Skoda's Iron Curtain racer

It's small, light, fast and unfeasibly good-looking: if only the Skoda 1100 OHC had broken through the Iron Curtain to race against its Western allies

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Right after World War Two the people in Czechoslovakia were unaware of the horrors that the subjugation by the Soviet Union was going to bring.

Most of the industry, which during the war diligently worked for the Nazi occupiers, remained intact, and in fact was able to continue producing such diverse items as the Messerschmitt Bf-109 and Me-262 and a number of other aircraft and weapons. Skoda was also quickly reborn, and as early as 1948 it sent cars to race in remote Uruguay.

The Czechoslovak company was not lacking in ambition, and nobody there could expect that their country's relative independence within the Soviet Bloc would be savagely crushed in 1968, when Warsaw Pact forces invaded.

Skoda wanted to go endurance racing with a car that now made even Lotus cars appear cumbersome and heavy. Skoda wanted to go back to its prewar roots, firmly embedded in its motorsport history – some 116 years strong! Internally the car was called ‘Project 968’, officially Skoda 1100 OHC. Two examples were built at the end of 1957. Stalin had been dead for four years and the whole Eastern Bloc believed that some light was finally entering through the Iron Curtain.

This sleek, low-slung racer was powered by a front-mounted, longitudinally-oriented inline four with twin overhead camshafts and a capacity of only 1089cc. This was enough to produce 92bhp at 7700 rpm, and the free-revving unit was able to keep on climbing until 8500rpm. At that point in time a power output of 85bhp per litre was extremely rare. Due to the nature of the engine it had to run on avgas, high-octane aviation gasoline.

It was a true prototype in the sense that the little red machine was unrelated to other products of the brand. The basis was a tubular chassis welded out of thin-walled steel tubes, clad in a glassfibre-reinforced epoxy body. It weighed in at a scarcely believable 550kg.

Due to good aerodynamics, the car with its diminutive motor was capable of around 124 flatout. At first, pop-up headlights were tested, but these gave way later to fixed front lights, aerodynamically covered in Perspex. Also perfectly proportioned on a car that was only 964mm tall.

The Skoda 1100 OHC could boast a nearly ideal weight distribution: with a driver of 75kg in weight it became 49.7% front to 50.3% rear. The Czechoslovak engineers placed the clutch assembly, the five-speed gearbox and the differential at the rear in a transaxle arrangement, thus contributing greatly to the favourable balance of the car.

The suspension, modern at the tail end of the 50s, consisted of trapezoidal links and torsion bars at the front, and a trailing link axle with torsion bars in the rear. The racing car ran on 15in wire wheels.

Miroslav Fousek, the Skoda factory driver, won the car's first outing, a street race in Mlada Boleslav, Skoda's hometown, in June 1958. More local victories followed, plus a win in Leningrad (now back to its real name of St. Petersburg). Due to the political situation, the little Skoda never had a chance to challenge Western cars on track in period. Pity.

In 1959 two more Skoda 1100 OHC cars were built: based on the same chassis as the open-top GRP-bodied units, two sleek coupés were built with aluminium bodywork. Their performance was nearly the same, as the engineers were able to keep the weight down to an impressive 618kg. Both coupés were subsequently heavily damaged in serious road accidents. The remains of one are now being painstakingly rebuilt at the Skoda Museum.

Luckily, both of the barchettas survive, one at the Skoda Museum in the heart of Bohemia, and the other, interestingly enough, in the hands of the Skoda import company in the UK. Seeing one in the flesh is an experience on par with seeing a Bugatti Royale, in terms of rarity.

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