- - Thursday, December 9, 2004

As the Iron Curtain across Europe rusted away more than a decade ago, Jim Donley’s job took him to the Czech Republic.

At that time, Mr. Donley observed, the typical Czech mentality regarding cars was similar to the Cuban mentality of today about automobiles — do whatever it takes to keep your car operational. Consequently, a plethora of vintage cars populated the Czech streets, many of them drab little sedans.

Occasionally, Mr. Donley would spot an old Skoda Felicia convertible. The flashy convertibles always stood out in any crowd of automobiles. He was attracted to the flared fenders above the front wheels reminiscent of 1953/1954 Plymouth front fenders.

“What an awesome car,” thought Mr. Donley whenever he saw one on the road. He learned that “Skoda” translates into English as “pity.” He located a Czech talented in all things automotive and explained that he wanted a 1960 Skoda Felicia convertible restored to like-new condition.

“Would that be possible?” he asked.

Of course. Not to worry was the confident response.

Two antique Skoda were acquired and merged to make one complete car. The 1.1-liter, 50-horsepower, four-cylinder engine was overhauled and the four-speed manual transmission was rebuilt as well. “You don’t win any drag races in this car,” Mr. Donley says.

The shift pattern is the familiar “H” pattern, but with first gear at the upper right and fourth gear at the lower left. Reverse is to the far left and then back toward the rear of the car.

Behind the wraparound windshield nestled in its stainless-steel frame is the dashboard covered in textured black leather.

The same fabric that covers the front bucket seats and the rear bench seat is also used on the side panels and door panels as well as the blank plate that fills the rectangular space on the dashboard where an optional radio would be located.

None of the seats has a headrest but the door panels have convenient storage pockets.

On the dashboard to the left of the black two-spoke steering wheel with its 360-degree black horn ring is the ignition switch. It’s next to a lever protruding from the dashboard that operates the turn signals, up for left and down for right.

All of the instrumentation is clustered in front of the driver around the 140-kilometer speedometer, which translates to a top speed of about 85 mph.

Mr. Donley doubts that he could ever push the chrome-plated accelerator far enough to achieve such a speed.

On the side of the car at the right end of the rear seat is a metal ring dangling by a wire. A sharp tug of the ring releases the door covering the gas cap on the right rear fender.

Opening the left door exposes the door jamb on which is cleverly hidden a lever that opens the trunk lid. Once the trunk is open, the spare tire can be seen in its space on the floor and what appears to be a 6.5-gallon gasoline can mounted on the inside of the right rear fender.

Under the engine hood at the other end of the almost 13-foot-long Skoda is an Autopal brass radiator.

On a structural cross member at the top of the radiator is a small pulley around which is a wire. Following the wire down to the bottom of the radiator, we find it is attached to a window-shadelike affair that can be raised by pulling on the other end, which is at the driver’s fingertips inside the cockpit. In the cold winter this apparatus helps maintain the engine temperature.

Crowning the small engine are two chrome-plated air cleaners, each feeding a single carburetor. Attached to the firewall is a brake-fluid reservoir made of glass.

The manually operated convertible top is raised or lowered with a small amount of effort. A black boot secured by 15 snaps covers the top when it is lowered.The 45-year-old Skoda features independent rear suspension which, Mr. Donley says, “makes it a great-riding car for its age.”

He left the country before the car was completed, but returned a year or so later. He says the finished car looked better than when it left the Kvasing factory in Mlada Boleslav in 1960.In the spring of 2001 the car was trucked to Amsterdam and then shipped to Baltimore. Mr. Donley rented a truck on which to transport his Skoda home to Bethesda. He wanted to check the steering and brakes before trusting it on the highway.

His only surprise was finding the starting operation a challenge. He now attributes that to inexperience.

On the occasional fair-weather day Mr. Donley, CIO of Acterna in Germantown, will drive his convertible to work.

“I love going out in that car,” he says. He is easy to identify. He’s the one in the red car with mudflaps labeled “SKODA.”

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