When Sue Baker heard what I’d done she uttered two words: ‘brave man.’
She was half joking, and I suspect half despairing, because I’ve bought a 26-year-old Skoda Estelle. You might remember my writing about how the few survivors of this once reviled car have become minor collector’s pieces, and a couple of months ago I put my money where my mouth was and collected a pea green Estelle 120L on a trailer from a chap in St. Helens.
The car is proving to be a guilty pleasure, and at £600 I think it’s a good investment. Sue thinks I need help.
The Skoda Estelle: A Car of the (Nice) People!
The Estelle was the ultra cheap, pre-VW era Skoda with the engine at the back that became the butt of endless jokes. From a very wobbly start (particularly in the handling and build departments) the Estelle got a lot better than folklore would have you believe, and when motoring magazines like Car began saying so the little Skoda underwent a late-in-life re-invention.
These days Estelles seem to attract nice people. Some classic cars appear to engender a sense of humour failure in their admirers, but for obvious reasons old Skoda pilots don’t take themselves, or their cars, too seriously, and they seem happy to help each other out.
I suspected that my head gasket was ailing (a common problem, along with cracked cylinder heads) so spoke to my mate George, if he knew any experts. George is a builder who likes powerful motorcycles, but also amuses himself by trundling about in a Rapid coupe, the Estelle’s coupe cousin, and a car once dubbed ‘the poor man’s Porsche.’
‘I’ll put you in touch with Barry and Mervyn,’ he said.
It turned out that Barry owned a now deeply rare Rapid cabriolet and a garage full of spares. He was delighted to supply the necessary gaskets, but wouldn’t take any money, on the basis that he was helping a fellow Estelle nut.
Mervyn was a retired main dealer mechanic who’d spent most of his career fixing rear-engined Skodas, had several hair raising stories about some of the iffy build problems he’d encountered (‘I’ve seen a lot of sunken wet liners’) and lived less than five miles away from me.
Having made some doom-laden predictions about the problems he might find with my old heap Mervyn then agreed to sort out my head ache.
‘But I’d like to work on the car at your house, so if a cylinder head bolt snaps it’s not stuck on my drive.’
During the course of a day where nothing snapped and he found no mechanical horrors, Mervyn fixed my tatty prize for an absurdly small fee, and revealed an unexpectedly racy past.
To The Khyber Pass & Beyond!
In 1972, in pursuit of a girlfriend who’d gone to Australia to teach, he’d decided to drive a Ford Thames 400E van half way round the world to where she was. He didn’t get all the way there, but did spend a lot of time in Afghanistan (‘yes,’ he said, ‘I’ve been up the Khyber Pass’), until his visa expired, then Turkey ‘until the money ran out.’
The object of his affections eventually married someone else, ended up living a few streets away from Mervyn in exotic Dartford, and to this day they’re still in touch.
Mervyn seems to be part of an old Skoda sub culture, of helpful, jolly people, which has nothing to do with cars as status symbols, but is about the sort of very British fun that can be had from visiting a country fair and wandering round a field stuffed with traction engines and old cars.
With its four-speed gearbox, wind down windows and steering that eschews power assistance, the Estelle feels suitably antique too, but pottering down country lanes it’s also deeply relaxing. It’s not a ‘good’ car in the conventional sense of the term, but in a slightly weird sort of way it’s a lot more fun than some that are.