Seventy years ago next week, two Czech men set off in a four-cylinder Škoda for a daring drive around the world
At the time, it was the biggest accomplishment in Czechoslovak automotive history and the longest joy ride ever.
On April 25, 1936, two Czechoslovak men left Prague in a four-cylinder Škoda Rapid for a drive around the world. Bretislav Jan (B.J.) Procházka and Jindrich Kubias wanted to turn their love for travel into a test run of their new car. And according to Procházka’s son, Bret Procházka-Dube, “As a dedicated Czech patriot, [my father] felt if he drove around the world with a big Czech flag flying in the breeze, people would take notice.”
The record-setting trip took 97 days. The duo drove through Northern Europe and Russia, passed through Tehran, Bombay and Colombo, and then caught a boat to Singapore. They motored through Hong Kong, Shanghai and Kobe en route to another ship that took them to San Francisco. From there it was a straight shot to New York, where they caught a ship to France, and drove through France and Germany on the final leg back to their homeland.
The journey began in front of the Czech Automobile Club, and was relatively smooth until they got to Russia, where they were told that a member of the OGPU, or Russian secret police, would be accompanying them through the country. In later accounts, Procházka recalled softening up their passenger with cigarettes, whiskey and chocolate. But he still rode in the backseat with a submachine gun.
Russia was also where Procházka and Kubias had the most car trouble. Of the 18 times they had to replace the front springs, 16 were in Russia. The gas line also had to be replaced there, as did many tires. Otherwise, the car held up remarkably well. The original set of spark plugs lasted the whole way. Only one ignition cable had to be replaced, and all the battery needed was water. Other than adding an extra fuel tank, the Škoda was not altered in any way.
Spies in Japan
Procházka’s love of motor vehicles began with a Laurin & Klement motorcycle. He was a member of the Society of Automobile Engineers and one of the founders of the Bridgehampton Raceway in Long Island, New York. He attended motor races the world over, including Le Mans and Rally Monte Carlo, either as a spectator or a race official. He was also instrumental in importing the first Škoda to the United States after World War II. Procházka even died in an automobile, in a Washington, D.C., accident at the age of 74.
The trip around the world brought both unpleasant and pleasant surprises. In Tehran, Procházka-Dube says his father was amazed to discover that the Czechoslovak ambassador had arranged a welcoming party with the Persian interior minister and about 200 car enthusiasts. In India, Procházka and Kubias got lost in a sandstorm for two days before being rescued by a passing truck driver.
The boat rides were their only time to relax, but the other passengers onboard were excited to see them, and they were kept busy answering questions, posing for pictures and signing autographs. On the boat to Shanghai, the weather was unbearably hot. Like good Czechs, they claimed even the water was too warm to drink, so they were “”forced”” to drink beer — but quickly, because they only had about a minute before it turned warm.
The larger troubles brewing in the world at that time touched them as well. They had to alter their route, going by boat from Hong Kong to Shanghai instead of by land. They were harassed by the Japanese, who accused them of being spies because of the cameras and binoculars they were carrying. In a New York Sun newspaper article, Procházka recounted how, while crossing the Pacific to the United States, he was amazed at the number of Japanese snapping photos of U.S. naval ships near Honolulu, Hawaii.
It was a smooth ride once they got to the continental United States. At a luncheon given in their honor by the Automobile Club of America when they got to New York, Procházka shared some highlights of the trip, saying the most interesting and progressive country was Iran, the best and most well-marked roads were in America, and the most beautiful scenery was found in Malaysia.
Procházka at the wheel, above, with Kubias in India; at left, the two men get advice on the best route to New York from a AAA representative in San Francisco; at top, they’re mobbed by thousands of well-wishers upon their return to Prague J
Something really big
The most rewarding part of his father’s trip, Procházka-Dube says, was returning home. According to one newspaper account, Procházka was so overwhelmed by the welcome he received that he forgot to say thank you. When Procházka and Kubias first crossed the border back into Czechoslovakia, hundreds of Škoda enthusiasts greeted and drove with them to Prague. They finished where they had started, in front of the Czech Automobile Club, where a cheering throng was waiting to greet them. Procházka-Dube remembers the scene vividly.
“I recall when dad arrived back, there were more than a thousand people on the sidewalks and in the street,” he says. “At that time, I was a young child and I was thinking he must have done something really big that all these people were applauding him and making speeches full of praise and admiration.”
So what, ultimately, did Procházka glean from his journey? Procházka-Dube says it was the people his father met along the way that left the biggest impression on him.
“Throughout the trip, dad found that people throughout the world are curious to meet people from faraway places,” he says. “He came to the conclusion that no matter what the country, no matter what the religion or no religion, people the world over have the same aspirations and goals.”