I used to take phrases such as “timewarp condition” with a generous pinch of salt, but that was before I met a certain 1991 Skoda Favorit. Recently acquired by Skoda UK’s heritage fleet, this plush Forum Plus example is truly mint. It still wears its original dealer plates, has the original tool box and torch in the boot, and even has an original piece of paper, slipped into the manual back in 1991, that explains how to configure the intermittent wipers.
That particular feature helps pass the time while waiting at the Channel Tunnel. I’m on my way to the car’s birthplace and Skoda’s spiritual home, Mlada Boleslav, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Czech firm becoming part of the Volkswagen Group.
The Favorit weighs less than a tonne, even with me in it – the towering Q7 in the queue to my right weighs twice as much unladen. Even my year-old Seat Ibiza weighs more than the Favorit – with 74bhp compared to the Favorit’s 54bhp, but with an extra half tonne of fat, it has a near-identical power-to-weight ratio and barely challenges the Skoda’s performance off the line. In a lot of ways the 1991 Favorit outdoes the 2015 Ibiza. How can two cars separated by 25 years be so similar? Realistically, what can the Ibiza do that the Favorit can’t?
I’m on my way to the car’s birthplace and Skoda’s spiritual home, Mlada Boleslav
I look down at the steering wheel. It looks awfully hard. There are no airbags in the Skoda Favorit. There’s no ABS either, or traction control. Skoda has kindly changed the tyres and the brake pads for me, because my survival in an emergency will be entirely down to reaction times and friction. If I get into an altercation with something like that Q7, I’ve had it. Even the occupants of an Ibiza would walk away from the kind of crash scene I’d leave in an ambulance.
While continuing to investigate the sharper, more deadly-looking parts of the dashboard, I notice a serious compatibility issue. The Favorit doesn't appear to have a cigarette lighter (I later learn that this is an optional extra) which is unfortunate as that's what my TomTom feeds from. My frantic search for some sort of electrical outlet ends as the train doors open, bathing the Favorit in French sunlight. I'm left with no choice but to hit the E16 autoroute and head towards Brussels. I'd have to work things out when I got there.
In a lot of ways the 1991 Favorit outdoes a modern car
I join the fleet of British-plated vehicles trundling merrily through the fortifications outside Calais. The fact that we can reach Europe and beyond so easily is something that we take for granted, and I'm always taken aback by the simultaneous accessibility and enormity of the continent. Once you're in Calais with a good car, half the world is at your feet. Specifically, your right foot.
Less than an hour in to my European journey I realise quite how comfortable the Favorit really is. It has proper sprung seats, like an armchair, and my back is in a far happier state than it was after the same amount of time in a £120,000 car the previous week.
Once you're in Calais with a good car, half the world is at your feet. Specifically, your right foot
And while the Favorit has a much narrower remit than today’s cars, its large, functional buttons and displays created an intuitive user experience before the phrase “user experience” was invented.
I vow to get the road atlas (or 'flat nav' as my dad calls it) out of the boot when I stop for fuel. This car was built before I got my licence, but I assume that motorists in the year 1991 were perfectly confident to travel large distances using sign posts, a simple map and possibly some sort of sextant. Distressingly, one of my two phones is refusing to work in Europe, and the other one is rapidly running out of battery.
The 1.3-litre engine is purring away sweetly, too. Comparable cars produced today tend to have smaller displacements, and often fewer cylinders, but I’m happy with this energetic straight four.
The Favorit lacks a rev counter but I'm sure that the engine is spinning at a more leisurely pace than a modern 1.0-litre would be at these sorts of speeds. And I'm certainly not driving the Skoda sympathetically – I'm overtaking lorries and cars quite contentedly, and only need to drop a gear when trying to pass vehicles going uphill.
I stop for fuel in Maastricht and flick through the atlas, planning to drive via Frankfurt to Nuremburg, and then look for a sign to Prague. From the boot I also retrieve my stash of ten cassette tapes, bought for £2 from a charity shop in Canterbury the previous afternoon. I brim the tank, noting the original fuel advice on the filler cap, and return to the autoroute, this time accompanied by Paul Simon. Without any working phones, I'm cocooned in the year 1991.
I'm able to savour the entirety of Graceland before I reach Germany. The derestricted stretches of autobahn remain a proud feature of the landscape here, with influential groups lobbying to protect what they see as a last bastion of motoring freedom. I see the symbol ahead, a white circle crossed with four diagonal black lines.
A Porsche appears and then disappears within ten seconds, followed by an RS6 and a very fast Mercedes with no badges at all. My experience of the autobahn is different to normal, even with my right foot on the floor. I'm faster than the lorries but fall prey to everything else. The jaundiced headlamps of the Favorit stand out, too; my tiny car is repeatedly strafed with the piercing xenon beams of passing BMWs.
I drop down to Cologne at sunset, tearing into the Rhineland at what must be approaching the Favorit's Vne. This part of Germany is one of the most important industrial areas in Europe. Many of the world's biggest companies are headquartered here, from Lufthansa to Walther. Further east – built at a different time, for a different reason – is Wolfsburg, the home of Volkswagen and the Volkswagen Group. The three chimneys of the VW factory remain an icon of European carmaking and is now the headquarters of one of the largest employers on Earth, a corporation that encompasses Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Ducati, Lamborghini, SEAT, Scania and – of course – Skoda.
Skoda’s membership of the VW Group arguably began in December 1991 when the Czechoslovakian government picked Volkswagen to partner with their national manufacturer, just six months after the Central European country’s first elections since the fall of communism. The Velvet Revolution had seen an end to Stalinist rule in the Central European state, and with it went the planned economy. So too went the Eastern buyers of Czechoslovakian cars – countries that had previously put up with tin cans like the 130.
That’s where the Favorit comes in. It was to be Skoda’s first truly competitive car, boasting front-wheel-drive and an engine where everyone else had been putting it for decades. It looked the part, with Italian-designed bodywork, but retained the simplicity and ease of maintenance that was important to Central European buyers. In short, it was brilliant.
Approval had been given to develop the car in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1987 that production actually began. By 1991 – the date of this car’s birth – Skoda and Volkswagen had formed a joint venture. Considering the competing bid had been from Renault, my car marks an interesting turning point in the history of European carmaking.
A squawk from the passenger seat surprises me around 200km east of Nuremburg. Emails and WhatsApp messages flood into my stricken phone, bathing the inside of the Favorit with a familiar electronic glow. I assume that my handset had finally reconciled with the local data network, but I'm mistaken – it's just using unsecured wifi from a nearby coach.
I harvest what little connectivity I can from the lumbering vehicle and resume my original pace. I'm not able to check my messages until I find a welcome stellenplatz half an hour later, where I eat a bockwurst – a white sausage endemic to the autobahn network – and decide to continue at least until the Czech border before finding a hotel.
Despite everything, I'm more comfortable in the Favorit than I have been in most modern cars by this stage in a long-haul Euro-schlepp. The dashboard's design is incredibly dated but equally ergonomic – large, functional buttons control most of the car's main features, while all of the displays are easily visible to the driver. Of course, the Favorit has a much narrower remit than today's cars, but the simplicity creates the kind of intuitive user experience that died around the same time that the phrase "user experience" was invented.
Following signs to Prague has paid off and I leave Germany in the small hours, stopping at the first petrol station I see with the hope of buying a Czech vignette. A group of women near some curtainside trailers are friendly but their English vocabulary seems rather particular, so I rejoin the motorway and pray that I find a vignette before I have to explain to the policie why I'm on their dálnice without one.
I'm in luck. A pecten looms over a hill, and beneath its yellow glow is a puddle of wifi. They sell vignettes and tell me I was "one hour" from Prague. I would later calculate this to be a lie rather than a reflection on my top speed, as it was a further 300km before the Favorit purred into the deserted streets of the Czech capital. I pick a hotel based on price and find somewhere safe to leave the Favorit, noting my host nation's stringent parking regulations.
The factory town of Mlada Boleslav welcomes me the following morning at sunrise. This city, an easy hour north of Prague, is completely dominated by Skoda – the enormous factory, plus all the offices, account for around half the town’s area. Skoda’s facility here is around the size of Monaco and receives over 1,000 lorries a day to feed its round-the-clock appetite for raw materials. Inside, workers on 12-hour shifts receive parts from driverless delivery robots which play the latest pop songs as they waft around the colossal factory floor.
The facility’s 200m chimney is visible from several miles away, negating the need for any navigation systems. Rumbling through the cobbled old town reveals a wealth of classic Skodas - Rapids, Gardes, and dozens of other rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive relics are in everyday use here. My Favorit is joined by its estate counterpart, the Forman, and seemingly endless derivatives of the later Felicia. Enthusiastic pleasantries are exchanged in broken English.
I’d made it to Mlada Boleslav without electronic navigation, mostly because the Favorit has no cigarette lighter. For the return journey I hard-wire in a borrowed Garmin unit – inadvertently creating the world’s first Favorit SE Nav – in order to find something that had I'd been looking for since first entering Germany.
With the wind behind me, I track it down: 94mph, displayed on the satnav – the Favorit’s claimed top speed.
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