When Škoda was a rally icon

It’s something we tend to overlook, but Škoda is actually one of the oldest car brands in the world, and also one with a rich history in motorsport.

This year marks 120 years of involvement for the brand, with rallying a mainstay category. We look back to the 1970s when the RS badge was born and Škoda’s 130 RS was a European Rally icon.

For long time rally fans, Škoda is a brand well-known as a plucky underdog whose cars could survive insane accidents and finish, often outshining more recognisable rally contenders. Škoda still uses the RS (rally sport) designation for the sporty variants of its models to this day, while the connection to rallying remains strong internationally with factory involvement in both WRC-2 categories and the European Rally Championship.

Kiwi motoring journalist and automotive PR expert, John Coker, was a pedaller of some repute, taking on the favoured Escorts and Toyotas of the day in his Škoda 120. In the 1990’s the legendary Armin Schwarz stunned crowds driving the Octavia RS WRC beyond the limit on stage after stage, often with car control rivalling the legendary Colin McRae.

It wasn’t long into the 1970s when Škoda’s Mladá Boleslav-based rally team realised that to hold their own against international competitors like Ford’s hugely successfully Escort, they needed to develop a rally vehicle with a correspondingly larger displacement than the 1.1-litres of their road cars. Thus the 1.3-litre Škoda 180/200 RS coupés were born.

The brand’s 110 R coupé with an Š 720 aluminium engine served as the basis for implementing this ambitious project. The designers also drew on their experience from building the Škoda 120 S rally; the technology from these two vehicles was to be combined in a new model.

The first prototypes were roadworthy as early as 1971 and used the bodies of the Š 1000MB and the Š 100 l. For testing purposes, five-speed gearboxes from the Tatra 603-2 racing cars of the time were installed.

The skeleton of the Š 110 R – with the tried and tested low roof and side panels lowered just above the underbody – formed the basis of the new rally coupé. This is where the safety cage was integrated, which reinforced the structure, increased torsional rigidity, and protected the occupants in the event of a collision. Modifications were also made to the front of the car so that a tubular radiator with air outlets could be fitted to the bonnet. In addition, the designers installed a front spoiler, which they scientifically referred to at the time as an “uplift spoiler”.

Riveted to the body, the roof was pressed from light sheet metal; the bonnet made from the same material. For the engine cover, the developers used fibreglass-reinforced plastic, which allowed the rear section of the coupé to be fitted with ventilation apertures and the characteristic wing to be modelled with a tear-off edge.

The widened mudguards were particularly striking, and the wheel arches accommodated wide 7-8” × 13” rally tyres at the front and 7-10” x 13” at the rear on bipartite magnesium rims. The front axle was based on the counterpart of the Škoda 120 S; the wishbones were lengthened and reinforced for a wider track, and the steering was also adapted. The rear wheels were suspended on triangular wishbones, allowing the camber and toe to be adjusted. The suspension of the Škoda rally car featured traditional coil springs and the custom-made telescopic shock absorbers from Koni Sport could be calibrated.

The Š 720 engine made it possible for one engine to be constructed with various displacements – a feature that the designers took full advantage of. The smaller of the four-cylinder engines had a displacement of 1,772cm³, the larger was 1,997cm³. Given the identical bore of 87mm, the difference was due to the different crankshaft strokes of 74.5 and 84 millimetres respectively.

The engines had dry-sump lubrication and the model designation was derived from the engine capacity in each case: the car with the smaller engine, which achieved a maximum output of 154hp at 6,250 rpm with a weber 45 DCOE 2 double carburettor, was given the designation 180 RS. The car with the two-litre engine, which generated 163hp at 6,000 rpm, was given the name 200 RS. In their search for a suitable gearbox, the designers opted for a manual five-speed gearbox from Porsche, paired with a single-disc clutch with diaphragm spring from Fichtel & Sachs.

As a result, the lightweight rally cars came in at just over 800kg and achieved top speeds of up to 240km/h, depending on the gear ratio. The 200 RS made its debut at the Ida rally in what was then Czechoslovakia in May 1974, followed by the Barum rally with two cars and the rally Škoda in Mladá Boleslav, where the three red-and-white-painted cars competed alongside each other on 1 June 1974.

Two Škoda 200 RS’ and one Škoda 180 RS were built. At first, it seemed that the engineers had developed a first-rate rally car that could hold its own against the most successful vehicles in motorsport. But things turned out differently; changes to the regulations brought the careers of the 180 RS and 200 RS to an abrupt end. The new regulations ruled out the homologation of rally prototypes, and instead, only cars based on production models were allowed to compete.

In response, the designers in Mladá Boleslav built the successor 130 RS. They based their technical design on the Škoda 110 R and drew on their knowledge and experience from creating the 180 RS and 200 RS. Weighing only 720kg, the rear-wheel-drive vehicle with a 140hp 1.3-litre engine quickly became a success, leaving the competition behind on rally tracks as well as on circuits up until 1983.

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