Not many offers of a drive have likely been followed by a frantic Google search to discover what the car is – but Alex Waterman found himself doing just that when, at the 2019 Autosport International show, he was presented with the chance to compete in a Skoda 130L on that year’s RAC Rally.
“I didn’t exactly know what a Skoda 130L was…,” Alex admits. Ten months and one Google search later, he would become an RAC Rally class winner in one.
After agreeing to the drive, Alex had his first experience of the car on a private driveway, doing “literally just a few runs to check the car worked.” This was followed by an all-day test at Walters Arena. “We probably did 50, 60, 70km there on the gravel.” The next time Alex drove the car in anger would be on the first stage of the RAC Rally.
Throughout his time with the Skoda, Alex found it to be full of surprises – not least the way it drove. “As it turned out it was really quite an interesting car to drive,” says Alex, albeit “totally different to anything I’ve ever driven. I started driving in a Fiesta R2 and I’d only driven R2 cars up to that point, so compared to a Sadev sequential box, Reiger all round, front-wheel drive, 170bhp it was, yeah, quite different.”
The 130L was also the first rear-wheel drive rally car Alex ever drove: “It was actually quite a nice car to get my first taste of rear-wheel drive in,” he says. “It’s all fairly progressive and you can lean on it… you had to force it to slide if you wanted it to slide.”
To help Alex prepare for the rally, Glyn Thomas, the car’s owner (and Alex’s co-driver on the RAC) took an extreme measure.
“I hadn’t even driven a rear-wheel drive road car,” explains Alex. “Next thing I know he’s sent me through on my phone this screenshot of something on eBay… I clicked on it, it didn’t really say what it was… so I said ‘What on earth have you done?’ and he was like ‘Well, I’ve bought you a road car to drive round in’ and he bought a 130L left-hand drive road car…”
I ask Alex what he thinks the key is to driving a 130L fast. “It’s got to be carrying speed,” he replies with a wry laugh. “In the slower stuff… you’ve just got to keep the revs up and keep the car moving really, which isn’t necessarily too dissimilar to driving an R2.”
This driving style was particularly important on the RAC, where “we knew we were probably the most underpowered car there, along with a two-stroke Saab 96.”
Alex and Glyn had realistic expectations for the event: “Really it was just about getting it round at a reasonable pace and seeing what we could do…,” a strategy which saw the Skoda finish first in class and 75th overall out of 126 cars. However, Alex’s pace seemed to be more than reasonable – cars that finished behind the Skoda included a Talbot Lotus Sunbeam, Ford Mk2 Escort RS 2000 and Porsche 911.
However, there was one point when that result seemed in doubt, after stones got into the engine bay and snapped the aux belt. With the water pump no longer working as a result, “the needle on the temperature gauge went from absolutely fine to then all of a sudden, smoke was in the car and it was absolutely overheating.” Fortunately, Alex and Glyn were able to replace the aux belt and arrived at the next stage “with about 5 minutes to spare.”
An unexpected feature of the rally for Alex was the amount of attention the Skoda got: “From the very start when the car was up on stands, before we’d even gone to the start in Leominster, people were coming up and saying ‘it’s so good to see one of these, oh my God, I used to have one of these 30 years ago…’”
At the ceremonial start, Alex was “astonished” to find the car “swarmed with people.” Spectators demonstrated similar enthusiasm out on the stages: “You saw people leaning over, windmilling their arms… people just loved it. I was completely blown away by the amount of people that couldn’t believe one was out and being driven properly.”
Alex thinks the 130’s “pedigree” (a Group B version called the 130LR preceded the Group A 130L) partly explains its popularity: “It is the car that put Skoda on the map of rallying.”