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Celebrating 60 years of the Škoda Octavia

By / 2 years ago / Features / No Comments

The Octavia has been a fleet staple for decades, but its rich history goes back much further, finds Jonathan Musk.

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Early history

Škoda was a highly respected engineering firm long before the first Octavia arrived in 1959. Prior to the Second World War, the company had been at the top of its game and even produced Rolls-Royce rivalling cars, such as Hispano-Suiza H6 under licence.

In a bleak turn of events, the requisition of its factories by occupying forces put a stop to that and its factories were subsequently torn to smithereens, its workforce decimated and car production ceased altogether.

Rubbing salt in the wound, just hours after the declaration of peace on 9 May 1945, retreating forces bombed the Mladá Boleslav factory, significantly damaging the few remaining car tooling and production lines.

However, such was the pride in Škoda, and testament to the remaining few surviving workers, vehicle production restarted just 15 days later on 24 May 1945, and on 24 June the very first post-war Type 256 truck rolled off the production line.

Just one year later, Škoda’s first post-war car, the 1101 Tudor, started production.

The first Octavia

Skipping a few models and years, 1959 saw the entrance of an appealing new Škoda model that would allow the brand to compete on a global stage and embrace the growing US and Indian markets.

As the eighth post-war Škoda, its name was derived from the Latin word for eight, ‘octo’, and the Octavia was born.

Leaning on the company’s previous 440/445 model, the new car benefited from double wishbone suspension instead of leaf springs. While producing a new chassis would have been a costly undertaking for the firm, changing the suspension was a negligible cost by comparison, yet offered vastly superior handling.

Differing greatly from today’s Octavia, early examples were powered by a 1.1-litre four-cylinder engine producing 40hp to the rear wheels via a four-speed transmission, delivering 70mph performance and 30.5mpg. A larger 1.2-litre engine arrived later offering 45hp in the Octavia Super.

Although by today’s standards, horsepower increases were pitifully small, the Octavia Touring Sport (TS) with 50hp – 25% more than the outgoing car – was launched on 10 March 1960. This was a significant car for the brand, as it heralded its re-entry into rally motorsport. Although still on a shoestring budget, Škoda’s faith in the car paid off, with class-wins at the 1961, ’62 and ’63 Monte Carlo Rally.

Rally had put Škoda back on the map once more and with that success behind it, the company was able to grow its market reach from Chile to New Zealand, while in Britain customers endured significant waiting lists to secure one.

Škoda’s Renaissance

Following the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, most industries were subjected to privatisation. The Czech government chose Volkswagen over Renault in 1990, and on 28 March 1991 a joint-venture partnership was formed with Volkswagen Group taking a 30% share – just one year after Volkswagen Group also took full ownership of SEAT.

On 19 December 1994, Volkswagen Group increased its share to 60.3%, and a year later to 70%, and between 1991 to the introduction of the new Octavia in 1996, Volkswagen Group had already invested 1.4bn Deutschmarks in new production facilities at Mladá Boleslav, Czech Republic, as well as Škoda’s design, research and engineering departments.

Octavia Resurrected

The new Octavia was designed by a team headed up by Dirk van Braeckel, and made good use of Volkswagen underpinnings, using the A4 platform that also saw service for the Audi A3 and Golf Mk4 among others. Likewise, engines were borrowed from the Volkswagen line-up, with the initial range consisting a 1.6-litre petrol model.

Although the car was first introduced in Europe in 1996, due to high demand, it wouldn’t be until 1998 before British customers would finally be offered a right-hand drive version.

A 1.8-litre turbo was added to the range in 1999, along with diesels and an estate version, and in 2000 the line-up was revised with new trim names: Classic; Ambiente, Elegance, and the range-topping Laurin & Klement, as well as a new engine range.

In 2001, the first Octavia vRS model was launched, powered by a 1.8-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 180hp. The model marked the first performance Škoda since the late 1970s proving a hit with customers, particularly in estate form, and laying the foundations for Škoda’s multi-model vRS range today.

After eight years a total 1,451,636 Mk1 Octavia had been produced – including more than 78,800 sold in the UK – before it finally ceased production in 2004, making it the most successful Škoda at the time.

Global Conqueror

The Mk2 Octavia arrived in 2004 following its debut at the Geneva Motor Show, and featured a larger cabin and new design by Thomas Ingenlath, who would go on to design some of Škoda’s most notable models, including the family-favourite Yeti.

Now based on the Volkswagen Group A5 platform, a new engine range was offered with direct-injection and six-speed transmissions, as well as dual-clutch ‘DSG’ transmissions.

The new model would also see two all-wheel drive models, the 4×4 and Scout, as well as the first vRS powered by diesel in 2006.

More critically for Škoda, the new Octavia allowed it to expand in all directions, with new production facilities set up in India, China and Russia.

2009 brought along a major facelift to the car, sporting a radically different design inside-out and new smaller-capacity engines such as a 1.4-litre TFSI petrol to replace the 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre FSI engines.

In 2011, Škoda UK set about proving the Octavia vRS’s worth, by setting a speed record of 227.080mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, USA, and becoming the world’s fastest 2.0-litre turbocharged production car in the process.

By the time of its replacement in 2013, the Mk2 had doubled in popularity compared to the Mk1 Octavia, with more than 2,274,500 built, including 130,662 sold in the UK. This was thanks largely to the car’s ability to transcend markets, being bigger than a Volkswagen Golf, yet smaller than a Passat and cheaper than both.


Third time’s the charm

The Mk3 Octavia would continue where the old car left, launching in 2013 and now based on Volkswagen Group’s MQB architecture, while sporting a design by Jozef Kabaň, itself based on Škoda’s VisionD concept car presented in 2011.

Thanks to the MQB’s flexible system, Škoda was able to introduce some sector-first driver assistance and safety systems, along with size and equipment increases, despite offering a 100kg weight advantage over the Mk2 Octavia. Separating it from its siblings in the Volkswagen Group, the Octavia features several ‘Simply Clever’ details, including an ice scraper in the fuel filler flap, a reversible textile/rubber boot mat and a removable bin in the door pocket.

In 2017, the range was revised with a new look and introduction of latest technologies. For the first time, a new 1.0-litre TSI petrol three-cylinder engine was added to the line-up too. Meanwhile, the vRS received handling tweaks and more power up to 230hp, as well as a vRS 245 as the ultimate halo Škoda.

Despite being on sale fewer than six years, the Mk3 is already the most popular Octavia with more than 2.5m units built globally, and claiming 24% of Škoda’s UK sales – a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Škoda now offers nine models in the UK.

In just over 20 years, more than half a million Octavia have been sold to UK buyers, indicating the appetite for Škoda’s most versatile model shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.

The 1996 Octavia was the first all-new Škoda since the launch of the Favorit/Type 781 in 1987.

The first Octavia arrived in 1959, helping put Škoda on the map.

1996 marked a new generation of Octavia for the modern age.

The Mk2 Octavia introduced a ‘hot’ diesel vRS model.

The Mk3 Octavia claims 24% of Škoda’s UK sales.

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Jonathan Musk

Jonathan turned to motoring journalism in 2013 having founded, edited and produced Autovolt - one of the UK's leading electric car publications. He has also written and produced books on both Ferrari and Hispano-Suiza, while working as an international graphic designer for the past 15 years. As the automotive industry moves towards electrification, Jonathan brings a near-unrivalled knowledge of EVs and hybrids to Fleet World Group.