Skoda Estelle: The giant-killer of 1980s rallying

by | Aug 4, 2020

There may have been many better road cars than the Estelle, but on rally stages it was a different story

Photo source: ŠKODA AUTO, ŠKODA Archive

It’s 1986. The iconic Group B ‘supercars’ are at the forefront of rallying. In Turkey, on the Gunaydin International Rally, two four-wheel drive monsters, a Peugeot 205 T16 and Audi Quattro A2, are battling for victory with one of the last bastions of rear-wheel drive on the global stage. They eventually lose out, coming in second and third respectively to… a Skoda Estelle.

Perhaps the most unlikely of all Group B cars, the Estelle (known as the 130LR in competition guise) nevertheless proved to be a giant-killing success, continuing the trend set by the 130RS that preceded it.

With drivers like John Haugland at the wheel, the Estelle really punched above its weight. Skoda may not have been regularly fighting for overall victories, but in their class the plucky Czechs were a dominant force during the 1970s and 80s.

Nothing demonstrates this dominance better than Skoda’s 17 consecutive class wins on the notoriously tough RAC Rally, where the Estelle proved not just quick in its class, but capable of rivalling much more powerful competitors. In 1984, the 130LR achieved an astonishing result, finishing in 15th ahead of cars in the up to 2000cc class.

The Group B Skoda 130LR. Photo source: ŠKODA AUTO, Skoda Storyboard

‘Surprising Skoda’ was the company’s slogan when the Estelle was on sale and could not have been more apt when it came to the rally car’s frankly unbelievable results on some events.

Winning your class is one thing, but taking an outright rally win in a car with a 1300cc engine is a challenge of a different magnitude entirely. Yes, it’s true – Skoda really did win the 1986 Gunaydin International Rally, with Gerhard Kalnay and Gunter Tazreiter fending off a Peugeot 205 T16 and Audi Quattro A2 in their 130LR.

In the same year on the National Breakdown Rally, the Estelle’s rear-engined layout really came into its own on the snow and ice-covered forest tracks of Yorkshire. John Haugland and his co-driver Petter Vegel were running in second place, having set a fastest stage time, before gearbox failure put them out of contention. They made up for it the following year, finishing in ninth, beating drivers like Jimmy McRae in a Lancia Delta.

Even when Group B was banned, forcing the 130LR to retire from competition and denying the planned evolution model the chance to compete, Skoda still achieved a 16th place finish on the 1988 RAC in the Group A 130L. An even more impressive result came on the Monte Carlo Rally in 1987, when Haugland steered his 130L to a class win and 14th overall.

The Estelle was also capable of delivering big results on tarmac rallies, including a 14th place on the 1985 Manx International – all the more impressive when you consider that the crew reportedly completed the event on a single set of tyres.

A Skoda 130L on the 1988 Tour de Course – Rallye de France. Photo source: ŠKODA AUTO, ŠKODA Archive

As well as its presence on international events, the Estelle was a popular and affordable choice in club-level rallying. Modifying a road car to Group A spec cost around £2000 in 1990, around £500 more got you a used example, while an ex-works car could be had for £4500. The existence of the one-make Skoda Trophy made the Estelle an even more attractive proposition for those wishing to channel their inner John Haugland.

Cars and Car Conversions (CCC) magazine’s Philip Young demonstrated the remarkable performance a rally-prepared Estelle had to offer for the amateur rally driver in a series of articles tracking the build of CCC’s own Group A car. It produced 96bhp at the flywheel, which may not sound like much, but with a 4.2:1 final drive this resulted in a 0-60mph time of less than eight seconds and a top speed of approximately 110mph.

A Skoda Estelle rally car at Race Retro in 2013. Photo source: Magic Car Pics

A Skoda Estelle is now an incredibly rare sight on rally stages in the UK, although a Group A Estelle was driven to a class win by Alex Waterman on the 2019 Roger Albert Clark Rally. It’s a different story in the Czech Republic, where there are plenty of 130LRs still competing. Much like the Ford Mk2 Escort in the UK, some of the cars have been extensively modified, and even fitted with sequential gearboxes.

In 1989, the Estelle was replaced by the front-engined, front-wheel drive Favorit – a more conventional car for the time. But Skoda’s rallying success for most of the 1980s was thanks to the idiosyncratic Estelle – a true motorsport giant-killer.

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