In today’s car and motorcycle market we are constantly offered a never ending end of technical development and gadgetry on vehicles, most of which we now take for granted. As a kid I remember being mightily impressed by the first set of electric windows I saw on a car. Yet chances are your average 2013 family saloon has more electric motors in the drivers seat than a luxury auto from the mid 80’s had in the entire vehicle. In a world full of automotive acronyms ABS, ESC, GPS, and so on, there remains a healthy interest in vehicles from a simpler time. Czechoslovakia, as was, produced an incredible range and number of vehicles over the years covering just about everything imaginable on two, three, four, and indeed more wheels.
Today the country produces cars as sophisticated as any on the market but let’s take a look at two vehicles from the past that today still hold a special place in some people’s affections: The Velorex and Čezeta.
The Velorex is rather hard to define as it is a motorcycle…or is it a car? It has a steering wheel, two seats side by side, a tubular steel frame covered in a leatherette fabric and two doors. It’s a car, right? Wait a second though as it has two wheels at the front, one at the back which is basically the rear end of a motorcycle bolted to the frame and is powered by an engine more or less lifted straight from a Jawa 250, 350 or CZ175 depending on the model. It’s one of those questions that is open to opinion.
The vehicle was conceived by two brothers in the late 30’s with the first prototype arriving in the 40’s. A varied history followed, including the sad death of one brother whilst testing a prototype in 1954. By this time the Government had already got involved, moved production, and shortly after kicked the other brother out because he was not willing to join the Communist party. The die however had been cast and the little three wheeler was well established. As with many things in those days demand outstripped supply and the vehicles were actually reserved for ‘invalids’ by official channels. As a Velorex owner, this has always puzzled me as I simply can not figure how someone with a physical impediment would actually manage to get into one.
This article is not about great technical detail of the machines but if you are interested to learn some more please just email me through Expats. That said there are a couple of interesting points to note. Depending on the model the method of starting utilises the kick start on the motorcycle engine but conveniently converted to a hand lever in the drivers cockpit. I say conveniently with some reservation as there is a definite knack to getting them going. Later models had an electric ‘dynastarter’ fitted. Secondly is the notion of going backwards. There was no reverse gear on a 1940’s motorcycle but as the engine in the 175 and 250 is a simple, single cylinder, two stroke motor, then with the flick of a switch and a strong hand the motor can be made to spin backwards and et voilà you have four speed reverse. Scary. Production carried through into the early 70’s and was eventually stopped as it could not compete with the likes of the more ‘sophisticated’ Trabant.
The Čezeta does not quite have the identity crisis of the Velorex, as it is clearly a two wheeled scooter. A quick look at the styling however and you shall see that it was far from ordinary. Called by many the ‘Prase’ the official model numbers were actually the 501 and 502. Now of course being a little bit odd they also produced a three wheeled ‘Rikša’ the 505 which was basically the front end of the scooter with something like a pick up truck flat bed, attached for utility purposes. The Čezeta name comes from the manufacturer of the machine, Česká Zbrojovka or better known to bikers around the world as CZ. This is a company still very much in existence today though motorcycle production was amalgamated with Jawa in communist times and they have not been involved with vehicle production since 1979.
The most outstanding feature of the Prase is its styling which is so heavily influenced by the fact that the fuel tank is integrated into the front mudguard, with the headlight stuck in front of that, giving it a long torpedo like appearance. The resemblance to the under water weapon was indeed not missed by some who reckoned that with having the fuel tank so exposed it was a bit like a war head. I don’t believe in reality there were actually any problems with relation to this. By having the fuel tank out front there was a significant amount of space left free under the seat for storage and this combined with leg shields made the Prase a practical option in the late 50’s to mid 60’s.
By the time production ended somewhere in the region of 120,000 had been produced and exported all over the world. As with many motorcycles of the time, a process of evolution demanded new models. This combined with the arrival of cheaper four wheel transport over the coming decades would see motorcycles being used less and less for every day transport and thus the likes of the Čezeta would die out.
So it is now in excess of forty years since these two quirky modes of transport ceased production yet an interest in them remains. It is hard to say quite why we get so hooked by items like these in today’s superficial, throw away, fast moving world. At the heart of them both is a real simplicity of function. The engine is about as basic as is possible and with so few moving parts should be reliable for many kilometres. They will break down and when they do repairing them is far from being a major challenge.
The Čezeta is perhaps the easier route to take when picking up the challenge of owning either of these two icons, as they had a much larger and more stable production run. The Velorex ran to just over 17,000 units spread over 5 different models and as such depending on what you end up with, getting information or indeed even finding a standard original to look at, can be a challenge. It is certainly my experience in owning the 250, that I have been let down by so called experts and am learning now as I go along. As far as spare parts are concerned then a number of items are being re manufactured and specialist firms are out there supplying them. There is, of course, a flip side and some items are no longer in production by anyone so the internet can be your friend in the source of second hand parts, though as time passes more and more parts fall into the hens teeth category of rarity.
There are not huge numbers of either machine on the road in daily use, so don’t expect to look out the window and see one within the next ten minutes. A very vibrant old timer vehicle scene exists in the Czech Republic and it is nice to see a continuing number of young people taking an interest. There is, undoubtedly, an element of people who have the money to simply buy an already restored machine and enjoy that bit of retro chic. Neither vehicle is going to be an ultra cheap way of buying some old time ‘cool’ with a half decent Čezeta in good order, all papers and titles in the 30,000 CZK and upwards region and significantly more for one fully restored. The Velorex is an even more expensive proposition with fully working, good condition examples often surpassing the 100,000 CZK mark and again completely restored models even higher. The alternative view though is that while these are not give away figures, it also a fraction of what the market would ask for a classic main stream car or bike of similar vintage.
To go down the simple purchase route is, to my mind at least, missing a huge part of the pleasure of these machines. Getting your sleeves rolled up and diving in headlong to its workings, maybe even bringing it back to life, is a huge part of the experience. It is one of those projects that if your desire, interest and determination outweigh your technical abilities then you can still give it a realistic go as they really are not that difficult. Sure you may end up calling out for help but the beauty of being in this country is that you need not stretch your six degrees of separation network to find someone, who knows someone that can help out.
As previously mentioned there is an active Old Timers scene in the Czech Republic and within that overall group there are specialist clubs for all sorts of vehicles, including the two under discussion here. Rallies, camps, runs, and all manner of events are held throughout the year and of course there is the priceless access to the brains of fellow enthusiasts. The driving experience, when it all comes together, is a very special one whether in a group or out alone. If you don’t like people smiling, waving, or laughing at you then don’t buy a Velorex or a Čezeta. If you have an inkling of an interest then I would urge you to give it a go as these vehicles very simply seem to make an awful lot of people happy, if even only for a fleeting moment when you drive by and that, surely, is no bad thing.
What’s your favorite retro Czech vehicle?
Photos courtesy of www.cezeta.com.