Englishman Neil Smith is behind the rebirth of a distinctive and iconic Czech scooter from the 1950s and 1960s – the Čezeta. It’s distinctive shape and nose resulted in it being nicknamed ‘the pig’ but it was a major success with tens of thousands sold. The new version is electric and the project has just benefitted from the biggest Czech crowdfunding ever with capital raised for marketing and further production in just 10 days. Driving force and project owner, Mr Smith, first of all described how it was love at first sight when he spotted the first scooter on the streets of Prague and how the attraction lasted in spite of some temperamental episodes with the ageing model.
ʺI lived in Vinohrady [the Prague suburb] and saw one on Vinohradská. I still remember it as the weirdest looking motorbike I had ever seen. I had a Vespa and I saw this thing and started asking people [about it] but it’s quite a hard thing to describe. I said it’s from the 1950s. It looks like it is from one of these cartoons in the 1950s. Anyway, eventually I found out what it was, a Čezeta. And it was sort of like a love affair, I fell in love with it when I saw it. Soon afterwards I saw another one at a wedding. This one was absolutely beautiful. It was done up perfectly and the bride was on it. I thought ‘This is amazing. I have to get one.’ So I bought one, it was terrible. So I bought another. Eventually I had four or five and managed to put them together. And putting them together I managed to make one nice one…ʺ
It worked actually…?
ʺIt worked in a way…ʺ
You mean it worked sometimes and then stopped?
ʺYes, you know they are 50 years old. It was not that they were badly made. In fact they were really made quite well. At that time I don’t think they cared too much about the money. In fact, I don’t think they made much money out of them. They are really well engineered bikes and they really last. But nevertheless a 50 year old motor is still unreliable and parts are still going wrong with it. And there is the question of putting it together again.
ʺI still remember it as the weirdest looking motorbike I had ever seen.ʺ
ʺIt really went from there. I started collecting them and ended up with quite a few. I think at one time I had around 10 in my garage and collected spare parts off the Internet to restore them. I started restoring them for fun because it was my hobby when I was younger. I used to restore these old cars. Because somehow the old cars are a lot more interesting to me than modern cars. Modern cars look very much the same. You see them on the side of the street and they are all very average and are all designed by computers. In the 1950s they were designed by people with a pencil and paper. And somehow they had a sort of human soul to them that modern vehicles don’t seem to have. So I always find old cars more interesting.ʺ
ʺČezeta is absolutely unique in the world; there is nothing like it, nothing even remotely like it. It is really an original solution on how to make a motorbike. And the guy who made it, it was a guy called J.F. Koch, was a really interesting man. He was a motorcycle racer and then spent some time working for Čezeta Strakonice, which was the company which made the original Čezetas. Anyway, I just went from there.ʺ
Eventually, you looked into buying the patents, the licences, how difficult was that?
ʺObviously if you get something that it totally unique you have got a brilliant barrier to entry. It is really difficult for someone to compete with you. I thought it would be a very good basis because they had not been making them for some time. I thought it would be a good idea to bring them back. Other scooters, like Vespa, they still sell really well and they basically didn’t change the design much. I thought it made sense to have a go.
ʺI looked at how to use the logo and the shape and try and get some rights to these. I started searching online and I was really surprised that they weren’t registered. No-one was using them. The original company Čezeta Strakonice had gone bust. That had been nationalised and eventually went into liquidation in 1997. So when I came across them, which I think was 2013, no-one had used Čezeta for all that time. The logo wasn’t being used, it had not even been registered. In fact, I registered them myself for Europe, for America. Then I got in touch with the original company, which still exists. It went into liquidation and another company took over. I asked them if they wanted to start production with me again. But unfortunately they were not interested. They said in 1997 they drew a thick black line under the motorcycle business and never wanted to do it again. So they just wished me luck and said off you go.
ʺWe were all really surprised that we managed to finish it in 10 days.ʺ
ʺSo it was nice to get the green light and it did not cost me anything. There was something we had to do because they had registration just in the Czech Republic for the logo which I had to sort out with them. But otherwise it was easy.ʺ
So you took the basic shape of it but you wanted to make it up to date. That was fairly difficult I presume?
ʺThey had started the development in 1957 and finished in about 1964. During that time they had made over 100,000 of them and they had made various developments. The first was the 501, then there was the 502, and they started to improve them. So my first idea was t think if it had continued what would it have looked like today. And then we would have to take one giant leap and catch up with 50 years of non-development. In fact, the last one they finished with was the 505 so the new one would have been the 506 and we had to work out how the development would have continued.
ʺIf we made it today obviously electric would be a big thing because it is important now. Vespa is coming now with an electric scoter so it’s clearly important we made the move to electric. We had to change the brakes because they were old drum brakes and we had to change them to disc brakes. There was new suspension because the old one was originally just rubber blocks. So we had to go through this process and obviously homologation rules in the 1950s and 1960s were very different from what they are today. We had to look through around 200 pages of guidelines for various things. It’s amazing there is even a rule about what angle the bike leans over on the stand. We had to see what was possible and make sure it was road legal for the European Union so that we would have a big enough market for the project to be worthwhile.ʺ
You have gone now through crowd funding and that has been successful. I think in the last week or two you announced the total and it’s the biggest total ever in the Czech Republic so far.
Could you explain how much you have raised and what you will be doing with the money?
ʺPotentially in the next five years the plan is to reach 2,000 a year and that will still be quite a niche position.ʺ
ʺYes, the plan was that I could fund everything up to the point that we had the bike ready and we could start very small scale production where we make around eight a month. That was about as much as I could fund to get the business to this stage. Then the idea for the crowd funding was to get enough money so we could have the capital so we could launch the business in a way that we could spend more on the marketing and the production. What we needed was something around 600,000 euros.
ʺThat sounds like an awful lot of money but in this business where you are trying to build a motorbike it is actually not that much money at all. I talked to the people that did the crowd funding and they had had a project like our and they said they had never known one that raised the money so quickly. We were all really surprised that we managed to finish it in 10 days. We were lucky that we had one piece of publicity on idnes – well it’s a very big website of course – where they talked about the project. I suppose it just grabbed people’s imagination because within two days we had collected around 400,000 euros just because of that article. It was amazing that we got it within 10 days.ʺ
You have got a factory and will be presumably be stepping up production there with maybe not full scale mas production but a lot more at least?
ʺThis year we should continue with around 10 to 12 a month. We will work on all the processes. Then we have a production consultant who will start in the next couple of months and here job is to bring in more guidance about the factory. We have quite a lot of space at the factory. Potentially in the next five years the plan is to reach 2,000 a year and that will still be quite a niche position. We will always have to be this way.ʺ
The crowd fund backers will eventually get a small stake in the Čezeta company. Smith says with an electric scooter the project is in the right place at the right time with only a handful of other producers already have such vehicles on the market and stiffer emission limits and car bans ever increasingly suggested in European cities. If he had waited to launch the project now, he says it would have been too late. So far there are 75 advance orders for the new Čezetas with the first deliveries due to start in the next weeks.