The Velvet Revolution

Words: Dave Smith, photography: Dom Fisher

Hot rodding has always been a very American scene, but can you imagine a street rod that looks like it was built on the other side of the wall in the Soviet era? Well, here it is… in Yorkshire.

Street rodders don’t usually make life easy for themselves when it comes to creating crazy cars. You could pretty much build a ’32 Ford mail-order, and that’s tricky enough, but this street rod would make it seem like a stroll in the park by comparison. Alec Vallance is the man who took a rare car, added an even rarer powertrain, and ended up with a 50-year-old Skoda sporting a rear-mounted, air-cooled V8. Now there can’t be many people who can say that…

“I always wanted to build a custom car, but needed something totally different,” says Alec. “I took this job on knowing nothing about cars other than basic servicing. Last time I saw a hot rod was in Street Machine in the Seventies as a kid. That, and a childhood spent near Menwith Hill US base, was the actual seed.

“I got the idea for a V8 Skoda in a pub in Dacice, Czech Republic, in 2010, about three pints into a conversation with a total stranger. At the time, Graham Sykes’ V8 drag bike, The Syko, had been misbehaving and he was thinking about selling the engine, so, purely for the sake of conversation, I dreamed up the idea of putting it in a Skoda 1000MB. The idea was greeted with a look of horror from the local guy. Some years later, I somehow became aware of the Czech Tatra V8, and knew I had to act.

“The first thing I did was name it; it’s named the Velvet Revolution, after the political upheaval in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989, when the communist government was overthrown and the union of the Czechs and Slovaks dissolved. Skoda used to be a massive state-owned industrial company making power generating equipment, trains, buses, trucks, machine tools and weapons, but have only been making vehicles for 126 years. In 1964, the 1000MB was quite technically sophisticated; one of the first monocoque vehicles, it has the same wheelbase as a Beetle but with a four-door body, made on a semi-automated production line, and exported worldwide. It had several facelifts and ended up being the Skoda 120 (Estelle) which they made until VW bought them out. This one is a MkII, with the wide C-pillar, very common on Czech and Slovak roads until some bright spark recently started a scrappage scheme.

“The engine in question is made by Tatra, the second oldest vehicle manufacturer on the planet after Peugeot. They made trucks, trains, trams, even a V8 skidoo, and also made cars for the elite, captains of industry and politicians, with enough room for sleazebags in the front, hookers in the back and dead bodies in the trunk. My engine came from a Tatra 603, which looks like the bastard offspring of a MkII Jaguar and a VW Beetle, but with an air-cooled V8 in the rear. It has individual cast iron bores in an aluminium block, with individual aluminium OHV hemi heads.

“I got there before the scrappage scheme, when old Skodas were plentiful and cheap. There were loads of Tatra engines too, all rotting on pallets in people’s gardens, going for a song. It was originally going to be a field car, get ragged about for a bit and then scrapped, but then I imagined a set of hot rod wheels and a great deal of game-upping was done. The biggest components in the game-upping process were switching off the internet and ignoring everything people told me.

“To begin with, the engine was awful, running on five cylinders while strapped to a pallet with a milk bottle for a fuel tank. The crank bearings were so bad that the pistons had slapped the spark plug electrodes, shorting out three cylinders, but it ran, and with a borrowed Mallory mechanical advance distributor, which I later discovered was running backwards. Pumping three-eighths of the fuel into the exhaust while retarding the ignition as the revs increased made some interesting flames come out.

“The engine was machined at Drakes of Bradford, and they did a fantastic job. The original bypass oil filter system was dreadful, but I re-plumbed it into a full-flow system with a standard paper element replacing the gauze filter in the original housing. Silchrome, in Leeds, chromed the rocker covers and powder-coated the air cowls. The distributor rotation problem was sorted using a programmable MSD 6AL-2 ignition module and MSD Blaster 2 coil, custom Magnecor HT leads and the same Mallory Unilite distributor. The stock tune is rather conservative – only 100hp for a 2.5-litre V8 – but I intend to do something about this…

“The original Jikov twin carbs are only found on the T603 engine, and totally obsolete. I particularly disliked the cold start system, which worked by draining the contents of one float chamber directly into the manifold, like flushing a lavatory. So far, it has had a Holley 465cfm, a Weber 38DGAS, the Jikovs again, and currently an Edelbrock 1405, which is totally drivable and economical, giving 34mpg best and 24mpg average.

“The inlet manifold is a home-built, steel, two-piece structure, and looks like what you might get if you gave children a shoebox and eight bog rolls and told them to make a spider. I have heard people referring to it as a plenum-type or Hi-Rise manifold, which sounds sexy but is rubbish. It does the job, but I’ve designed a replacement with a flange to take an Eaton blower, and port injection – watch this space in the post-Brexit era.

“I kept the original Tatra four-into-one exhaust manifolds because there isn’t enough room for headers without wrecking the air cowls. I made the silencers using the theory of ignoring all the theory, but ended up with exhaust amplifiers, so they went in the skip. Space shortage meant I had to put three silencers in an S-shaped line ahead of the rear wheel, which doesn’t help performance.

“The dynamo, housed inside the left cooling fan, was only ever fitted on T603 engines, and also obsolete. I fitted a small alternator in a more normal position, which has four times the output of the dynamo and looks like it’s always been there.

“There are four shiny pipes in each inner wing, supposedly delivering cooling air to the cylinder heads; they are only really for decoration, and to visually justify the existence of the rear wing grilles. The original Tatra engine bay was a sealed compartment with flaps that opened and closed thermostatically; I can’t do that, so the engine usually runs cold. The alternator retrofit involved making new pulleys for a third belt to drive the alternator. The design incorporated quick-change fan pulleys, so fitting different diameters means I have two-speed fans, depending on the weather.

” I chose the wheels and tyres early on. I wanted zero-offset wheels with a nice concave appearance, so I custom-ordered them from America. The two months between order and delivery is just enough time to figure out the best way to tell the wife about what you are really building, before the credit card statement hits the mat.

“Weight distribution was a big problem. The Tatra engine is all behind the rear axle, making a 60/40 rear weight bias. I had to move a few things, including the huge battery and fuel tank, and with all tools and spares loaded it’s exactly the same as original, so it handles well. Ground clearance can be an issue. On the trip to Prague, it stroked the motorway twice coming out of Rotterdam, and Holland is supposed to be the flattest country on Earth.

“It has original double wishbone front and swing axle rear suspension with coil-overs all round, new dampers and good customer service supplied by AVO in Northampton. The driveshafts were friction-welded at Drivelink, in Gateshead. The Tatra gearbox is sweet as a nut, the only thing I didn’t bother to strip down. The diff bearings are 5” diameter taper rollers, the gears look like something from a truck, and the old-school wobble-end CV joints are inside the pinions, like a spade in a bucket.

“The hot air exhaust cowls were partly inspired by Tatra’s twin seven-bladed aluminium cooling fans loosely resembling jet turbines, and partly by the prospect of somebody’s fingers getting involved. At idle, I calculated it is possible for a person to cut each of his or her fingers and toes into five slices in less than a second. Hopefully the fancy outlet cowls will deny access to the spinning knives, obstructing any prospective speed amputees.

“I designed and made the switches, stalks, heater, pedal box, gear shift, electrics, bumpers, interior, fuel tank, rear axle driveline plus a few other things. The original Skoda dash was quite pretty but nothing worked. It had a glovebox lid, but no lining, so if you put something in there it would roll about behind the panel and you’d be lucky to ever see it again. The new dash is just sheet metal, a lot further away from the driver, making room for the Hot Wheels steering wheel that I made from pressed aluminium and Perspex. All gauges except the speedo are aircraft Westach and UMA instruments, with a Hewitt differential pressure gauge for the modified oil filtration system, all illuminated with green electroluminescent tape.

“The interior was retrimmed by Mrs Miroslava Nováková in Nemojov, CZ. There’s a different hide on every panel including giraffe, zebra, snakeskin and Dalmatian, and the gearstick is a homemade copy of a Sabatier 14” veg knife.

“I designed and made the wiring harness using standard fuse and relay boxes in a custom-made plastic panel. The original wiper motor had to go after a near miss in a rainstorm in Southern Bohemia. There’s now a Lucas motor in the boot, leaving room behind the dash for the oscilloscope that will, when fitted, measure manifold pressure, rpm, air/fuel ratio and my pulse.

“The paint is original Skoda, with a lot of the previous owner’s repair work in various shades of yellow including cracks, crazes, runs and wrinkles of the caliber that money just can’t buy. The underside is stone-chipped inside and out to keep the noise down. I don’t want to paint the car because the windows leak, the panels don’t fit, and the doctor only gave me 30 years to live.

“On its maiden voyage, it trundled about 1,800 miles back to the motherland, through blistering heat and ankle-deep rain, but had a very warm reception at the two-day Prague Car Festival in September 2018. Reliable or not, the V8 Skoda still sports a full tool kit, trolley jack, air bladder jack, compressor, spare parts, spare wheel and fuel. This makes it heavy, but makes no difference whatsoever to performance; it’s still shite. At last August’s re-opening of Melbourne Raceway, I was quite shocked at just how slow it is. Having spent five years building my unique, shabby Czechoslovakian dream car, I can better appreciate the work that goes into other people’s builds. It’s ‘man maketh car;’ not the other way round.”

1968 Skoda 1000MB

  • Rear-mounted Tatra 2.5 air-cooled V8 hemi
  • Tatra four-speed manual transmission
  • Edelbrock carb
  • Mallory distributor
  • MSD ignition
  • Magnecor plug leads
  • AVO coil-over suspension
  • Tilton triple reservoir
  • Dual brake master cylinder with balance bar
  • Custom made Team III wheels, California
  • Bridgestone tyres
  • UMA, Westach, Hewitt instruments, VDO speedo
  • McDonnell Douglas VC10 punkah louvre dash vents
  • Omron dash switches
  • Jaguar XJ-S MkI front seats
  • Buzz Solomoto lights etc
  • Gufero oil seals etc
  • KS Motorsport fibreglass engine cover

Thanks to: “A ‘velký nádraží’ to Jiří Svoboda, Ondrej Szabo, Miroslava Nováková, Charlie Corner, Graham Sykes and Andy Knox, without whom this would not have been possible.”