As Czech athletes go, Emil Zátopek (1922-2000), is certainly among the most legendary. Using what were some very revolutionary training methods for the day, he dominated distance running events from the late 1940s to the early 1950s and became a household name at home and abroad for many more years beyond his competitive ones.
Between the 1948 Olympics in London and the 1952 Olympics in Helsiniki, Zátopek collected a total of four gold medals and one silver. His record as being the only athlete to win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races as well as the marathon in a single Olympics, which he set in Helsinki, still stands today.
Aside of his gold and silver Olympic medals, he was also awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.
Outside of his Olympic achievments, He won three gold and one bronze medal between the 1950 and 1954 European Athletics Championships which were held in Brussels, Belgium and Bern, Switzerland respectively.
Despite is accomplishments and accolades, life after sporting glory was not clear sailing for Emil and his wife, Dana.
Emil was very much in demand to make appearances at international athletics events throught the 1950s and 1960s. The Communist government of the former Czechoslovakia exptected that he would put forth a good face for the regime through such appearances; as Emil was also an army officer, there was a level of obligation impressed upon him to make such impressions.
Through his consistently friendly and smiling demeanour, Emil was seen as a good vehicle for the nation’s government to push forth their image of “Communism with a human face” to the rest of the world with.
However, Emil became very vocal against the government in the period leading up to the 1968 Prague Spring protests. He became very popular with the public as a famous voice to follow against the system.
Emil’s role as a rallying point was short lived and the public lost much faith in him as he seemed to do a quick about face in his views. No doubt his quick change of stance came from threats brought against him by both the government and the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB.
His apparent change of heart tarnished his public image for a long time. He was relieved of his army post and spent some time in meanial labour work as punishment for speaking out against the Communist government. For a period of his life, he was swept under the carpet and forgotten at home. However, people still spoke highly of him abroad.
With the fall of Socialism in 1989, Emil was “rehabilitated” by then president, Václav Havel, and some of the old tarnish that had plague Emil’s name at home through the 1970s and 1980s came off before his death in 2000.
Getting Into the Book
“Today We Die a Little” was written by British journalist and running enthusiast, Richard Askwith, and published in 2016. The book takes the reader through the whole of Emil’s life and gives a very thorough picture of not only the various stages of the man’s life, but also much about his charismatic personality and easy going demeanour.
The early part of the book focuses on Emil’s early life and Olympic glory. It feels a bit repetative in tone, but it works well to bring across the relentlessness of the training regime that Emil forced upon himself and his refusal to take excuses from himself in the pusuit of bettering his performance. Running trully was everything to him in that time period.
This section also shows the reader the very high value that Emil placed on sportsmanship and friendship. His easy going and friendly personality along with his willingness to encourage his competitors won him many life long friends and admirers in international circles.
Though he retired from competition in 1957, his sense of sportsmanship continued. He is quite famous for his act of gifting one of the gold medals he won in Helsinki in 1952 to Australian distance runner, Ron Clarke, in 1966. Clarke was in Prague for a race and was a guest of the Zátopeks. Despite his own hard training and dedication, a gold medal eluded Clarke in the 10,000 metre race at the 1964 games in Tokyo. Upon leaving Prague, Emil presented him with his own 10,000 metre gold medal from Helsinki and wrote “Because you deserve it” on the inside of the box that contained it.
The second part of the book follows the Zatopeks through the 60s, 70s and 80s. This period was marked a turn in the fortunes of the couple at home in both the eyes of the state and public.
Emil tended to speak his mind rather more than was safe given his position as a celebrity and as a member of the army. While the state and StB were able to scare Emil into keeping his tongue in check and getting him to seemingly switch sides to their favour and lose face in the public eye, it really was a case of him simply going through the motions. He was still quite against the Communist system and this came out when he was drunk. After being seen drunk and singing anti Communist songs, Emil was stripped of his army position and sentenced to hard labour in a remote part of the country.
This was a low point in Emil’s life as he was out of favour with the public and it was relatively easy for the state to sweep him under the carpet at home.
However, the state had to be a good deal more careful with Emil due to his still high status at the international level. With people from outside the country requesting his presence at athletic events and asking of his well being, the state could not overtly abuse him as they might other disidents and had to relent to allowing him to make appearances outside the country so he could be seen to be well.
Despite many attempts by foreign journalists to engage Emil in conversations about politics in such situations, he thoroughly avoided the subject.
The book finishes with Emil’s reputation and national interest in him being restored in the post Communist Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic.
An Author’s Accomplishment
Though I am not a big reader of biographies, I very much enjoyed this book and the well rounded picture it gives of Emil Zátopek.
Mr. Askwith has described this book as his most abitious to date and the extensive reference section at the back of the book bears out his dedication to making sure he had his facts right. Through extensive exploration of historical archives, personal diaries and interviews with Dana and other people who knew Emil best, the author has given us a tremendous portrait of his hero that is down to earth and largely without hyperbole which must have been tempting to include while compiling such a story.
Ultimately, Mr. Askwith has painted for us a picture of Emil Zátopek which shows the reader a gregarious and generous man who placed sportsmanship and friendship most highly among his personal values.
We also are shown a man of strong physical and psychological fortitude who pushed himself for self improvement off the race track as well as on it. Emil was a self taught polyglot who taught himself six languages through the course of his life.
This book is a very satisfying read even if biographies are not to your interests and I thank Mr. Askwith for going to the work of giving us this book.
These links will take you to more information about the book and author at the publisher’s and author’s websites respectively.
Since 1946, Zetor tractors have represented the Czech lands on the global agricultural market. Over the years, the company’s tractors have been exported to over 130 countries and were produced under license in nine countries from 1964 into the 1990s.
Starting as a division of the manufacturing giant, Zbrojovka Brno, Zetor eventually became a company in its own right in 1976. Right from the start, Zetor tractors were revolutionary in their design and quickly became recognised worldwide for that.
Zetor was the first tractor manufacturer to take driver comfort and safety into account, theirs were the world’s first tractors to incorporate a roll cage and engine noise dampening features into the design of the driver’s cabin as well as ergonomic and practical arrangement of vehicle controls and instrument guages in easily visible places.
They also pioneered the concept of parts unification in tractor design. This meant that a series of tractor models could be designed with a high amount of components common between them, thus simplifying both construction and maintenance processes.
Through radical restructuring and a shift from state to private ownership in the early 1990s, Zetor was bought out of bankruptcy in the early 2000s to still be with us today and have bright plans for the future.
That said, let’s spend some time with this legendary Czech product:
Child of Zbrojovka
The genesis of Zetor is to be found in Zbrojovka Brno, a manufacturing company that can trace it’s own lineage to the 1800s and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s artillery workshops.
Zbrojovka Brno came into existence as a state owned firearms factory in 1918 as the newly established First Republic of Czechoslovakia rose as an independent nation in the wake of the First World War. The factory quickly established itself as a manufacturing giant, producing a wide range products for both military and civilian markets
During the First Republic period, Czechoslovakia’s agriculture sector was served by tractors of both domestic and imported origin. Praga, Škoda, Svoboda and Wikov were the major domestic tractor producers while imported tractors were primarily of American origin with products from US Fordson, International Harvester and John Deere being predominant.
In the same period, Zbrojovka Brno added cars to their growing list of products. As history would show, involving themselves in car design and manufacture would give them valuable experience to draw upon when they started tractor manufacture after the Second World War.
World War Two changed manufacturing prioritites and agricultural equipment became a decidedly low priority for nations involved in the conflict. After the war was finished, around 2,000 tractors were imported to Czechoslovakia through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) while factories in the country got back on their feet after German occupation.
While the pre-war domestic tractor producers planned to resume the tractor business in the post-war period, Škoda was the only one who managed to do so. It was in this vacuum that Zbrojovka Brno entered the tractor business.
The company established the tractor arm of their business in 1945 and staffed it with many former members of their inter-war automobile operations. The newly formed division was placed under the leadership of František Musil, an automobile and aircraft engine designer who had joined the company in 1935.
The catalyst for Zbrojovka Brno entering the tractor business was a June, 1945 state requisition for domestic companies to design an economical, lightweight tractor suitable for mass production within a time limit of only six months. By November of that year, musil and his team had succeeded in producing their prototype tractor. Škoda was the only other manufacturer to come forth with a prototype in response to the requisition. After a brief competition of prototypes, the Zbrojovka design was declared the winner. The victorious prototype would form the basis of the company’s first tractor, the model 25.
Spring of 1946 saw the company’s tractor division officially named Zetor and trademark protection extended to it. In the same period, the first model 25 tractors began to roll of the assembly lines. The model 25 would see a production run of 16 years with a total of 158,570 of the type being made and 97,000 of those going to export customers. Such figures place the model 25 amongst the most produced European tractor types.
Before the 1940s were out, Zetor had begun to distinguish themselves as one of the first tractor makers in the world to take operator comfort and safety into consideration. Succesive versions of the model 25 featured a padded driver seat with spring support and a small back rest incorporated into the design. The model 25 also moved away from the traditional cartridge starting system to an electrical starter for the engine. Thought was also given to the visibility and layout of the instruments and guages on the dashboard.
Another Zetor development of the 1940s was the model 30 of 1948. The model 30 was significant in tractor development by being one of the world’s first tractors to feature a fuel injected diesel engine, a feature which reduced fuel consumption considerably.
The company saw the 1940s out by celebrating the construction of their 10,000th tractor in February of 1949.
On an Open Field
Entering the 1950s, Zetor had very little to compete with at home except their own success. Indeed, they were having some problems satisfying both domestic and export markets for their products at the begining of the decade.
Škoda had remained, to a small degree, in the tractor business until the Communist government that had taken over the country in 1948 dictated that Zetor would be the country’s only tractor producer. Škoda had faded from the tractor business by the mid 1950s and Zetor had the home market to themselves from then on.
1952 saw Zetor moved from the main Zbrojovka Brno factory to a factory site in the Líšeň suburb on the east side of Brno. Here, they would not need to compete for factory floorspace with other Zbrojovka products and could conduct their own research and development on site. The Líšeň location continues to serve as Zetor headquarters today.
1955 saw the debut of the Super 35, a model that brought with it an improved suspension system and a heating system in the driver’s cabin for increased operator comfort.
In 1960, the Super 35 was extensively modernised and renamed the Super 50.
A Revolution on the Farm
Zetor introduced a true watershed event to tractor production in the late 1950s with the introduction of their parts unification concept.
Under the parts unification concept, entire ranges of tractors could be created using a system of common parts. This concept captured the manufacturing world’s attention as it meant significant savings in materials, money and time with regards to production and maintenance. It also meant that tractor dealers did not have to give valuable shelf space to components unique to a single model of tractor.
From 1958 into the late 1990s, Zetor created three distinct ranges of tractors under the parts unification system: UR1, UR2 and UR3. Each range featured baseline models and specialised versions.
UR1: The First Unified Range
The UR1 range proved to be a solid start for Zetor’s new system.
While Zetor had designed a completely new transmission for their new range, they had retained the fuel injected diesel engines and associated starting systems. The engines made Zetor tractors very popular on the export market as they could be started and operated reliably in a very wide range of climatic conditions around the world.
Zetor used the UR1 range to introduce their Zetormatic weight transfer system. This system shifted part of the weight of the field implement being pulled to the tractor’s rear axle so it could be used for more traction in the soil.
Inside the UR1 family, there were a number of specialised variants including a half-track version for working in forested areas, a fully tracked version for work on the steep slopes of vineyards as well as a narrower model for working between trees in fruit orchards.
Through the bulk of the 1960s, the UR1 range was very well recieved at home and abroad. However, with a power range covering from 25 to 60 horsepower, it was not powerful or robust enough for the larger farm operations of Central Europe.
While the UR2 range debuted in 1968, the UR1 family has been revisited and modernised several times over the years.
UR2: Redefining the Tractor
The UR2 range, collectively nicknamed “Zetor Crystal”, consisted of around 8 versions and was produced between 1968 and 1989.
The Crystal not only answered the call for the increase in power and structural strength that the UR1 range could not provide, it was also heralded by tractor manufacturers worldwide as a true technological leap forward in tractor design from almost every aspect.
The Crystal added to Zetor’s established reputation for operator safety by being the world’s first tractor designed with a safety cage integral to the cabin in order to protect the driver in case of a rollover.
The new cabin was mounted on special noise reducing blocks. This, in conjunction with changes to engine mounting systems, made the Crystal the world’s first tractor with a noise level below 85 decibels inside the cabin.
Outside of the inovations to the cabin, the Crystal had a number of features as standard equipment that other manufacturers at the time were offering as options if they were offering them at all.
The Crystal was available with four and six cylinder engines. During the UR2 production run, turbocharged variations of the Crystal were developed. With turbocharging, the four cylinder engine could generate 100 horsepower and the six cylinder could generate 160.
UR3: Keeping it Going
Zetor introduced the third incarnation of their unified range of tractors in 1991.
The primary reasons for the introduction of the UR3 series were to replace the Crystal and to fill a gap that existed in the medium power tractor market in the early 1990s.
The UR3 family was made up of eight models ranging from 70 to to 105 horsepower.
With as widely popular as Zetor tractors had become by the mid 1960s, it made sense for the company to grant licenses for production and maintenance of their products overseas.
From 1964 into the 1990s, Zetor tractors were assembled from factory provided components or fully produced under license in Brazil, Burma, Ghana, Greece, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico and Poland.
Between 1993 and 1996, Zetor entered a contract with John Deere in America to produce a number of tractors under the American company’s name and badging for markets in Latin and South America. The tractors were Zetor designs though finished in the well known John Deere green and yellow paint and assembled in John Deere’s manufacturing facilities in Mexico. These tractors were marketed by John Deere as the 2000 series.
Under the terms of the sort lived contract with John Deere, Zetor was barred from being active in Latin and South American markets. However, in 1997, Zetor moved on those markets through a deal with Brazilian vehicle manufacturer, Agrale. Zetor continues to provide Agrale with components to produce their tractors for the Brazilian market today.
The 1990s and the New Millenium
As it was with many Czech companies, the early post Socialist period was a tumultuous time in which many legendary firms either adapted well to or died in bankruptcy.
Zetor spent the 1990s going through a number of changes after being privatised in 1993.
In the 1990s, the company relaunched both the UR1 and UR3 ranges in much modernised forms.
The turn of the millenium was a particularly rocky period for the company that saw it change ownership a few times, enter a revitalisation program and go through a bankruptcy before being purchased in 2002 by its current owners.
Under the current ownership, Zetor has flourished and regained its strength as a company. Today, the company manufactures several models of tractor under the Forterra, Major and Proxima names. In 2015, Zetor brought the name “Crystal” back to the tractor world in the form of a fully modern design.
Zetor marked their 70th anniversary in 2016. Part of marking that milestone was to develop a new look for future Zetor products. To this end, they partnered with world famous Italian car design firm Pininfarina.
Pininfarina created a new design concept which was unveiled to the world as a full scale mock up in 2015 at the Agritechnica exhibition in Hannover, Germany.
Zetor plans to apply Pininfarina design concepts to all their future models and updates to existing models.
With classic Italian car firms such as Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati on their client list, Pininfarina is certain to bring a whole new level of excitement to the world of agriculture through their partnership with Zetor.
If you like tractors and happen to be passing through Brno, Zetor Gallery really should be on your itinerary.
This small museum was established by Zetor at their Brno headquarters in 2013 and is a fantastic opportunity to get up close to a number of historical and contemporary Zetor models. The museum has a permanent collection of its own plus a rotating selection of historical Zetor tractors loaned by private collectors.
Zetor gallery is quite interactive and visitors are encouraged to examine many of the tractors at close quarters and even sit in them.
The following links will give you more information about much of what’s been covered in this blog entry: