saloons were made until they were replaced by the completely new rear-engined Škoda 1000 MB was launched in 1964. But rear-engined cars do not lend themselves to wagon bodies all that well. Škoda did give it a shot, but after one prototype was built around 1965, they figured that it was better to continue producing both the Octavia combi and the 1202 for the time being.

Over 54,000 combis were built in ten years. This brochure shows the late models’ new rear and simpler grille.

 

The Octavia combi was restyled (or more accurately de-finned) in 1969 and got a new instrument panel, before being discontinued after 1971; the bigger 1202 wagon lasted until 1973. After that date, there were no more wagons in Škoda’s range until the FWD Favorit Forman came out in 1990.

Above: original 1960 dash; Below: our CC’s profoundly modified interior.

All Octavia Combis were fitted with the 1221cc engine, delivering a whopping (not) 46 hp (net), before getting an extra 4 hp in 1969-71. Our CC here has had a lot of things done to it over the past half century, including a completely new dash (and likely converted to LHD, as when this car was new Burma was still driving on the left). Not sure about the floor shifter, either: late model Octavia combis had them, but not the earlier models.

The suspension has obviously been dropped and much of the brightwork is either missing or painted over. The bonnet louvres are an interesting addition – mind you, it does get a little hotter out here in South-East Asia than in Central Europe…

But it’s the rear end that puzzles me the most. I’m not sure how many of these came out of the Kvasiny factory without fins (there are some photos on the web), which would make this an early series combi, or whether the fins were deleted by someone else. That might explain the non-standard stick-out fuel filler cap in lieu of the original flap. The two-part bumper is also unusual, but quite fetching.

Whoever tacked on these quirky taillights did a stellar job!

Despite trawling the web for hours trying to decipher Czech, I cannot identify the person who designed the 440 / Octavia. Perhaps the CCommentariat will be able to fill this glaring gap. Whoever he is, the designer of this little Škoda did a good job with some of the detailing, including these distinctive front wheelarch bulges. Many Eastern bloc cars lacked character, but this one had it in spades.