John Haugland is regarded as one of the best Norwegian rally drivers ever, widely known for his lifelong connection with the Czech manufacturer Škoda, a fairly unusual association back in the days of the Iron Curtain. Quite a coincidence I wrote the first version of this article, more or less three years ago, precisely on the day in which the world celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first big step to end the Cold War, if it really truly ended…
Returning to our man, Haugland was born at Stavanger, nowadays known as the centre of the Norwegian oil industry, on the 23rd September of 1946. Even if Norway hasn’t the same racing pedigree such as Finland and Sweden (after the 1955 Le Mans tragedy, Norway enforced severe motor racing restrictions that, even if they weren’t so wide as the Swiss ones, hampered its development), it hosted a thriving motorsport scenario during the sixties, not only on rallies – discipline we use to associate immediately with Scandinavia and their epitome, the Flying Finns – but also on racing, both on gravel kilometer ovals and ice racing. And it was in this thriving scenario that young John caught the motorsport bug, initially with motorbikes and only later on four wheels. Nevertheless, money was vital to have a chance of starting a motor racing career, and it wasn’t properly John’s strongest point. Also, his choice – rallying – proved more expensive than circuit racing, so Haugland chose the latter to debut and, at the same time, went into an apprenticeship as a car technician with Škoda Norway. These circumstances led John to buy, in 1965, a Škoda Octavia TS, which he then updated and entered on some minor track races.
As it was stated before, track racing in Norway was diverse and quite different from the rest of the widely-known Europe scenario. During the brief summers, races were mainly held on the one kilometer gravel ovals, most of them originally built for horse racing (such as with so many American dirt tracks), while in the winter there were plenty of opportunities to do ice racing on frozen lakes, either ovals or circuits. Apart of these temporary places, there were also some short conventional tracks and the usual hillclimbs, so the circuit agenda could amount to more than forty races a year. And it was in these flourishing conditions that young Haugland progressed…
After he crashed the Octavia, John repaired and put it for sale, using the profit to buy a 1000 MB model for 1967, with which he kept reaching success. After two years funding his own career, the local Škoda dealership gradually increased his support, not helping to tune the car, but also with some budget for the season. In this period, Haugland did more than 40 races a year in all those different surfaces (and became pretty successful on hillclimbs too), which John acknowledges it contributed a lot to enhance his experience and versatility on driving a racing car.
In 1970 the Czechoslovak manufacturer offered Haugland a rally drive which he promptly accepted, as well as an interesting touring car experience at the Nürburgring 6 Hours, where he partnered Jaroslav Bobek. Now he was being paid all rallying expenses by the dealership, and had the much needed experience to start the adventure he always dreamed of. Škoda gave him a 110 L Rallye to practice and enter some national rallies and the RAC. As John effectively lived up for his promise, Škoda called him and some drivers selected among foreign dealerships to a meeting at the main factory at Mladá Boleslav (driving their own cars!). Then, they and some very good Czech drivers were matched in two meetings, one in a circuit and another a hillclimb – John Haugland emerged victorious, and that his performance earned him definitively works driver’s place for Škoda in 1971, with the 110 L Rallye. Haugland was drafted for two big international rallies (the Austrian Alpine and the Tour d’Europe), winning his category in both, which sealed for good his inclusion in the team and his condition as a professional driver, living only from his racing and rallying earnings.
Notwithstanding his contract as a works driver was “slightly” different from the common practice… He was engaged to Škoda, but they hadn’t money to support a season outside Czechoslovakia, so the budget was provided by another contract, this time with the import/export firm Motokov, which scheduled some national and European meetings during the season. Any more rallies were Haugland’s own initiative, as he recalls “If I wanted to race more, it was necessary to find the budget to hire all I needed from Škoda. So I did deals with the British, Finnish, Greek, Danish and Belgian dealerships. They came with the budget and I provided all the rest” [Rallyes Magazine, HS2, p.157]. Another interesting quote on his relation with Škoda is the following: “[In Norway] First there was a mistrust and prejudice against the cheap car from the East, but as I said, the 130 RS (a model debuted by mid-1976) was a very good car and I had good results, so nobody really cared about my affiliation with an underrated brand. On the contrary, the popularity of Škoda in Norway and sure elsewhere rose with the time” [Auto.cz interview].
For 1972 John was provided with the brand new Škoda 120 S and it gave him some interesting results, such as the Group 2 class win at the Austrian Alpine and the sixth place overall at the Sachs Baltic Rally (counting for the European Rally Championship). Then Haugland switched back to the 110 L to grab a valuable eighth overall at the Swedish Rally in 1973, a round of the recently created World Rally Championship, but it was an exception, as even the superior 120 and 120 S Škoda were by no means able to defy their powerful Group 3 and 2 rivals, so Haugland focused mainly on national events and, abroad, on the class honours.
The new 130 S, presented during 1975, was a major improvement and provided Haugland with a Group 2 win at the RAC – in the right seat he had Fred Gallagher, this being the first major outing for the renowned co-driver – but Škoda was already preparing a new evolution of the model, the 130 RS, which they intended to homologate in Group 2. Quoting John, “All was best on the RS: the suspensions, aerodynamics, width… It had an excellent weight distribution, which rendered it very effective, mainly on tarmac. The engine of the 130 RS was directly derived from the series to favour its production. To a homologation in Group 2 it was necessary to build 1000… which was far from being the case”; so this “little troubleshooting” had to be outlined… “In 1975 FIA came to verify if the cars had effectively been built. It wasn’t possible to align 1000 cars. So Škoda presented the documents proving the production of all those 130 RS. Officially they should be used by the Czechoslovak police. As the numbers were there, it was homologated in 1976! I had often asked the responsible for the production about how many cars had indeed been built. He always answered me, smiling: “enough!” How many 130 RS’ had effectively been built is unknown, and Haugland says that “I think that FIA had showed some flexibility. Czechoslovakia was back then an East European country and it was important to allow this manufacturer to race. Also the 130 RS was a pretty car that didn’t risk in any way to become an overall winner, so why to prevent its homologation?” [Rallyes Magazine, HS2, p.157]. In 1975 Škoda also built two prototypes, the 180 RS and the 200 RS, supposedly to a Group 5 homologation, but they were too expensive for such a small manufacturer and they were only entered in some Czech rallies, the team preferring to use the budget to develop the 130 RS.
The new car only became fully available during the 1976 season, and soon it proved fast and reliable to be a contender on Group 2, providing Haugland with his first win at the Barum Rally. 1977 was even better for the Norwegian and the men from Mladá Boleslav, with a win at the then renowned Rally Škoda Bohemia, a sixth place at the Boucles de Spa and a seventh in the South Swedish Rally, all of them being very good demonstrations of the abilities of the 130 R, further enhanced by the Group 2 wins at the 1000 Lakes and the RAC, both WRC rounds. 1978 brought even more class podiums and wins for Škoda, and Haugland’s results caught the attention of British Leyland which invited him to drive a works Triumph TR7 V8 on the RAC, alongside Tony Pond and Simo Lampinen. It was his first attempt with a powerful Group 4 and John confirmed all his abilities to finish a respectable twelfth with a quite underdeveloped car. Another invitation followed, this time by Datsun Europe, to drive a 160J at the 1979 Swedish Rally, which John finished ninth; nevertheless, Haugland decided to stay with Škoda. It was an understandable choice, as he had grew very fond of the Czechoslovak squad, and also owned a renowned Škoda dealership in Norway, and felt better leading a small team (albeit with extremely competent and hard to beat teammates, the cream of the Czechoslovakian rally drivers) with chances to grab several class wins than turning just into one more driver in a better team. It proved a wise decision as he kept on the path of success and built a reputation of a solid, consistent driver – and also one of the kindest men among the international drivers’ peloton – able to develop a car and drive to win in every terrain, enjoying overall successes in the major Czech rallies such as the Bohemia Škoda (1977, 1979 and 1980) – back then an ERC round – and the Barum (1976, 1979 and 1980). Haugland quotes now these successes as his best, because Czechoslovakia was, effectively, his second homeland.
Another example of how competitive the small 130 RS could be in Haugland’s hands was his second place overall at the Janner Rallye in 1981. Even if the Austrian rally was just a Coefficient 2 ERC round, it was contested in snowy and icy tarmac routes in early January, with such entrants as the local drivers Franz Wittmann and Sepp Haider and the Hungarian Attila Ferjáncz, all with better equipment and far more powerful cars, despite that, Haugland managed to finish second, albeit a massive 20 minutes behind the 4-wheel drive Audi Quattro of Wittmann – it was the competitive debut of the soon-to-be mighty Quattro, doing its ultimate test before the WRC debut for the Monte Carlo. Later that year he took the Group 1 class win at the RAC Rally with the venerable 120 LS.
On the last decade of his career, Haugland put a bigger emphasis on the ultra-competitive British Open Rally Championship, which was by any means a setback on John’s career as the Open’s prestige almost equalled the ERC and was contested by manufacturers and a lot of world-class drivers, including many of the Flying Scandinavians like Mikkola, Blomqvist, Vatanen, Eklund and Toivonen, and the cream of the British field – Jimmy McRae, Russell Brookes, Mark Lovell, Tony Pond, Terry Kaby et al. With the collaboration of Škoda GB, John Haugland soon established himself as one of the favourites for the Group 2 and, since 1983, Group A top placements, usually finishing on the podium of the category, thanks to his traditional smooth style and the so-called “indestructibility” of the Škodas. Then, in 1985, Škoda proceeded to homologate an evolution of the 130 RS, the 130 LR, on Group B. Obviously it wasn’t a prototype like the Lancia, Audi, Peugeot and Ford, rather it was a very conventional model – let’s call it a small Group B, like the Citroën Visa and the Talbot Samba – nevertheless, it was a great improvement for the small manufacturer and provided the men from Mladá Boleslav a lot of class success in minor ERC and British events. However, as on the Open there were a lot of proper Group B’s and very good Group A’s, Haugland didn’t profit properly of this change because the new Škoda couldn’t do more than meddling with the A’s and winning his class, but it was an interesting experience.
With the end of Group B and the abortion of the Group S regulations in 1986, Group A became the top class on the rallying world. Škoda used the 130 L model, which was a top fighter for the A5 class, the one for the smaller engine 2WD Group A cars. Again, Haugland was on the way to the success, winning the aforementioned class on his debut at the Monte Carlo Rally with an honourable 14th place on the final standings. His calendar was mainly focused on UK and Norway and he often took class wins and podiums, but the Iron Curtain was slowly disintegrating, USSR perestroika and glasnost politics leading to the gradual demise of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Months before the Velvet Revolution the men from Mladá Boleslav presented the new Favorit 136L model, a car with more arguments to progress among the Group A ranks. Haugland was entrusted with the development and the British programme once again, and good results on A5 class kept coming, in spite of troublesome debuts; but soon the usual reliability prevailed and Škoda was a force to reckon, something that would be obvious till the middle of the 90’s.
Then, massive popular demonstrations and the general assessment by the different governments of Eastern Europe that their political system wouldn’t prevail much longer fuelled the spark initiated by Gorbachev’s reforms, and during 1989 democracy triumphed in every European country from the “East Block”, the definitive landmark of the demise of Communist dictatorships being the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Czechoslovakian people didn’t wait much, one week later huge protests began and the so-called Velvet Revolution was in course, the regime falling by mid-December. The new authorities immediately started the discussion about complete or partial privatisations of the state-owned companies and Škoda wasn’t an exception. The government met with some of the strongest manufacturers from West Europe and, by the end of 1990 Volkswagen was chosen, buying 30% of the company by April 1991. On the competition department there was a feeling of uncertainty with the future of the rally team, not only due to the incorporation on a different group but also to the sudden economical changes happening at the time. Our man had already 44 years old and all these circumstances led John Haugland to decide for the retirement at the end of 1990.
The following year he was hired by Nissan Motorsport Europe to work on WRC events’ management, holding functions till 1995. Then, Haugland helped several teams on the development of rally cars for one-make Trophies in Norway – Chrysler (1995-1998), Nissan (2000-2004), Peugeot (2005-2008) and Subaru (2009-2010). Meanwhile, he created a Racing School – John Haugland Winter Rally School – soon after his retirement, it didn’t take long to become widely renowned not only in Norway but in the rallying community as a whole, nowadays having protocols with Norwegian and Danish Federations to develop young drivers. Haugland trained and helped a lot of rally newcomers, but also experienced driver that wanted to improve their skills on ice and snow: Richard Burns, Alister McRae, Martin Rowe, Armin Kremer, Henrik Lundgaard, Guy Wilks, Craig Breen and Sepp Wiegand, among others, obviously not forgetting the national talents such as the WRC 2003 Champion Petter Solberg and the IRC 2011 and 2012 Champion Andreas Mikkelsen, nowadays considered as one of the best WRC drivers. Even officially retired, during the nineties, Haugland did some occasional rallies in UK and Czech Republic with old cars, and drove on historical rallies. Nowadays he remains well into the historical rally scene, as well as retaining strong links with Škoda, being usually a guest of honour for a wide range of events in Czech Republic.
It was mentioned before that Haugland’s tie with Škoda was fairly different than the vast majority of the existing driver-manufacturer links, but the modus operandi of the team was also quite unique. John was more than a driver, he acted also as team manager and coordinator, which made him travel between five to eight times a year to Czechoslovakia. Apart from the Czechoslovak rallies, as he raced by Motokov or local dealerships, he was also involved with the organisation of the team. Both the concessionaires and Mladá Boleslav provided mechanics for assistance, but there were some rather… unusual situations, as John recalls: “Concerning the mechanics coming from the East, those events were very important as they travelled to the West and they’re paid in foreign currency. It was needed to be careful with the composition of the team, always trying to choose men with a home, a wife and children, to assure they had the desire to return to Czechoslovakia” [Rallyes Magazine, HS2, p.157].
Beyond these singularities, John says they had very good mechanics and engineers, and it was very easy and agreeable to work with them, which was one of the main bases for such a long and fruitful partnership. Even if the cars were quite production-like and underpowered, with the small 1300cc engines and an output of 120 to 130 bhp, good engineering and careful preparation provided they were extremely reliable and strong class contenders in almost every conditions, as Haugland and his teammates palmares’ prove, they were particularly effective on tarmac as they had good grip, stability and road-holding – the Barum and the Škoda Bohemia Rallies with their fast and irregular tarmac providing the ideal ground for the small Škodas to surpass themselves and fight for the overall win. Interesting to see that Haugland refers to the Lancia Stratos as the best car against which he raced and, when questioned about the fact that the 130 RS and the Porsche 911 being non-traditional rear engine cars, he said that “I competed only with Škoda but I had a chance to drive Porsche 911 quite often and I don’t think they were similar. Škoda 130RS was more similar to Lancia Stratos, it had perfect handling, balance and the back was controllable thanks to the light aluminium engine. (…) In that time Škoda was better competition tool than 911, it was among the best of its time” [Auto.cz interview].
To finish this appreciation on John Haugland’s career let’s quote one of the most interesting answers of him at the Rallyes Magazine interview, precisely the one that was a key to his career and, to the historian’s point of view, THE question the one that made me and many others know him… Certainly it was uncommon for a Scandinavian to drive a Škoda, mainly for such a long period, but as he says: “If I had driven for Saab or Volvo, we wouldn’t be doing this interview! My career would have been short. With Škoda I was all alone. It provided me with a lot of possibilities and allowed me to live almost all my life in this media” [Rallyes Magazine, HS2, p.157]. In fact, if he hadn’t drove for Škoda, he wouldn’t probably appear in this number of Rallyes Magazine, and among such a multitude of ex-works drivers, it would take far too much time to discover his amazing career.
- Special thanks to John Haugland for the (extremely) extensive web-interview.