Czechs Václav Laurin and Václav Klement founded their bicycle manufacturing company in Mladá Boleslav, Bohemia, in 1895. The company, Laurin & Klement, started a small repair workshop about 40 miles northeast of Prague. After only one year, the enterprise employed 21 people and was marketing five different bicycle models, featuring the Slavia label. Even as the company grew on a reputation for quality products for consumers, the founders shared a passion for racing, which led to the development of motorcycle models.
Four years later, on November 18, 1899, Laurin & Klement’s first two motorbikes appeared—the Slavia A and Slavia B. Click here to hear the Slavia B’s motor rumble. Yes, it still runs and lives in the Škoda Museum in Mladá Boleslav.
The Slavia B motorcycle made its debut at the bicycle racetrack in Prague-Bubny alongside the Type A. The Type B had an air-cooled single-cylinder engine that generated 1.75 horsepower from a displacement of 240cc; top speed was 25 mph. As was typical at the time, the motorbike did not have a gearbox; the engine drove the rear wheel directly via a flat leather belt. The riders had to pedal to start the chain-based starter and auxiliary drive themselves. By 1904, Laurin & Klement had built a total of 540 units of the Slavia B.
In 1901, to satisfy Laurin & Klement’s desire to race, the Slavia B was entered in the three-day, 744-mile Paris-Berlin Motor Carriage Race. It was the first motorbike that the Mladá Boleslav-based company entered in an international race. Narcis Podsedníček was tapped to ride the factory-backed racebike.
The course mostly covered unpaved roads and cobblestones. There were hoof nails from horse-drawn traffic everywhere, causing many tire failures. Only 30 out of the 110 starting vehicles finished the event. Podsedníček was the only participant in his class to reach the finish line. His victory was surprising because he was not considered likely to win the class. No one was expecting or even present to see him when he crossed the finish line at 3 am. The timekeeping office was closed, and no race commissioners were on duty.
However, Podsedníček was never declared the winner. Although Podsedníček’s arrival was initially confirmed by local police officers, the event organizer did not recognize the officers’ records and instead chose four Frenchmen on De Dion-Bouton tricycles as the winners.
Despite the lack of official recognition of Podsedníček’s victory, the event set the stage for a long involvement in motorsports and the automotive industry. Podsedníček’s gained wide personal recognition, and the Laurin & Klement brand gained international attention and enhanced the reputation. By 1905, Laurin & Klement produced its first automobile.
Laurin & Klement was bought by Škoda Works in 1925. Following the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, Škoda Works was state-owned. Privatization in 1991 put the renamed Škoda Auto in the hands of the Volkswagen Group, which has wholly owned Škoda since 2000. In 2012, Škoda Auto celebrated the production of its 14 millionth car since 1905.
Škoda Auto is successful in the World Rally Championship-2 Pro class, with Kalle Rovanperä taking the 2019 title behind the wheel of a Škoda Fabia R5. However, Škoda Auto’s motorsports history began with the Laurin & Klement Slavia B on the road from Paris to Berlin.
To mark its 120th anniversary, Škoda Auto presents 18 of the most important sports models in the company’s history as part of an in-depth series.