It’s a day of firsts. The first time I’ve watched asphalt blur beneath my feet through gaps in a floorpan. The first time I’ve used a dog-leg gearbox. The first time I’ve driven a bona fide historic race car in anger.
The dramatically nicknamed Red Racer is not a car you are likely to be familiar with. Built in 1957, the Skoda 1100 OHC Type 968 was designed to compete in the brutal arena of the Le Mans 24 Hours. It’s not hard to see why. Beyond the Iron Curtain, the Czech brand was still obscure, despite some success in motorsport, including a class win at the Spa 24 Hours in 1948. So what bigger statement could it make than to create this shockingly delicate, tiny racer and run wheel to wheel with globally renowned big hitters that had already forged their reputations at Circuit de la Sarthe?
Maybe it would have worked, transforming the Skoda brand overnight. But the 1100 OHC never made it to Le Mans, and no one really knows why. Maybe it was lack of money, or the political boundaries still shaping Europe at the time. Or you could speculate that Skoda lost confidence in its flyweight (550kg) Italianate sports racer and decided that it would be foolhardy to even try to compete in such an unforgiving race. It actually wouldn’t have been Skoda’s first foray at Le Mans; that came in 1950 with an 1101 Sport that failed to finish. Regardless, it would have been breathtakingly audacious of a little-known Eastern Bloc brand to enter Le Mans with a bespoke racer.
Sitting behind the slim, string-wrapped steering wheel, I can’t help but wish it had happened, if only for the outstanding story it would have made had Skoda’s four-pot racer even seen the chequered flag, let alone been competitive.
Still, the Red Racer did see success in competition, and clearly Skoda saw justification to invest in motorsport. Two of these fibreglass-bodied roadsters were produced, with their most noticeable success coming in 1962 with a one-two in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), at the hands of Miroslav Fousek and Jaroslav Bobek. Three aluminium-bodied coupé versions were also made but none remain in existence.
The other roadster is a non-runner that is displayed in Skoda’s Czech museum, making this the only working example of the dainty 1100 OHC in the world.
So it’s with a little trepidation that I roll out onto Prodrive’s test track in Kenilworth, looking like some sort of comedy Wacky Races rip-off in the tiny 3880mm-long, 965mm-high Skoda. Within moments it’s evident that this is a spectacularly encouraging machine. As with most racing cars, it actively dislikes being driven at low revs, hiccuping and hesitating (not least as it now runs on modern fuel and not the avgas it would have used in its competitive days) until you open the throttle wide. You wait a heartbeat as the motor, with its alloy cylinder head and twin Jikov carburettors, seems to draw breath before launching itself with relish towards the 7700rpm peak power mark.
Museum-worthy gauges wobble their way erratically around the dials, white needles flickering over a worn black background and proving far less useful than simply listening to the thrummy, crescendoing soundtrack for that perfect moment to shift up through the sweet five-speed dog-leg gearbox. Suddenly the Red Racer starts to live up to the promise of the sleek, purposeful looks that designer Frantisek Sajdl surely penned with thoughts of Ferrari in his mind.
Its rear end shimmies around with alarming ease and willingness to break traction – not least thanks to its skinny tyres. But with barely a lap covered, the 1100 wins me over wholeheartedly. It’s both exhilarating and refreshing to experience a car so wholly reliant on the driver’s control. Nothing will save you here but yourself. Yet the visceral oneness that you have with the machine entices you to try a little harder, push a little closer and rev a little more.
It’s obvious that the 1100 is a car designed for faster, more sweeping circuits than the tight handling track at Prodrive, where it suffers from a shortage of front-end grip as the nose washes out. Actively provoking it into oversteer works best to overcome this, allowing you to carry plenty of revs out of a corner, although any prolonged slides are hampered by a shortage of power.
For all that the Skoda feels primitive by the standards of my (almost exclusively) 21st-century experience, it was an advanced car in its time. Sitting on a steel tubular spaceframe, its drum brakes are mounted inboard for better weight distribution, and it uses torsion beam axles at both ends, with double wishbone suspension up front and semi-trailing arms at the rear. The gearbox and final drive are accommodated in one housing and the engine has two spark plugs per cylinder, because they delivered a more reliable and better burn under endurance conditions.
The stunning, wire-spoked wheels run on what, to the modern eye, seems dangerously narrow 5.5in-section rubber, with the result that the 1100 OHC breaks traction with remarkable ease despite its low power output. But with your posterior suspended inches above the ground, you can rely on knowing what the car is doing in time to respond.
Plus, it is a sprightly thing. With 167bhp per tonne, not to mention the slightly edgy excitement of a belt-free cockpit and the inkling that this car has the structural integrity of papier maché despite its steel cage, it is exhilarating to say the least. It takes a few laps to get past the sense that you’re driving a breakable and irreplaceable museum piece and really rev the engine to its peak, allowing it to be a proper, focused track car and not an exhibit.
The steering never feels as sharp as I’d expected it to, but there’s no need for the continuous steering-wheel fidget – non-stop adjustment and input – that characterises a hard-driven pre-war racer. You can let the 1100 OHC flow easily through fast corners, saving the big wrestling inputs for the tight, low-speed stuff.
So this is not a slow car; a top speed of 118mph was no small matter in 1957. And it feels way faster than it sounds, particularly when you know that the brakes are verging on ornamental. Push the pedal until you lose circulation to your foot – with all the desperation of someone facing oncoming Armco in an irreplaceable vintage car – and the speed falls away with all the urgency of a fish swimming in treacle. There is next to no feel and even less actual stopping power. Clearly, this would be an issue come the end of the Mulsanne Straight.
I can’t say that I have any relevant benchmark to measure the Skoda 1100 OHC against. But, brakes aside, it’s easy to see how this car saw success in many of the races it did compete in. There is great delicacy and communication to the whole experience, and you sit so low and so far back that the car seems to pivot around you, making it easy to trust that this vintage racer is more than a rolling museum piece. You can really drive it.
It is, I’m sure, a long way from the finest racer of its period. But the Red Racer is also a glimpse at the sort of lofty ambitions that Skoda once had. And how close it came to realising them.