On the Roads, In the Fields and In the Clouds
Established in 1907 as a joint venture of entrepreneur František Ringhoffer and First Bohemian-Moravian Machine Works; Praga, as it was officially named in 1909, has designed and built a wide range of land vehicles as well as aircraft in roughly a century of existence.
Praga’s range of land vehicles has included motorcycles, road cars, trucks, buses, agricultural machinery, combat vehicles and racing cars. Outside of vehicles of their own design, the company has also contributed content to the designs of other companies.
While not as prolific as their terrestrial based products, Praga did spend time in the 1930s designing and building a range of aircraft, most of which were of sport or training types.
With a history spanning a century, Praga has seen much in the way of ups and downs including a nearly 70 year stoppage in the production of road cars which commenced in 1947 and came to an end in 2015.
Broad Appeal Early On
Praga’s first offering to the public was a car called the Charon, which they produced from 1909 to 1913. The Charon proved very popular and was extensively used in many roles throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it gained particular popularity as a taxi. However, the Charon was not an original design of the company and consisted of many foreign made parts.
1911 saw the introduction of the Mignon, Praga’s first fully original car design. From the start, the Mignon was designed to appeal to a broad range of users and be adaptable to a variety of tasks. It was noted for robust construction and a strong and stable suspension system; this latter quality saw it used extensively in the First World War as both a general transport and a field ambulance.
The Mignon was a mid-range car in class that was followed in 1912 by the more luxurious Grand series and the more economical Alfa series in 1913. All three models gained international attention and respect quickly and stood as Proof that Praga was more than capable of producing world class automobiles.
It was typical practice for Praga to produce a car model type under the same name for several years through many series variations. The name “Alfa”, for example, applies to the original series model introduced in 1913 to the 25th and last series model in 1942. Approximately 9250 cars were produced under the Alfa model name by Praga in the space of three decades; this resulted in a family of cars displaying vastly different design qualities, to the point of no family resemblance in some cases, sharing the same name.
While the Mignon, Grand and Alfa saw Praga through the first decade of the 20th century as far as the car market was concerned; they were not the only products the company had on offer. Praga had strong footing in the truck market through for different model types; 1911 saw the debut of the Praga V series heavy truck, this was followed by the L series light utility truck introduced in 1912, the R series medium truck of 1913 and the N series heavy truck of 1915.
Additionally, Praga was active in agriculture in the decade through a series of motorised plough vehicles.
Versions of the Mignon, Grand, V, R and N all saw military service during the First World War.
The Interwar Years – Roaring and Dirty
As the clouds of war cleared and the carefree excesses of the 1920s took over, Praga continued developing most of the vehicle lines it had introduced the decade before. A notable exception to this was the V series heavy truck, which had been largely replaced by the N series by that point in time.
The higher spending ways of people through the 1920s saw demand for the luxurious Grand series increase and development of the Mignon series bring it closer in class and refinement to the Grand. In fact, when Mignon production ceased in 1929, there was a great deal of commonality between the two types in both design and components.
The Grand earned the nickname “The Rolls Royce of Czechoslovakia” for its luxurious qualities, superior workmanship and its use as a vehicle for diplomats. The first president of Czechoslovakia, T.G. Masaryk was quite fond of the type.
Unlike the Mignon, the development of the Alfa series stayed more firmly footed in utilitarian qualities. Most modifications to the Alfa line were connected to structural strength and engine power. By the end of the 1920s, the Alfa had a substantially stronger suspension and frame and had seen its engine upgraded from a four cylinder to a six cylinder unit. While the Mignon was edging on luxury, the Alfa was still staying with economic reach of more people; the Alfa also found favour as a police vehicle through the interwar period.
A particularly significant addition to the Praga line came with the introduction of the Piccolo model in 1924. The Piccolo played a similar role in the Praga line that the Alfa had during the first decade of the 20th century in that it filled the role of a reasonably priced economy car that much of the general public could afford; a quality that was particularly appreciated through the years of the Great Depression.
Through its production run, the Piccolo diverged into the “Classic” compact version and a mid sized “American” version. The American version was adapted from a failed tender to supply a large fleet of taxis to New York City.
The Piccolo appealed to small businessmen and police forces. It was built in high numbers and maintained Praga’s standards for high quality. Testament to this quality is the fact that in the late 1920s, a piccolo was driven through northern Africa for a total of 10,000 kilometers with no major mechanical problems.
While the Piccolo and Alfa lines survived the economic constraints of the Great Depression, the more luxurious Mignon and Grand lines were discontinued in 1929 and 1932 respectively.
Diversification in Depression
The 1930s saw Praga seriously rethink their corporate strategy in order to survive. discontinuing the Mignon and Grand lines were just part of this. The period saw the company involve themselves briefly in the fields of aircraft, buses and motorcycles as well as tanks and other military specific vehicles. It was also in the 1930s that trucks began to take precedence over cars in the company’s catalog.
Notable among the truck models Praga was producing at the time was the very popular and versatile RN series introduced in the early 1930s. Before the decade was out, the RN had been improved upon to becom ethe RND series. The RND built on the popularity and adaptability of the RN and became Praga’s flagship product through the 1940s and into the early 1950s. Beyond the baseline truck, the RND was adapted for use in public transportation, firefighting, ambulance and general utility roles. In total, nearly 17,000 RND based vehicles were produced.
1934 and 1935 saw the last new model cars added to the Praga catalog; the company would not produce another truly new car for more than half a century.
The Praga Baby, introduced in 1934, was compact and economical car that appealed to finance conscious buyers of the period. The Baby was popular at home and on the export market and the company produced roughly 4200 of the type between 1934 and 1937 before replacing it with an updated version of the Piccolo.
1934 saw Praga introduce the luxurious Golden model in an effort to recapture a spot on the luxury car market they had held with the Grand series. Only a modest number of Goldens were built between 1934 and 1938; this lack of success can be attributed to worsening politics leading up to the second world war and continued low interest in luxury cars since the Great Depression.
Modernisation of the Piccolo series gave the company cause to create replacements for earlier members of that family through the Super Piccolo of 1934 and the Lady series introduced in 1935. The Lady was intended to replace the compact “Classic” Piccolo while the Super Piccolo would replace the mid sized “American” Piccolo.
Through the 1930s, Praga was involved in no less that 15 aviation related projects. Most of the aircraft that bore Praga’s name fell into the trainer or sport categories. However, the company also experimented with fighter aircraft, passenger transports and a bomber design.
Without a doubt, Praga’s biggest success in aviation came with the E.114 Air baby which first flew in 1934. A light touring type, the Air Baby was a dependable and efficient aircraft with good handling qualities that wasn’t tremendously demanding on resources or maintenance. This made the aircraft quite popular at home and on the export market, this included license production of the type in the UK.
The Air Baby set a number of records for non-stop distance flights and time over distance flights for aircraft of its class. This included a world record flight of 1680 kilometers between Prague and Moscow accomplished in a remarkable, for the time, 15 and a half hours.
German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 resulted in Praga sharing the same fate as the rest of Czecholsovak industry in that their own production was interupted in order to serve the interests of Hitler’s Germany.
It was during the German occupation that the popular Piccolo and Alfa lines came to an end in 1941 and 1942 respectively.
Nationalization and Post-War Decline
Praga spent the early post-war period in a recovery and reorganization phase. With the last Lady series car rolling off the assembly line in 1947, Praga was out of the car business until 2011. Through 1946 and 1947, the company briefly reopened the E.114 Air Baby production line to offer two new versions with modern engines.
The Communist coup of 1948 changed the company’s fortunes and structure tremendously. Not only were they nationalized, they were also very limited in what they were allowed to produce.
At the start of the 1950s, the RND line of vehicles was taking up the bulk of production and would continue in production until 1955.
The core product of Praga’s post-war production activities came in the form of the V3S multi-purpose truck which was introduced in 1953 and stayed in production continuously for an astounding four decades. The V3S proved itself a durable, popular and extremely adaptable truck built in numerous versions and widely exported.
Though the V3S was designed specifically with the military in mind, it was designed in response to a Czechoslovak army tender, it found wide appeal in the civil sector as well. The V3S has been put to work in fields as diverse as construction, forestry, emergency response and agriculture to name but a few
With a total production run of around 130,000 vehicles, it’s not at all difficult to still see V3S based vehicles still hard at work in spite of the last of them leaving the production line in the mid 1980s.
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, Praga found themselves increasingly forced to work on other company’s projects rather than be allowed to develop new products of their own. One of the more significant projects they were involved with was the M53/59 Ještěrka (Lizard) anti-aircraft vehicle which was produced between 1959 and 1962.
Praga was one of three companies involved in the Ještěrka and was given responsibility for the chassis and suspension of the vehicle. For this, they used an extensively modified and strengthened V3S chassis.
The 1960s through to the fall of Socialism in 1989 were generally a period of near anonymity for Praga. V3S production continued, but otherwise the company was simply put to work making components and other items for other manufacturers.
The Fall of Socialism and a Return to Form
Praga entered the post Socialist business world through motorcycles in the 1990s. Specifically, they produced a small series of motocross type racing bikes. Their time with motorcycles was brief, 1997-2003, and economic difficulties forced them to dicontinue motorcycle production.
Through the 2000s, Praga has built a small but diverse product line and has honoured its past by reviving the names of its classic product lines in some of its contemporary ones. However, in all cases, the contemporary products couldn’t be further departed from their namesakes.
Today, you will find the names Grand and Golden attached to utility truck designs introduced in 2001 while Piccolo and Baby are to be found on vehicles in the kart racing end of Praga’s business.
In the case of the Alfa name, you will find that on a utility truck from the early 2000s as well as a utility aircraft.
Praga has been active in endurance car racing since the introduction of the well recieved R4S in 2011. The R4S was followed by the Lotus/Praga LMP which raced at LeMans in 2013. The same year was also the premier of the Praga R1 racer.
From the R1, the company’s first road car in 68 years has been developed. The R1R, owing to its racing pedigree, falls squarely in the supercar category and thus out of reach financially for all but the wealthy. However, it does bring the company back to road cars for the first time since the last Lady was produced in 1947. To mark this milestone, Praga has limited R1R production to just 68 machines.
A visit to Praga’s own website will provide you with a wealth of information on both the company history and current activities.
For more information on the Praga E.114 Air Baby, the company’s most successful aircraft, I invite you to follow this link to a write up of it on my aviation blog: