Václav Klement was a visionary who earned several essential attributes in his lifetime. A capable businessman, a conscientious manager, a modest man with a head full of ideas and a heart in the right place. His lasting legacy is still with us today.
However, since nobody was born successful, but becomes successful, we should return to the very beginning, notably, to 16th of October in 1868, when Václav Klement was born in Velvary in Central Bohemia. After completing five years of elementary school, he did not continue his studies (even under the pressure of his father’s second wife, his stepmother). Instead, Václav was working as a driver of the local blacksmith’s cow carriage from the age of 11 until his teacher recommended him to Rudolf Vokoun, a local bookseller. He probably started there in 1883 and gradually worked his way up to the apprenticeship ladder and also finished school. Later he moved to Mladá Boleslav, where he joined the Jan Novotný bookstore, and eventually acquired it in July 1891. Already at that time, he devoted himself to his passion, cycling. He not only rode bicycles but sold them together with books. He offered Austrian, German and English brands. Klement’s life then took another turn by getting acquainted with Václav Laurin, a mechanic from Turnov.
Two sides of one coin
Václav Klement and Václav Laurin complemented each other perfectly. The first had an excellent business spirit, and the second was extremely skilled and technically sound.
In 1895 they established a bicycle repair shop, named Laurin&Klement on Benátská Street no. p. 149 / III. (locality “Na Hejtmance”), where they had a space of 120 square meters. A year later, they launched production of bicycles. The products were named Slavia, and the buyers could also buy them in installments. Klement himself worked tirelessly to improve the company, from early morning until late evening. He spent 18 hours a day at work, while his wife Antonia did all the administrative work in the first three years. The number of employees gradually increased from three to several hundred.
A new challenge for Laurin and Klement was the motorised two-wheelers for which they received a loan from the Austrian Länderbank. In Mladá Boleslav they then began to rebuild the French Werner motorcycle with a new ignition, carburettor. They also relocated the engine and utilised belt-drive. Initially two Slavia models were offered, which Klement introduced on November 18, 1899, at the Bubenská track in Prague, but also presented them abroad as well.
Naturally the motorcycles participated in races. Klement himself was a successful racer: on May 11, 1902, he won the biggest motor race in Austria-Hungary, the Exelberg hillclimb which was held near Vienna. Sales success was also assisted by victories on the Semmering track and awards from domestic and foreign exhibitions. Klement was also a manager of the successful Mladá Boleslav team. On June 25, 1905, Václav Vondřich led to a victory at the unofficial motorcycle world championships in Dourdan, France.
Businessman with heart
L&K motorcycles eventually prevailed over bicycles, and in 1905 they stopped production of pedal-driven vehicles. That time, Klement was firmly committed to developing the car of his design, and so the company introduced its Voiturette type A at the end of the year, which was partly developed by Otto Hieronymus, a German designer and racer. The factory in Mladá Boleslav has gradually became the biggest producer of automobiles in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and has also taken an excellent position in foreign markets. In 1907, export accounted for up to 70% of the company’s turnover. The lineup has grown to ambulances, trucks and postal vehicles as well as buses. As a CEO, Klement was not only a skilful businessman with high demands on himself and his employees but also had an active social lifeAt the time of the First World War, he managed to reclaim back to the factory most of the employees who were taken to the front. Besides, the company also supported the families of soldiers and addressed the lack of food by providing a provision for its staff.
The end of the war caused problems for the company in the form of the collapse of the Monarchy, the loss of traditional export markets and the cessation of Lorraine-Dietrich V12 aircraft engine production, which was a very lucrative business.
Another hit was a devastating fire in the factory in Mladá Boleslav in 1924. Things began to turn good after the entry of a reliable strategic partner, the huge Škoda conglomerate in 1925. Václav Klement analyzed trends in the world automobile industry and used the knowledge he acquired in 1927 during his trip to the USA. As a result, he contributed to the construction of a more modern production plant, which used a conveyor belt. The Škoda brand gradually replaced the original Laurin & Klement, and at the end of Klement’s life, it became the largest car manufacturer in Czechoslovakia.
Václav Klement died on August 13, 1938. He survived his companion and close friend Vaclav Laurin almost eight years. They were close to each other during life, and they lived in the same Husova street no. 237 and 208 and also their graves are close to each other in the cemetery of Mladá Boleslav.
Václav Klement was not only a bookseller, racer and founder of an automobile factory with worldwide significance and influence but also, together with journalist Vilém Heinz, the author of the book “From the History of the Car”. The tome charts the history of motoring from horse-drawn carriages to the technical achievements of that time. The book was published at Klementov at its own expense in 1931, and the illustrations are the work of Josef Wenig and Věneceslav Černý.
We want to sincerely give a special thanks to Veteran SK magazine and editor Lenka Mondočková for the source and photos from ŠKODA AUTO a. s.