Skoda 13RS

Though silhouette racing reached its zenith some time ago, one man has stayed loyal to the same marque for years. Ford? Vauxhall? Er, no. Think Czech Republic. Gordon Cruickshank reports on the fastest car Skoda never built

Trouble is, the irony has faded a bit. Once it was amusing to win races in a Skoda, but nowadays the rejuvenated Czech firm makes good cars, and has a serious presence in the World Rally Championship. It’s not like it was when Tony Sugden began racing a silhouettebodied saloon in 1979. Then, Skodas were bargain-basement economobiles, and putting a Skoda body on an extremely rapid racing car seemed funny. Now that some Skodas are rather fast, the joke is less pointed. But Sugden’s current Skoda’ is so mad it’s still funny. And it’s still doing 15-20 races every season. And it’s still winning.

Back in the 1970s it was the Tricentrol Super Saloon Championship which sparked the rush of silhouette racers. One driverjohn Turner, realised that the rules, aimed at allowing extensive modification of a saloon car, actually only demanded that the engine was in the same place and that the top of the car looked the same. Taking a lateral jump through the rule book, he completely hollowed out a Skoda coupe and dropped the shell over a Leda F5000 chassis. Oh, and fitted a 5-litre Chevrolet V8 lump! It flew, and soon any redundant Lola or Chevron sportscar chassis was in danger of being reclothed in a Czech jacket.

Why pick a then-unglamorous Skoda? Because the engine was in roughly the right place (Special Saloon rules did not distinguish between rearand mid-engined), and because the Rapid coupe’s wheelbase suited the racing car underpinnings. There were few other rear-engined choices, and the result was that these Eastern Bloc lookalikes soon possessed more track presence than any Modem exotics.

The special saloon movement gradually faded, and with the burgeoning of historic racing many such hybrids were converted back to original-spec sportscars. You can still see some of these cheerful imposters in mixed Sports/GT racing, though, and one of the busiest series runs in the North West, courtesy of the BARC. And that’s where Tony Sugden exercises his 500bhp turbo-boosted Skoda, third in a line which stretches back 20 years.

This one, however, does not borrow the underpinnings of a famous sportscar name. It features a Leek chassis. Who? John Leek, Yorkshire farmer, ex-racer and self-taught amateur car-builder. This is the second of three monocoques, all three of which have ended up under Skoda bodies. While the first was very much like a March sportscar chassis, this one incorporates Leek’s own improvements. Constructed like the others from sheet aluminium, it has a slight input from a famous British name: Leek went to Chevron to have the large inner panels folded. It was, he reckons, the last job they did before they themselves folded.

He originally planned this one as an open two-seater for the Thundersports series, but when that was cancelled the car became a special saloon instead.

Suspension comes courtesy of March, the rear from the Formula One 761 design, while the front originally propped up the F2 762, though the lower wishbones are now a tougher design to cope with the extra weight in the front end. Ditto the brakes, whose massive calipers and vented discs are heavier-duty than March envisaged.

In between the massive 17in wide rear tyres is a Hewland FGB/C gearbox, and ahead of that a four-cylinder Ford engine. But like everything else on this car, it’s a bit special. Ifs a four-cylinder Cosworth of similar spec to the hairy Ford RS500 saloons which dominated touring car racing in the 1980s. With a fat Garrett turbocharger force-feeding it, Sugden reckons it has around 500bhp on the normal 1.8bar boost, with another 30 or so on tap with a twist of the knob if any rivals look threatening. “Mind you, when someone’s having a go, I usually forget to turn it up!”

Not that there are too many threats: when we spoke, Sugden was just back from Cadwell Park, where yet again he and his trusty Skoda had won their race and put up fastest lap of the race. And it was raining. “The power comes in bang at 5000rpm,” he says. “Keeps you sharp in the rain, that does.”

It used to be scarier, says the pilot, but he has made a few tweaks which have boosted wet traction. He’s been running this one since 1990, but there’s always some little gain to be made. Previously he and Leek maintained it, but John’s other commitments have intruded, so nowadays Tony does the work himself, with his wife Rose as chief mechanic. Not that lack of manpower stops him entering any race within reach. Although the special saloon scene has shrivelled, there are open classes at many club meetings where a fire-breathing Skoda is welcome. Geography is the limiting factor: “From Doncaster, even Silverstone means a 21hr day — and I am 70!” Of course, there’s no prize money, even in his own series — it’s all for the fun of it, and even after so many years racing, Sugden still enjoys the social aspect. “They’re a real good bunch of lads,” he says.

For anyone who remembers the Seventies and the bizarre sight of a VW Beetle thrashing the field, helped by a huge Chevrolet V8 midships, this BARC series is a chance to watch these daft but exciting silhouette racers still at play. It’s about as far from the world of historical accuracy as you can get. While wealthy historic Grand Prix car owners were huffing in the Monaco pits about rivals on the wrong tyres, Tony was steaming round Cadwell Park with a mob of Darrians, Elan lookalikes, outrageous Ultima `roadcars’ and a 6.7-litre spaceframed Sierra at his heels. Thoroughbred it’s not, but it is mechanically creative and closely fought.

Despite the extreme tune of the 2-litre lump, it’s been remarkably undemanding. “We fit it in March and only take it out in September,” he says, “though the Garrett T4 turbocharger itself goes back to local firm AET for a rebuild every five or six races”.

Unusually, this season some valve troubles have meant taking the head off several times, but London specialists CTM have now sorted this out. They also pointed out that, with bigger valves, there might be another 10 per cent more power to come…

Sugden is tempted; this unit has served well for 12 seasons, which is much longer than the previous permutations. Tony’s Skoda record so far covers three different chassis and five different engines.

First, in 1979, there was the Chevron B23 with a 2-litre Ford, then the Leek-chassised Group 5 Esprit… How did that one get in there? Well, Leek had built it for Jim Evans to race in Germany, but when he baled out, Leek took it over and asked Sugden to drive. They ran it in Thundersports with the Lotus body, but when that series stopped in the early ’80s they put the Skoda body on to so reclassify it as a saloon. Power came variously from a 1700 Cosworth BD turbo (almost as powerful as the current mill but nothing like as reliable) and a Cosworth GA, the 3.4-litre V6 more usually seen in the Cologne Capris. That was originally due to be the power for this one too, but as parts became scarcer, the four-cylinder Cosworth made more sense.

So the upright cabin of the Communist coupe has clad a confusing variety of running gear over a couple of decades, but the spec of the current runner has changed little so far. Sponsors and liveries have changed, though, and while the sponsors are hardly household names, Sugden takes presentation seriously. “You have to put on a show,” he says, hosing the Cadwell mud off the GRP body panels.

You might think that the body would be the easiest part of building a silhouette racer —just mould off a real one and cut off everything below the axles — but it never quite works like that. On its first runs, the car overheated seriously because air wasn’t getting to the intakes, so they resorted to the traditional method of wool tufts and photos, at Mallory Park. Well, F1 teams had been doing that only a couple of decades before… At first they kept the glass screen from the Skoda, but these became hard to source when chipped, so now all the see-through bits are Lexan.

With its very short wheelbase, square-shouldered arches and full-height cabin the two-tone blue machine looks tall and stubby, but when the panels come off the structure is as ground-hugging as any purpose-built racing car. Only the roomy roll-cage stiffening the tub and the front-mounted radiator stand out from the norm; the gaping intakes ahead of the rear wheel feed only brake ducts and the huge intercooler; the colder the air being inhaled by the turbo, the more horsepower is released. As if you needed it… Tony vividly describes the feeling when the boost arrives: “Imagine you’re sitting at the lights and a double-decker bus hits you up the back at 40mph. That’s what it feels like when the boost comes in. I’ve sometimes taken a passenger [the tub is technically a two-seater, with the driver slightly offset] and they’ve not been able to lift themselves off the seat.”

Paint schemes have changed over the years, but one fixed element has been the words Demon Tweeks somewhere on the body. Alan Minshaw, founder of the racing accessories firm, has been a friend for years, since Tony built his first racing car out of a crashed Escort in 1969. Remember the Demon Tweeks BDA-engined DAF back in the 1970s? That was Tony. As men both are retired, Minshaw claims it’s a case of “one OAP helping another”— but there can’t be too many senior citizens out most weekends racking up motor racing trophies. Though he’s not keeping an accurate score, Tony reckons he has collected some 200 outright and 300 class wins, and that’s not counting the bike-racing period before the cars, which included a couple of Manx GPs.

The whole concept of silhouette racers may look baffling to an outsider, but it’s driven by the same urges as vintage special building — the desire to combine unlikely elements to make a unique, and hopefully fast, racing car. So many series are filled with matching factory-built cars where the ingenuity of the amateur builder has no place, and I’m not one of those who wants to see drivers challenging each other in identical chassis. I’d much rather see an interesting paddock than a level playing field, and the weirder the entries the better.