These days, if you hear someone cracking a joke about how rubbish an old Skoda is, the chances are they’re either catastrophically ignorant, or have been in cryogenic stasis for 30 years, from which they’ve just emerged.
Modern Skodas have well and truly shaken off the reputation that dogged the brand for a long time. By and large, the Skodas of today are comfortable, economical, practical cars full of clever touches that make them great to live with.
WERE THE SLINGS AND ARROWS JUSTIFIED?
Which begs the question: were the old ones ever really that bad? Did they deserve the slings and arrows that were thrown at them? Indeed, do they now represent rather canny classic car purchases that offer the character of an older car for a bargain price?
We borrowed Skoda UK’s own Rapid 135 Coupe to find out. The car in question is a rare thing: one of the final examples produced, and featuring the all-aluminium 1.3-litre water-cooled engine that would go on to power the Favorit and, later the Felicia. And as this one is an imaginatively named Rapid Injection Coupe – or RiC, for short – it gets a simple single-point fuel injection system, too.
This really was a budget car in its time – indeed, it would have set you back a shade more than £5,000 in 1991, when it was new. By comparison, a Ford Escort 1.4 LX, would have cost £10,125 – about double, in other words.
GET WHAT YOU PAID FOR
Having said that, you really did get what you paid for with the Rapid. Inside, you’ll find hard, brittle plastics, flat-feeling seats and a rather Spartan dashboard. It is suitably quirky, though, with a row of switches that rotate like ventilation dials, while the actual heating controls are a set of vertical sliders beneath.
The Rapid is rear-engined, which means the boot is in the front; pull a lever down near the driver’s door to open it, and after releasing the safety catches, it swings open sideways, its hinges on the passenger-side wing. Delightful.
Fuel injection means there’s no choke, and the Rapid fires on the first turn of the key, settling to a chuntering idle. The pedals are heavy and the throw of the gear shift is long, but because there’s no weight over the front end, the steering is light even though there’s no power assistance.
WHAT’S A SKODA RAPID LIKE TO DRIVE?
Around town the ride is respectable, if not exemplary; simple bumps are damped reasonably well, but more complex, churned-up surfaces set the Rapid bucking around.
That engine’s rather good fun, though; it’s rated at just 58bhp, so it doesn’t have much to give, but what it lacks in outright power it makes up for in character. It’s clearly been set-up for low down torque, and it gives of its all between 2,000 and 4,000rpm.
Throughout, it delivers a hearty, raspy, hard-edged note that sounds almost slightly racy, although toward the top end it starts to become rather more wheezy, before running out of puff at around the 5,000rpm mark.
And the handling? Well, it isn’t hard to see how a modified Rapid could be fun – there’s plenty of grip, and because of that rear-drive layout, it turns in eagerly. But as standard, the Rapid is quite wayward.
The steering is very slack around the dead-ahead position, and while precision and weight increase once you’ve got the Rapid turned in, there’s still not a great deal of feel or feedback, so it isn’t very confidence-inspiring. Legend has it the Rapid is quite tail-happy; we weren’t brave enough to try in this treasured, 54,000-mile example.
CHARACTERFUL, BUT IS IT A CLASSIC?
The trouble is, as characterful as it is, the Rapid stops short of being truly fun. There’s just too much body roll, too much uncertainty in the chassis, and the gear change is too long and vague. And when you do want to just sit and cruise somewhere, it’s noisy and rattly, too.
Further evidence that the reputation these Skodas had in their day was not entirely unjustified came on our final night with the Rapid, when its dipped beam headlights – both of them – gave up the ghost spontaneously in the middle of the countryside. Which was… helpful.
With plenty of space and the added reliability of fuel injection, it’s easy to see how the Rapid would have appealed as budget family transport in its day. But as a proposition today, you’d need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Skoda fan to choose one over a similarly cheap modern classic. Much greater things were soon to come for Skoda – and it was probably for the best.
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