I received a pleasant letter from Skoda Germany: Would I like to co-drive a Skoda 130 RS on a special stage in the Eifel mountains? I didn’t contemplate for long. And it was even better than I had dared imagine.
I’m happy to admit that I quite like even the standard Skoda Coupé. Actually, to be brutally honest, I am even relatively keen on any nice rear engined 105, complete with rubber teeth protector fitted to the end you’ll find yourself pushing and of course softly sprung suspension. They’re characterised by being technologies from back in the Seventies and do not exactly suffer from having overpowered engines. On the contrary they suffer from mockery and ridicule.
Why should such a drive be anything special? Because Skoda’s rally editions were com-ple-te-ly different than the standard cars, and Skoda won loads of class victories with the rally versions of their otherwise anaemic family cars. But it turned out that with lighter bodywork, their biggest 1300 engine and the well-known fine handling of the rear engined chassis, they had exactly what was needed for a winner. What? Well-known fine handling? Has the man lost his mind? Not at all. As I said, the rally cars were completetly different from the street cars.
Of course, not in their fundamental elements. Even the rally cars are still loosely based on the standard road cars. The Group 2 regulations did not allow for unlimited modifications – but for a lot of fine tuning. If a car from it’s inception had the properties in the right place, it could be refined to become a winner. Which is precisely what happened to the Skoda 130 RS. It is in no way odd to compare it to the Porsche 911 of it’s day. As long as you remember that Porsche had done their homework to a much higher standard, with regards to the stock road cars. But Skoda saved all the centrally planned money, skill and ingenuity that was not used in the production cars and applied it to it’s rally cars instead. Plus some more money.
The result looks largely like a standard 110 R coupé, but is now obviously a rally car. The roof, bonnet and doors are made out of aluminium, while the heavily flared arches and the rear hatch are made of glassfibre. The 1300 engine still only has three main bearings but turns out 135 horsepower, which with the curb weight of a mere 800 kilos, goes a long way. Even though there are only four gears to cover the spectrum from zero to 220 km/h.
But it was the handling which was the main strength of the model anyway. Rear engined of course – and you know it works well for Porsche. When the Skoda engineers were done tuning the chassis, the 130 RS had the potential to beat much stronger rivals and in it’s class it became a habitual winner almost right from the word GO! in 1975 and for many years to come.
In that light, it quickly became an Eastern Bloc legend – seeing that the region didn’t much luck in international motorsports at the time. When the 130 RS took a double class victory in the 1977 Monte Carlo Rallye, the state-subsidised vodka must have been flowing in the streets. The car continued its winning streak and did well for Skoda’s image in the UK, where it also won its class in the UK RAC rally.
And it’s still working for the Skoda image to this day. Skoda themselves are keeping some on the road, in this instance Skoda Germany. Their Facebook administrator told me that none of their posts regarding new cars perform as well af posts featuring the 130 RS.
But this isn’t just about the car, it’s also about the driver. I was about to trust my life into the hands of sevenfold German rally champion Mahias Kalhe, whos statistics I found sort of comforting. Kahle is 47 years of age and has racked up seven championships from 1997 and onwards, four of them driving Skodas. That is, a modern Skoda in WRC and the likes. But he could obviously drive, so I wasn’t nervous at all.
Until someone from the Skoda team asked, who would be the next for Mathias to “kaputmachen” (German for “destroy”). I eagerly answered that it was me, and was then promptly instructed to put on full safety equipment, including fire proof underwear. They assured me, of course, that Mathias was a skilled driver – which I had already figured out by his many championship titles.
Nonetheless, I noted that the front of the Skoda was dented and asked why. “Because he stands on it when he wins!” the service crew laughed. I didn’t have any air to laugh with them, as I was strapped down that hard in the five point harness.
Even when Mathias got in and greeted me, I could do nothing other than sit. He was cordial and very down to earth. We talked about the car and the engine, while waiting to start the special stage. The engine was drumming rapidly, but with a steady, hard rhythm typically of a tuned four cylinder engine. While it wasn’t a sound beauty, it sounded solid and inspired confidence as we edged towards the starting line. But as soon as the car moved the slightest, everything else rattled noisyly. Transmission, tires, pebbles and small rocks.
However this was nothing compared to what was in store for me. Ahead of us, I could see the other drivers giving it their everything right from the start. I expected nothing less, of course: This was the Eifel Rally Festival and the stage was lined with spectators. Herr Kahle asked me if I had ever tried something like this before. I told him yes, and that the last time was in a Ferrari 308 at Race Retro in England, but on a greasy track where we never made it past second gear. This time the course was dry and I was sitting with a seven time champion behind the wheel. That proved to make quite a difference.
As the start lights turned green, both Kahle and the car went berserk. The needle was at 6000 RPM as he sidestepped the clutch, and I swear the revs never dropped lower then that for the rest of the stage. Never! Having the weight of the rear engine helped provide grip as we rocketed off in first. Second gear wasn’t bad either, but after this the hard acceleration levelled off somewhat. While this to some would indicate that it would become boring from here on, I can assure you this was not the case. The speed which Kahle and the Skoda held through the corners was shocking. I mean seriously, seriously fast to an extent I have never experienced before.
It should have been frightening, but it was quite the opposite. At the first turn I immediately felt that Herr Kahle was in complete control, and the way he operated steering wheel, gears, throttle, brake, and not least the hand brake was more like a dance – a finely choreographed dance of rhythmically and neatly coordinated input at the exact right timing. He frankly made the little Czech coupé dance, and the perception from the passenger seat was actually more that of a dance floor than it was of driving. During brake-in he swerved to one side, during turn-in to the other, and when the pendulum-effect was over, the Skoda was miraculously perfectly placed sideways on the road, already prepared for the next approaching corner. It was so neatly timed and arranged, that I almost couldn’t fathom how he did it. The steering wheel was given a minimal twist, a blip of the throttle, a targeted pull of the hand brake – and we were through yet another corner.
And effortlessly he did it again and again and again. Nothing seemed coincidental and I quickly found a peace and balance in this outregeous show. What impressed me the most was probably that he didn’t really powerslide the Skoda sideways as 135 horsepower will not really get you there – he just went sideways because the car was always on the brink of loosing grip on the absolute limit om adhesion. When at this stage you only need very little extra power to break the last traction and to slide the rear. Kahle was superbly accomplished at it, and it was nothing less than beautiful to watch, feel and listen to. Yes, to listen to. When the 1300 cubic engine was revved hard (which was all the time) it sounded amazing: Raw, hard and racey. I noticed that the needles monitoring water and oil didn’t move at all during the eight kilometres spent between 6000 and 8000 RPM’s. Despite being driven like that the whole weekend.
Wasn’t it frightening? Hmmmm, one stretch did get me thinking a bit. It was on the first half of the stage, where we after a series of quick sweeping corners found ourselves on a nearly straight piece of road that went down towards a gorge – and then up again prior to a long left curve. Down the hill I could see us pulling 8000 RPM in fourth, which I had been told would equate to us travelling at 176 km/h. That velocity itself may not sound terribly frightening, but the road wasn’t quite straight for a straight, neither was it completely without potholes. Furthermore, it was only three to four metres wide and with trees on either side. When on a road like that, 176 km/h appears to be very, very fast!
However, Kahle had already convinced me by doing things I did not even know was possible. For example changing gear (with that half meter rod of a gear lever!) in the middle of a drift. How did he do it without getting the grip back and losing the drift? Well, it was on a (relatively speaking!) slow uphill corner, which opened up into a faster bend, so he needed to go from first to second gear. His solution was to hang the rear end out a lot more than stricly necessary in first gear, before changing into second and catching the diminishing drift – now miraculously at the correct angle – so the drift could continue towards the exit of the corner. He did it several times and it was so convincing and elegant that I could only lean back and enjoyed the show. In part, because I was strapped in, obviously. But you get the picture.
Kahle was convincing everywhere. I was lucky enough to sit through the co-driving role on an extremely varied course with both slow and fast corners, and it was brilliant. Drifting at the very limit of grip, flat-out in fourth gear, in a rear-engined Skoda? Yes, I have now tried it and it was fantastic. Kahle spent so much time going sideways that I wondered if it was at the expense of speed and ultimately time? But Kahle assured me that he would have driven in practically the same fashion, had it been a true time attack. Only a couple of times did he allow the wheels to venture off the paved road to enthuse the spectators with a showy spray of gravel.
When we finished I was grinning from ear to ear. I have never participated in anything so fun and fierce at the same time, and I have never experienced such a sublime demonstration of driving skills. I have always had a lot of respect for rally drivers, but that respect has now grown exponentially. The best of them drive like this stage after stage, and they don’t even need to put effort into it. Deeply impressive.
The car deserves credit too, of course, because much more powerful Group B cars were also present. But this was a practical lesson of something I previously only knew from theory: The intensity doesn’t lie in unleashing 500 horsepower in a straight line. It lies in the balancing act right on the limit of adhesion, and sometimes even over-stepping that limit ever so slightly. For which 135 horsepower is more than enough. What an experience to have this knowledge refreshed.
A big thank you to Skoda Germany and Mathias Kahle for the demonstration.