Martin Gurdon’s Skoda Estelle – “It’s a modern antique”

by | Aug 4, 2020

Motoring journalist Martin Gurdon on owning his Skoda 120L

“I didn’t know whether I was going to need a shovel to get it home or not,” says motoring journalist Martin Gurdon of his 1989 Skoda 120L, a car he bought on eBay five years ago without inspecting in person.

Fortunately, Martin found his new purchase to be “remarkably sound.” But it begs the question – why did he decide to gamble on a more than 30 year old Skoda that he remembers CAR magazine describing as “the worst new car you could buy?”

Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s all about the driving experience.

“It drives like something built in 1960… and I like that, I like the very basic mechanical feel of it… basically it’s a modern antique.”

Despite Martin’s car having swing-axle rear suspension rather than semi-trailing arms (as found on the 130), he argues that the swing-axle cars, particularly later ones, “were better than folklore suggested.”

While he admits his Estelle is “pretty crude,” it’s “no longer dodgy in the way the early ones are,” referring to their potential for unwanted oversteer.

But even the later cars are not immune to sideways action, as Martin has experienced: “I did overcook it on an S-bend once in the wet and it started to skitter sideways, and I was lucky because the front end didn’t let go and I didn’t get that pendulum thing, it just kept going.” His advice to prevent an Estelle from swapping ends is simple: “Don’t lift.”

A look round Martin’s 1989 Skoda 120L

For Martin though, pushing his Estelle to its handling limits is not really where it shines. Instead, he finds it’s “happiest pottering down country lanes.”

While not exactly a grand tourer, he’s also found the Estelle to be a welcome companion on longer journeys: “It just potters… You can cover surprisingly large distances and not feel completely ragged when you get out the other end.”

“The seats are actually surprisingly comfortable, the ride isn’t bad and because the engine is in the back, you leave a lot of the noise behind,” he adds.

However, it’s best to stick to A and B-roads if you’re planning a journey in an Estelle. Martin describes the experience of going uphill on a motorway: “You’re doing 50 and the lorries and coaches are coming up your arse and thinking ‘what’s this weird pillock doing in this funny old car?’”

Motorways and hills are not a good combination when you only have 56bhp, as Martin has discovered.

It’s fair to say the Skoda Estelle has quite a reputation for being unreliable, but Martin’s car, which does around 3000 miles per year, has been “remarkably trouble free.” Exceptions include the head gasket (a common issue), leaking driveshaft oil seals and the exhaust, which “started falling to pieces,” but was easily fixed.

Part of the Estelle’s negative reputation when it was on sale could be attributed to political tensions. I suggest to Martin the fact it was made in a communist state may have tainted people’s view of it, and he agrees. “You never met people from Eastern Europe… There was a sense of them and us.”

Today an Estelle is a rare thing in the UK. According to data from How Many Left, Martin’s car is one of 47 still on the road. “10 or 15 years ago you could pick one up for £50,” he reflects, “then they all got trashed and scrapped and rotted away and the survivors are quite collectable.” That’s probably not a word you ever thought would be said about the Skoda Estelle…

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