The Fiat 126p: When Poland Borrowed From Italy To Create A Pop-Culture Icon
Story by Slawomir Poros / Translated by Wojciech Wolczynski
Photography by Romek Rudnicki
Some of us can’t remember the specific beginning of our infatuations with cars, but others have a distinct spark from the past; a first Hot Wheels, a first visit to a race track, or perhaps the glimpse of a Ferrari in the opposite lane. I haven’t retained everything from my childhood—probably because I was notorious for banging my head on things, and for routinely falling out of the trees I climbed. Despite the bumps, one particular memory stuck with me that I can still recall like it was yesterday: the first time I drove Fiat 126p. I drove it on my father’s lap obviously, and the car was Carmine Red. We drove in on a rural road, full of dirt, mud, and a few jumps. It was my first rally special stage too apparently. This was the moment I realized that toy cars could be full-sized. Or close to it in the case of the Fiat.
A Polish Phenomenon
It is one of a million similar stories one might hear in Poland. If you ask a random pedestrian what a Fiat 126p is, responses range from Maluch (“Little One”), Mały Fiat (“Lil’ Fiat”), or Kaszlak (“Cougher,” for the sound of its engine). The “p” portion of its model name suggests the car was wholly built in Poland, and it is certainly a staple of the motorways here. Any random Pole you ask will have driven one at some point in his or her life, or at least have a family member or friend who did. At the moment, the Polish Fiat 126p is regaining some attention, and prices are rising as it’s also becoming harder to find “the good ones.” Even Tom Hanks’ attention was piqued by this little clumsy Fiat, which caused an extreme rise in demand in the United States. But besides all that, why is this little Fiat so well liked?
Built For The Masses, en Masse
In the ’70s Poland was under the socialistic leadership of Edward Gierek, who was in search of a car that would suit the needs of the masses and motorize the country. They chose the little Italian Fiat 126 to do it, the successor to the 500 (Cinquecento) with which it shared chassis, suspension, and initially also some engine parts. Assembly began in July of 1973, and the cars were built in Poland by two factories: one in Bielsko-Biała (1973-2000), and another in Tychy (1975-1991).
The Polish government had to pay for the license from Fiat to build before any of this, so how they did it? They simply agreed that Poland would build the engines and transmissions for the Italian 126 models assembled in Italy. In the late ‘70s this agreement caused strikes from Italian trade unions in opposition to this outsourcing, as at the time Italy struggled with rising unemployment. In effect. production of the Italian 126 was stalled in 1980, meanwhile in Poland demand was still strong. So strong in fact that production continued 20 years after the Italian assembly lines stopped. The last Polish factory halted production in 2000, but for 27 combined years, those two Polish factories built a reported 3,318,674 little Fiats for Poland and plenty of other countries, including China, New Zealand, Egypt, even Cuba!
Waiting For A Friend
Owning a 126p was a dream of many Poles, and it was one of the most popular cars of its time. Of course, that’s primarily because socialistic Poland did not offer the widest variety! Poland, in the ’70s, was a very closed country and one that fell under a lot of influence from the USSR nearby. To buy anything from a retail shop you had to queue in front of the store and wait for a couple hours to get in, and once you did you could be forced to leave with nothing if that’s all that was left. The 126p had a retail price of 69,000 PLN, but you couldn’t just go into a showroom and pick one up—you had to be allowed to do so. The average citizen commonly waited years for his or her “allocation.” Thus the new owner of a little Fiat was able to go straight away and sell it for double of official price!
A Different Kind of Power
The little engine’s capacity of precisely 594cc (652cc beginning in 1977, 704cc in the restyle) producing 23 horsepower, less than 600kg of curb weight, rear-wheel drive, a four-speed manual gearbox—seems like a recipe for true road warrior, if not the most powerful. It was fun to drive, with the Fiat’s air-cooled engine mounted behind its rear axle (just like a 911!) making the car pretty unstable and tricky to control when unsettled. It differs from a Porsche in more than a few ways though, one of them being that the windshield wiper spray works by operating a little pump on the dashboard. Today we are so accustomed to comfortable travel and amenities that it’s hard to imagine that 30 years ago people used to use three-meter-long, 1.3-meter-wide Fiats with no air conditioning to go on vacation with four people and their luggage. I remember my family trips in the Maluch well; we would pack it up to the roof with luggage and nobody would complain about the space!
Qualities and Quirks
The 126p had a lot of notable qualities. First of all, it was nimble. It had go-kart-like steering, and 0-50 km/h felt like you were in an F1 car if you wanted it to. It had its quirks too of course. It used to break unexpectedly, and I can’t even count how many times I had to bump start it or just plain push it, but the most unnerving process in the whole “user experience” was starting it up. There are two levers to do it, placed right under the handbrake. One of them is the choke, the other is “start,” a system derived from the Fiat 500. The problem was the starter line was usually ripped, so you had to improvise and they were often replaced with a wooden stick. Notorious failure points were also the cast iron joint connectors and the electrical wiring system.
Perhaps what it’s most known for though is the unique tone of its tiny two-cylinder engine. To many Poles, it’s a sound as iconic as a Ferrari V12 might be for Italians, or an BMW straight-six for Germans. But in contrast to those beautiful sounds, this the noises from this one are like the coughs of the elderly. It may be unpleasant, but I love it!
I’ve become an amateur rallying fan recently and have had the chance to speak to plenty of people who’ve been racing for a while, often asking them “What should I start with?” Almost all of them answered: ” Maluch!” Indeed, it is a good choice. Maintenance is easy, you can service it quickly, it’s light (In rally stage conditions you’d only need three people to put in on its side in case you needed quick access to the undercarriage), and with some slight mechanical modifications, it can be quite fast. As the recently passed Polish racing legend Krzysztof “Szaja” Szajkowski used to say, “God did not invent a car for it to be front-wheel drive.” Heeding that, the Fiat 126p would feature on many a rally stage, domestically as well as internationally.
In 1975 the Polish rally driver, Sobiesław Zasada, with his co-driver Longin Bielak, tested the Maluch’s capabilities along the winter sub-stages of the Rallye Monte-Carlo, but without a dedicated development center or financial support, the Fiat 126p never achieved any spectacular rally wins. Despite that it was still a common choice for young adepts of the sport honing their skills.
I just love this car. There are some cars that we just grow into more and more despite how small they may be. The 126p is total nostalgia—it reminds me of my childhood, a time of pure freedom and life without any problems. It was a time when instead of online multiplayer games I was more likely to meet up with my friends in person. We would climb trees together, and it seemed the last thing I saw before yet another fall from that day’s climb was a Fiat 126p. It’s very simple in its construction, so simple that you can repair it wherever it stops using a set of toy tools. It’s longstanding position on Polish roadways and in Polish neighborhoods made hte little Fiat a symbol of the country, and even though many say it factually is an Italian car that was only manufactured in Poland, I think that this is a perfect symbol for the Polish car industry. Whatever it is, it defined our automotive pop culture, and it continues to do so.