Skoda 1100 OHC Spider: Driven

Those of you who attended our Skoda Sunday Service the year before last may recognise this car. To everyone else, though, it'll likely be less familiar. Understandably so given that, of the three examples originally built, only two of these 1957 Skoda OHC Spiders remain, and just one of them is in working order.

That's the car we're presented with on a soaking wet day at Bicester Heritage, the sodden tarmac of the test track mirroring the grey clouds above and presenting an ominously slick surface on which to drive the jewel of Skoda's heritage fleet, a car conservatively valued at £250,000.

Heritage really is an the appropriate word for this car, too. Not just due to its rarity, but the backstory attached to it as well, which goes something like this.

During the 50s, Skoda was riding high, sales were good and the production line was flowing. But the Czech government, which owned the manufacturer, wanted to improve its standing among the other communist countries, and placed a priority on exports to foreign territories. This proved problematic for Skoda's domestic customers who, finding themselves at the back of the queue, faced multi-year waits for their cars.

To ease the backlog, the majority of designers, mechanics and engineers from Skoda's motorsport department were redeployed to the factory floor. Undeterred, a group of them carried on, working on evenings and weekends to continue designing and developing new concepts and ideas.

The 1100 OHC is what they came up with. Its tubular space frame chassis and fibreglass panels resulting in a dry weight of just 550kg with an almost perfect 50:50 distribution front to rear. Under the bonnet was a 1,089cc in-line four, revving all the way to 8,500rpm and putting out 93hp for a top speed of up to 124mph. It had a 5-speed crash gearbox, drum brakes and no safety features whatsoever - including seatbelts.

The car was a success from the start, taking victory in its very first race before going on to close out the top two steps of the podium at subsequent contests. Of course, it was only allowed to compete at approved events (meaning those held behind the Iron Curtain) but it still found the limelight where it could. Most notably at the 1959 Leningrad Grand Prix, when star driver Miroslav Fousek - around whose 75kg frame the car's weight distribution was tailored during design - claimed victory against more powerful Russian opponents.

The 1100 continued to enjoy success in Eastern Europe into the early 60s but by 1968 found itself a forgotten relic, languishing in a storage yard at Skoda's factory as the brand's attention turned to Formula 3. It was here that Czech student Matin Svetnicka found it during a trip home over Christmas. He convinced Skoda to let him buy it and, following some fettling at a local mechanic, proceeded to drive it back to London with his possessions stacked in the passenger seat.

Over the following years the car passed through various hands, each as incapable of sourcing the incredibly bespoke parts required to restore it as the last until, thirty years after young Matin made his cross-continental journey, its fortunes changed. Skoda UK bought it back in from the cold, paying just under £50,000 at auction before treating the 1100 OHC to a full restoration, returning it to near original condition.

And this is the car that sits before me, its cross-ply tyres swapped for uprated radials to better handle the conditions, bright red paint glistening in the rain. To drive? It's wonderful. Even in these conditions, and the more sensible speeds they require, the steering via the over-sized string-wrapped wheel is direct and communicative. The balance engineered into the chassis is immediately evident; the 1100 gliding from corner to corner and the back end easily controlled whenever it decides to step out of line - which is more often than intended, given how lackadaisically those drum brakes shave off speed.

The gearshift is crisp - once you're used to the extra conviction it requires - and each change unleashes a new, spine-tingling note from the exhaust. That sound, as the engine revs itself into a legato frenzy, is the real highlight not just of this car, but of anything I've driven. It's very easy, crammed into the tiny cockpit as the rain whips your face and the chassis reverberates around you, to put yourself both in the shoes of Miroslav Fousek, powering to victory in St Petersburg, and of Matin Svetnicka, limping the bedraggled machine across a frozen Europe.

In recent years Skoda has tried, and largely succeeded, to distance itself from its past. These days, under VW's ownership, the factory is again enjoying success, exporting some truly fantastic cars to foreign shores, once more a source of pride to the Czech people. But the 1100 OHC is a reminder of a time when the brand stood on its own, making simple, cheap machines which ably fulfilled their purpose. It's a car Skoda is understandably very keen to remember, and one I won't be in any hurry to forget.



P.H. O'meter

Join the PH rating wars with your marks out of 10 for the article (Your ratings will be shown in your profile if you have one!)

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Rate this article

Comments (18) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Nerdherder 01 Apr 2018

    Fantastic! More of this on PH please.

  • deltashad 01 Apr 2018

    Great story and very interesting car. I was expecting a Rapide with the roof chopped off. Which wouldn't be such a bad thing.

  • daytona111r 01 Apr 2018

    Nice story

  • Iamnotkloot 01 Apr 2018

    What a cool, little thing. It looks absolutely tiny, almost as if the driver is sat on it, not in it.

  • huckster6 01 Apr 2018

    Good story, nice pictures. Is this article in any way related to today's date?

View all comments in the forums Make a comment