I had a nice 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 imagined.

I should admit that I quite like even the standard Skoda Coupé. Actually, to be brutally honest, I am quite keen on any nice rear engined 105, complete with rubber teeth protection and soft undercarriage. They are both 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 weak chested family cars. But it turned out that with light bodywork, the biggest 1300 engine and the well known fine handling of the rear engined chassis they had exactly what was needed of 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.

The starting point for the rally car was the 110R, not an entirely UEEFFEN car to look at.

The starting point for the rally car was the 110R, not at all a bad car to look at.

Not in their fundamental elements, of course, and even the rally cars are quite based on the standard touring cars. The Group 2 regulations did not allow for a lot of 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 happened to 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 the home work had been done to a higher standard, with regards to the street cars, on the Porsche. 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. Plus some more money.

130 RS was made for both rally and track. Both were winners in the sub 1300 cubic category

130 RS was made for both rally and track. Both were winners in the sub 1300 cubic category

The result looks like a standard 110 R coupé but is now obviously a rally car. The rood, bonnet and doors are made out of aluminium while the wide arches/flared wings and the rear hatch are made of glassfibre. The 1300 engine still only has three main bearings but turns out 135 horsepower, and for the weight ofa mere 800 kilos, that goes a long way. Even though there is only a four speed to cover the spectrum from zero to 220 km/t.

The thing is it was the handling that was the main strength of the model. Rear engined as I said – you know it works well for Porsche? When the Skoda engineers were done tuning the chassis, the 130RS had the potential to beat much stronger rivals and in it’s class it became a habitual winner almost right from the beginning in 1975 and for many years ahead.

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In that light it became an Eastern Bloc legend – seeing that the region hadn’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 won the UK RAC rally.

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And it is still working for the Skoda image today. Skoda themselves are keeping some on the road, in this instance Skoda Germany. Their Facebook administrator told me that none of the posts regarding new cars perform as well af posts featuring the 130RS.

But this isn’t just about the car, it is also about the driver. I was abut to let my life into the hands of seven-fold German rally champion Mahias Kalhe, who’s 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 Skoda’s. That is, a modern Skoda, WRC and the likes. But he could obviously drive. I wasn’t nervous at all.

Seven-fold champion. He’s got it.

Seven-fold champion. He’s got it.

Until someone from the Skoda team asked, who would be the next for Mathias to “kaputmachen” (German for “destroy”). To which I answered it was me and was promptly told me 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 the many titles won.

And you have tried it before

And you have tried it before

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 as I was strapped down in the five point harness and tightened way down in the seat.

But why is there dents on the frontend?

But why is the bonnet dented?

I couldn’t do anything else than sit when Mathias got in and greeted me. 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 for a tuned four cylinder engine. While it didn’t sound lovely, it sounded solid and inspired confidence on the way to the starting line. But as soon as the car began moving 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 away 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 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.

A Rather spartan place to work: The lever is at least half a meter long and the hand brake had a sticker saying “FUN” on it.

A rather spartan place to work: The lever is at least half a meter long and the hand brake had a sticker saying “FUN” on it.

As the start was given free Mathias and both he and the car went berserk. The needle was at 6000 RPM when he let the clutch go and I swear the revs never went lower then that for the rest of the stage. Never! Having the reer engine help provide grip we went off in first. Second gear wasn’t bad either, but after this the hard acceleration rather levelled off. While this to some would indicate that it would become boring from hereon, this is where quite the opposite happened –  in seeing just how fast Kahle and Skoda were in the turns. And I mean seriously, seriously fast to an extent I have never experienced before.

It should have been frightening, but it was the opposite. At the first turn I immediately felt that Mr Kahle was completely in control and the way he operated wheel, gears, throttle, brake, including the hand brake was equal to dancing – a finely choreographed dance of rhythmically and neatly coordinated input at the exactly right time. He simply made the little coupe dance and the perception from the passenger seat was actually more that of a dance floor than actually it was 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, prepared for the next turn. 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 throttle, a targeted pull of the hand brake – and through the turn we were.

130 wild horses and a man in full control. I have NEVER experienced such an impressive display of the mantra, that power isn’t everything.

130 wild horses and a man in full control. I have NEVER experienced such an impressive display of the mantra that “power isn’t everything”.

And he did it 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 sideways as 130 horsepower will not really get you there – he just went sideways because it was always on the brink of loosing grip on the absolute limit om adhesion. When at this stage you only need little extra power to break the last traction and to slide the rear. And he was superbly accomplished at it, Kahle, 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 rather well: Raw and hard and racey. I noticed that the needles monitoring water and oil didn’t move at all during the eight kilometres spent at between 6000 and 8000 RPM’s. Even though it had been driving like that the whole weekend.

He was literally flying

He was literally flying

Wasn’t it frightening? Mhhm, one stretch did get me thinking a bit. It was in the first half of the stage, where we after a series of quick turned on a nearly straight piece of road that went down towards a gorge – and then went 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 mean we travelled at 176 km/h. That speed it self may not sound frightening, but the road wasn’t quite straight for a straight, neither was it completely without potholes. On the other hand it was only three or four metres wide and with trees on both sides. When on a road like that 176 km/h appears to be very, very fast.

However Kahle had already convinced me and done things I did not know was possible. For example changing gear (with that half a 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 turn, which opened into a faster turn, so he needed to go from first to second gear. His solution was to put the rear end out a lot more than stricly needed in the first gear part before changing into second and catching the diminishing drift – now miraculously at the correct angle – so the drift could continue. He did it several times and it was so convincing and elegant that I leaned 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 a very varied course with both slow and fast turns and it was brilliant. Drifting at the brink of grip in fourth gear in a rear engined Skoda? Yes, now I have tried it and it was fantastic. Kahle spent so much time going sideways that I wondered if it was the expense of time? But Kahle asured me that he would be driving in nearly the same fashion had it been a true time attack. Only a couple of times did he allow the wheels to go 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 done anything so fun and fierce at the same time and I have never seen such a show of driving so sublime, fine and extreme. I have always had a lot of respect for rally drivers but it has now grown a lot. 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 by this time I learned something I knew from theory already: The intensity does not lie in unleashing 500 horsepower in a straight line. It lies is in the balancing at the slip limit and sometimes stepping over the line. For which 130 horsepower is more than enough. It was nice to have this knowledge refreshed.

Thanks to Skoda Germany and Mathias Kahle for the demonstration.

Translation: Christian Bartels

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