After World War Two, Poland was given over to the the Soviet Union. While times were not great and the communist ideology locked away my homeland, there was something that everyone had. A car. Almost everyone, anyway. To celebrate Poland's 100th Year of Independence (Bit late, I know. It was the 11/11/18), here are two of the most iconic cars that were Polish and that I have a deep connection with.
I have a particular connection with this car. It's very interesting. On the outside, it might look like any other saloon from the Eastern Bloc but it is something quite exciting. Firstly, it's rear wheel drive. What does that mean for the ordinary Pole? Winter drifting. Driver safety features like ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System) or TC (Traction Control) were nowhere to be seen for another few decades, so there was nothing stopping anyone from kicking out the backside of this pale brute.
It was licensed by Fiat to be produced by a company called FSO (Fabryka Samochodow Osobowych). That translated to Passenger Car Factory. Very exciting and original name, I know. But, I suppose excitement and something like ''Ferrari'' or ''Cadillac'' sounded too exciting and capitalist for the communists, so it had to be something bland and terrible. That is, however, in deep contrast to the car.
It wasn't that unsafe, to be fair. Of course it's nowhere near as safe as even a small (but new) car these days, but back in the 70s and 80s this thing was pretty tough, made from resistant soviet metals. Very good. If you happened to see one of these things, you were probably in danger. Or, someone from your area was. Why? The Militia had them. Like this one:
If you say this, someone you know from the locality was probably in trouble. Probably for selling Marlboro imports from the USA.
If you saw one of these blue beasts, you had to beware. You never knew who they were after. All of this is what my father says, being someone who lived through communism in the early 70s and up to '89. He had one, too. But, it was gone before I was born. However, I did travel in it. Inside the womb of my mother. In fact, I was in that car when they had an accident. A car ahead of my father was indicating left to, presumably, drive into the driveway of his home. My father proceed to overtake the now-very-slow Fiat 126p (More on that later) but instead of turning left as indicated, he decided to turn right into the opposite driveway. It got T-Boned, and was smashed to pieces by the communist car some twenty metres. Somehow, my father says, all of the occupants of that little 126p made it out unscathed. Everyone inside the 125p was fine, but the car was dead. The engine sustained severe damage and the small city car trashed it. Not even the best of the Soviet Union's steel could protect it's heart from failure. Shame.
This was all while I was inside my pregnant mother at around 4 months into the pregnancy. So, I suppose I felt the shake to some extent. It did have seatbelts, so I was protected. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't be here to tell the tale. What was a deep shame was the fact that it was modified. It had a four-speed manual transmission as opposed to the standard three-speed. It was a sort of 'Rally-spec'' 125p, with slightly higher clearance, a loud exhaust and a bigger engine than standard. Apparently, it easily challenged a 525i from the same era. Shocking. But, it makes sense. It was light, rear-wheel drive like the BMW and it had the manipulated gear ratios to help with acceleration. Front wheels were equipped with disc brakes with four-pot calipers while rear brakes were alloy drums. Ohh and power steering? You wish. I dream that it lived on so that I could experience the thrill of driving it myself.
Engine Capacity: 1295-1481cc
Engine Power: 60-74HP
Engine Torque: 93-112Nm
And now we move onto the Porsche 911. Seriously. Read on and you'll understand.
The Fiat 126p was nicknamed the 'Maluch' which, in Polish, means ''The Small One'' or ''Little One''. It makes sense, because the proportions match the name. It's exactly the same size as the original Mini. It was also the replacement of the Fiat 500, debuting at the Turin Auto Show in 1972. It was produced right up until 2000 by Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych, meaning ''The Small Capacity Passenger Car Factory''. Again, communist leadership shows of it's wonderful sense of humour and joy.
4,673,655 units were produced in the Fiat's wonderful lifespan, and they were all 911s. Now, I should probably explain this. Traditionally, we know that the 911 was rear-engined and rear-wheel drive. This often lead to freightening handling and easily produced oversteer. Now, you see, the 126P was also rear-engined and rear-wheel drive. So, when the harsh winters of my homeland came, they were not boring ones. Oh no. It was fun, and with the added weight onto the rear-axle it was truly a fun little thing to chuck around with mates, showing off while completing the male sacrament of handbrake turns.
My father also owned one of these. Or so he says, but it was actually a car that belonged to my nan. She drove it daily to work in the communist world. It was easy to park, with great visibility and a great fuel economy figure of...who knows. But, it was frugal. That's for sure. It was white, just like the one pictured. I suspect anything other than white was a bit expensive to make. You could also have beige or... yeah, no, thats it. Eventually other colours came, post-communism.
I was actually around and remember my nan's 126P. Many trips to church (Not my favourite activity) on Sundays were often in the little Fiat and there was no concept of seatbelt in those days. So, if you could somehow sit yourself and three children on the back bench, you did. And nobody cared. Not even the pesky Militia. It had quite a simple interior, really. Literally bog standard stuff. In fact, the battery of the car was too small for the low-power alternator that wasn't sufficient for the battery. It was so bad that the company offered an upgrade to a bigger one for better cold-start abilities in the winters. Basically, the car was never fully-charged unless you drove a great deal of kilometres daily. But, many people worked on the cars themselves because they were a piece of very, very simple engineering. You'd think that duct tape or a hammer do very little for an engine. In the case of the Maluch, however, they were very useful indeed. Often, if it broke down, you could fix it with things you carry around yourself or even your bare hands. Truly a friendly car to own.
Fun Fact: Tom Hanks has one. It was a gift to him, from a Polish town. Go figure!