John Haugland on driving Skoda’s rear-engined rally cars of the 80s

by | Aug 5, 2020

Former Skoda rally driver John Haugland tells us his memories of competing in the Estelle

Photo source: Jan Splidek

“You have to take what you have, you have to drive what they give you and do the best out of it.” That’s an unusually calm and reflective statement from a race or rally driver – especially one recalling the time he was told to drive a car with half the power of the old model just to fit a manufacturer’s marketing strategy.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, Skoda’s motorsport division was flying high on the success of the 130RS – a car that former works rally driver John Haugland still owns to this day. But by 1981, Skoda was selling a new model, the 120 (known as the Estelle in the UK), forcing Haugland to switch from the 130RS to the 120L, which was effectively a standard production car.

John Haugland (on car, right). Photo source: Jan Splidek

Despite the Group 1-spec 120L putting out a tiny 65 horsepower, Haugland achieved a 31st place finish on the 1981 RAC Rally, winning his class in the process.

“The thing was… it was reliable and we knew that we had to be a little bit careful with it, and from doing this rally many times before I know that if you can take it to the finish not stopping anywhere, no punctures, not going off the road, not any mechanical trouble… you would be quite high up in the results overall…”

Group 2 versions of the 120L had around 110 horsepower, but by 1983 Skoda had begun developing a more potent Group B car, the 130LR.

Skoda’s Group B car, the 130LR. Photo source: ŠKODA AUTO, ŠKODA Archive

Turbocharging was often employed in Group B to generate the enormous power outputs that defined this generation of cars. Although some turbocharged Skodas were built, according to Haugland “it was not very professional, it was more for fun.” Despite being “really quick,” the cars suffered from “little problems with reliability.” The time and money needed to properly develop the turbo engine and build 200 homologation cars meant it wasn’t pursued any further.

The 130LR’s rear-engined layout afforded “excellent” traction, helping Haugland make the most of the relatively modest 130bhp available to him. The engine itself was a small 1300cc unit; combined with the fact both it and the gearbox were made from aluminium, this meant the car “wasn’t so tail-heavy” compared to other rear-engined cars like the Porsche 911 and Alpine A110.

Haugland describes the 130LR as “a very nice car to drive.” He adds that while weaker on tarmac than the 130RS, the 130LR compared favourably to its predecessor on loose surfaces and had “very very good handling.”

John Haugland driving a Skoda 130LR at an event in the Czech Republic in 2016

A major step in the development of Skoda’s rally cars came when Sachs began supplying them with dampers. “I would say in my time with Skoda that was the biggest step we ever did,” says Haugland.

“It was good for handling, it was good for grip, it was good for everything but it was mostly good for the car’s behaviour on bad roads… because, you know, when you have a 1300cc engine with 130bhp, you are losing every time you are accelerating and if then the car was not so good on bumpy, bad roads, that means you had to ease off… but after we got the Sachs shock absorbers… then you could go flat out on the bumpy stuff and of course you didn’t have to accelerate again and that gave us much more speed and much better results.”

After Group B was banned, Skoda campaigned the heavier and less powerful Group A 130L. The impressive results the team achieved with the 130LR continued with the new car, culminating in a 16th place finish on the 1988 RAC Rally. For Haugland, it was a landmark moment – “that was the last rally I did with a rear-engined car.”

In 1989, the front-engined, front-wheel drive Favorit replaced the 130L. After two years campaigning the new car, 1990 was Haugland’s last season with Skoda.

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