In 1907 the first drivers trained by a driving school set up by the LAURIN & KLEMENT factory in Mladá Boleslav hit the roads. How did vehicle registration work and how were the first motorists taught and tested at the start of the last century?
A certificate issued in 1888 by the authorities in the German city of Mannheim authorising Karl Benz to run his automobiles is regarded as the first driving licence in history. One of the pioneers in neighbouring Austria-Hungary was Theodor von Liebieg, who obtained a licence in Liberec shortly after he imported a car before Christmas 1893. “The City Council hereby confirms that he has not made any mistakes in the use of this car,” was written on the first permit on what is now Czech territory.
The official authorisations of the time basically confirmed that the machine in question was not unduly dangerous to its surroundings in the hands of the driver. It was certainly not the result of expert assessments, nor was it the culmination of accredited training of an applicant. In Bohemia, the “Provisional Regulations on the Driving of Motor Cars and Motor Cycles on Public Roads” came into force in 1900. Candidates reported to a certified commissioner, typically with experience with steam boilers, for testing. There were still concerns about explosions, whether of compressed steam or flammable gasoline. No previous instruction was required; all the applicant had to do was demonstrate his or her ability to safely operate the vehicle he turned up with.
Václav Klement, the co-founder of the Mladá Boleslav automobile works, was not satisfied with this state of affairs. He himself had had a driving licence, i.e. a “Test Certificate” signed and stamped by Theodor Skulina, “test commissioner for the Kingdom of Bohemia”, since April 1906. It was the 43rd driving licence issued in Bohemia that year. But his factory needed to manufacture not only cars, but also drivers.
And so, in the summer of 1907, students of the first driving school in Czech territory hit the roads, supported – how else? – by the company based in Mladá Boleslav. In Sport and Games magazine of 3 April that year, the company announced that on 1 May it would establish a school for drivers of automobiles, or “chauffeurs” as they were then called. The driving school promised “to provide motor-car owners with an opportunity to learn about the construction of motor-cars and driving them, and to train professional drivers”.
Who was the course for? “Here, young people of the trades of locksmith, mechanic or allied trades have the opportunity to improve themselves by becoming drivers, who will be in considerable demand during the automobile boom.” The training itself was to be carried out on the premises of the motor works, “with a sufficient number of training vehicles”. Although the test included a theoretical part, the emphasis was on practice. Anyone interested was given the opportunity “to learn about the whole system of petrol engines by illustration, step by step and in depth, to get to know the material used for these parts and to acquire an understanding of the care which these parts require”.
The Mladá Boleslav car company’s attention paid to driving schools is a legacy that has to be kept alive. One recent project is Start Driving, which ŠKODA signed up to in May 2021. Organised by the Association of Driving Schools in the Czech Republic in cooperation with the Association of Safe Driving Centres and funded by the Czech Insurers’ Bureau’s Damages Prevention Fund, the project aims to improve the training of novice drivers, who, according to accident statistics, represent the highest-risk group. Practical demonstrations at safe driving centres and subsequent driving in traffic help graduates to improve their driving skills, while traffic psychology seminars focus on responsible behaviour on the roads. The target groups for these free courses are beginners up to the age of 24, parents of young drivers and driving school instructors or examiners. 3,084 people took part in the Start Driving project in 2021. This year, 66 training events will follow for new drivers and their parents. 2,400 people will try driving on eight polygons. There will also be twelve seminars for 450 driving school instructors and examiners, who will then pass on their experience to 36,000 driving school learners.
By the summer of 1907 the car factory was already boasting of the success of its pupils: all 21 students of the course organised by the company’s driving school successfully passed the examination under the examiner Skulina. Some of them then drove their own cars, others were chauffeurs by profession. In its advertisements, LAURIN & KLEMENT did not only offer motorcycles and motor-cars, the company also recommended “very reliable chauffeurs” from its own school, ready to drive and maintain cars of all makes.
Unfortunately, the sparseness of period documents means we aren’t able to piece together exactly how the instruction took place. We do know for sure, though, that the number of people interested in driving “Laurins” increased rapidly. From January to December 1907, 235 cars left the Mladá Boleslav factory, but in 1914, a year marked by the outbreak of the First World War, the figure was almost double: 453 units. So experienced drivers really were needed.
In 1907 the LAURIN & KLEMENT motor works in Mladá Boleslav was going through a period of dynamic development. The inflow of capital associated with the transformation of the company into a joint-stock company made it possible to meet the demand for a wide range of vehicles. So what could customers choose from?
In 1907 the early VOITURETTE A, with a two-cylinder, one-litre fork engine, was reaching the end of its career, while more powerful V2 engines were available under the bonnets of the B and C types. In addition to passenger cars, utility vehicles, including the C-type ambulance that could carry up to four patients, were growing in popularity. But the more modern in-line cylinder arrangement, the basis of cars’ modular design, was already gaining ground, and automatic intake valves were being replaced by the more efficient SV manifold. Examples included the B2, C2 and BS twin-cylinder engines offered in a wide range of designs – from an open two-seater sports car to a “Landaulet” pitched at doctors to a taxi or small steamroller.
The D, E and F four-cylinder models can be regarded as representatives of the middle class. Doubling the F engine gave rise to the first in-line eight-cylinder engine in Central Europe, the LAURIN & KLEMENT FF, with a displacement of 4,877 cc and an output of 45 hp, though only two were ever made. This was not just a concept car for show: the open-top luxury car designated as Roi des Belges (King of Belgium) was driven to the Berlin and Paris motor shows. We know from the trade press of the time that it attracted a lot of attention along the way.
The F-series was also made a racing derivative, the FC, as early as 1907, and in later years also the FCR and FCS versions. The Mladá Boleslav brand notched up a number of valuable trophies. Another novelty from 1907, the LAURIN & KLEMENT HO utility vehicle, can be regarded as a counterweight to these lightweight sporting machines that could go up to 120 km/h.