A few weeks ago, Skoda was celebrating 15 years of its vRS performance cars. Yep, a whole 15 years have passed since the Octavia vRS (or RS, if you’re outside of the UK) came along, with Golf GTI running gear packaged in very practical suit to show the world that Skodas needn’t be boring. The thing is though, the idea of a sporty Skoda predates that original vRS by a fair few years, and the Czech company’s vRS birthday celebrations reminded me about a drive I took late last year in a much older Skoda that fits the ‘sporty’ bill: the 136 Rapid.
The Rapid name may be in use these days for a VW Jetta-related, not terribly exciting hatchback, but back in the 1980s, it was used for an entirely different beast. It’s a coupe. It’s rear-wheel drive. It’s rear-engined. And it only weighs 900kg. Sounds like an old Porsche 911, right? Only, it doesn’t exactly exhibit Porsche levels of performance: with a mere 54bhp puffed out by its 1.3-litre inline-four, you’ll need a leisurely 15 seconds to hit 60mph from rest. Rapid it ain’t, but what’s it like to drive?
Opening the driver’s door reveals a simple cabin of straight lines and big, chunky switches, plus a set of seats with something vaguely resembling side bolsters. The chairs even have one-piece backrests. Like I said, this is supposed to be a sporty Skoda.
Sliding behind the wheel, you have to twist yourself like a contortionist to get your hands and feet where they need to be - I don’t think I’ve ever driven a car with such horrifically offset pedals.
Twist the ignition key, and the carb’d four-pot up back coughs into life, settling to an uneasy idle. Selecting first gear with the long, wobbly shifter takes delicacy, but once engaged, I gently manoeuvred the little Skoda towards the start line of Bicester Heritage’s small test track - the same place I’d driven a 1950s Skoda racing car a few hours before.
Having been driven by various journalists throughout the day as part of a Skoda heritage event, the Rapid was nicely warm, so I was able to explore the 136 at full throttle from the off with my horribly twisted right foot. And, erm, not much happened. A surprisingly pleasant, rorty din blared out of the exhaust pipe, the rev counter buzzed up to the red line to let me know I needed to stir the clunky five-speed manual ‘box once more, but at no point did it feel like I was getting anything akin to serious forward momentum.
It was at the two 90-degree right handers at the top of the track though, that I received a very pleasant surprise: the steering is brilliant. The biggest disappointment with almost all retro cars I’ve driven has been the steering: it’s often slow and cumbersome, and in some cars can be downright vague. Go back far enough, and you’ll find cars that make you feel as though the steering wheel isn’t even attached to anything. But in the Rapid the steering is direct, consistent and laden with feedback.
The 136 also didn’t roll as much as I was expecting, although maybe that’s because it’s too damn slow to get up to a speed serious enough to trouble the unsophisticated suspension. It doesn’t have enough power to upset grip levels at the rear to any noticeable degree either, but who cares: the 136 Rapid is a seriously fun car, and it’s hard not to fall in love with its quirky charm. Naturally, I immediately wanted to buy one and still do now, but with just 18 left on UK roads, I’ve little chance of ever finding one for sale.
After returning to the makeshift paddock, I couldn’t resist setting up a little photo op with the Rapid, the very first Octavia vRS, and ‘our’ Octavia vRS estate we were running as a long-term test car at the time. Seeing them all side-by-side gave me a chance to ponder how far fast Skodas have come over the years.
Thanks in no small part to an enviable parts bin from Skoda’s VW owners to pick from (it still has the guts of a Golf GTI) the current Octavia vRS is properly fast, genuinely capable and amazingly well put together. The Rapid on the other hand is slow, noisy, flimsy, and given what 1980s Skodas are like, will almost certainly break down on you at some point.
But it’s clear that in the intervening years and under the influence of VW, sporty Skodas - well, all Skodas in fact - have lost that sense of quirkiness. Given how rare weirdness is in the car industry these days, that’s a real pity.