Essay : Not their finest hour – FSO/Polski-Fiat 125P

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Once upon a time, there was a car for every pocket and Eastern Bloc cars reigned supreme right through the 1970s  and ’80s.

Skoda and Lada at one point held an impressive share of the market, but some Iron Curtain cars seemed to have no redeeming features what so ever… rather like this one!

Words: Mike Humble


Automotive Apocalypse or Communist Charm?

The cheapest saloon in the UK - But an expensive sacrifice all the same!
The cheapest saloon in the UK - But an expensive sacrifice all the same!

Over the past 35 years, we have seen our motor industry go from a global empire involved with the production of pretty much everything from fork lift trucks through to construction Earth movers. British Leyland had its finger in almost every metaphorical pie so to speak, and along the way they sometimes tripped up and dropped a clanger.

Cars like the Allegro and Maxi for example could and should have been, winning cars but bloody mindedness and a fatal lack of investment robbed the cars of any real hope. The Marina as another example, was designed to be nothing more than a dependable four door saloon to battle with the Avenger and Cortina, but once again, by no means a deliberate rotten car, just strangled by internal politics, dismal management and public apathy.

The common market opened the flood gates for cheap imported cars notably from Datsun, Toyota and Renault. British owners who were sick and tired of strikes, bad quality and unreliable cars quite rightly voted with their feet and walked away from home grown brands. Soon, even the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations jumped on the bandwagon, introducing their ultra cheap cars in the UK and in the case of Lada, managed to hold onto a fair sized chunk of the British market for the best part of 20 years.

The key to their success was by offering no frills cars with a decent warranty, selling through a network of hand picked family dealers who all seemed to offer unheard levels of customer satisfaction – and it worked. But one Communist car was horrid at any price – The FSO 125P.

In a similar vain to the Lada 1200/1500/1600 range, the Polish FSO 125P was based on elderly Fiat designs dating back to the 1960`s and in fact had been a bona fide joint venture with Fiat from the outset. For some time, the FSO 125P had in fact been the cheapest new car you could buy in the UK, but pricing aside, I’m struggling to think of any other unique selling point this dreadful car possessed.

Both Lada and Skoda shared a reasonable dealer network and made equally reasonable attempts to make them palatable for human consumption in terms of equipment and after sales support. FSO on the other hand, opted to have a rather weak dealer network scattered around places the Ordnance Survey team had never heard of, one dealer I knew of was in a tiny Hamlet called Thurlow in Suffolk (Pop: 3½)

For those who never experienced the misery of piloting one of these crude lumps, I’ll stick my neck on the Eastern Bloc (ahem), by stating that rubbing your forehead along an Artexed wall had a similar, if not marginally better appeal. Whereby both the Lada and Skoda both featured all round coil springs and in a straight line had some form of composure, the FSO lurched and bounced like a de-railed train thanks to the rear leaf springs and intolerably stiff front double wishbone set up.

The gigantic bake-o-lite steering wheel could well have been connected to the radio, as no amount of pulling or turning made any real difference in the direction of travel. In its favour, the 125P did have a decent sized boot, the estate version was capacious and leg room was commendable thus making the FSO a choice for cut price mini cab firms.

This is not a black and white photo - It really was this bleak in the Warsaw plant of FSO

The interior was similar to the exterior; stark, basic and bereft of any style which re-kindled childhood memories of Corporation Buses – acres of vinyl and exposed metal allied with the smell of an old hot water bottle. Sliding into the shapeless driver’s seat, you were greeted to a dashboard similar to an old Viva with a horizontal strip type speedometer that flicked and twitched like a dying butterfly.

The long thin gear lever adorned with a rubber gaiter and snooker ball type knob, sat in the palm of your hand vibrating like the floor controls on a dumper truck, whilst turning the key started up the antiquated pushrod four with a soundtrack akin to collapsing scaffolding. Oddly enough, moderate cruising was reasonably refined but press on a little bit more and things got scary as you battled with Cutty Sark like steering and brick wall aerodynamics.

For some years, they sold in the UK for just £2999 – so what did you get for your money? Well, not a great deal really, later models featured a five speed gearbox but that was about your whack. Plastic seats, rubber flooring, no wireless and more exposed metal than Corus Redcar – the FSO 125P in 1.3- or 1.5-litre guise were nothing more than an umbrella for five people. Shocking build quality and an alarming propensity to rust away thanks to the poorest quality steel available, banished most of these cars to the crusher long before its 10th birthday. On the plus side, they were roomy, simple to repair and like the Lada, happy to shrug off life’s bumps and knocks, but in a nutshell, its price was the only redeeming feature.

The 125 Pick Up sold in fairly respectable numbers in the UK - Cost being the only key factor.

My own experiences with FSO confirm how shocking a car could be. Firstly, a Rover dealer I worked at begrudgingly took a used one in as a trade against something newer. A cheeky sales manager ended up selling the car off our pitch, but agreed to supply a full MoT. The car was just under three years old and had small mileage but ended up costing some hard cash as it sat on a ramp for two days requiring brake callipers, ball joints, brake pipes and if I recall – a new steering box.

The other time involved a tightfisted friend of my Father who bought a new one and asked me fit a wireless and speaker combo. Threading the wires through the doors for the speakers, I reached in to pull the cables through and ended up gashing my knuckle open on a bad weld – it bled quite seriously and I still have the scar to prove it.


As a final note: I fondly remember a well known motoring magazine with a section called The Good – The Bad & The Ugly describing the car as the following:

FSO 125P

For: Quad headlamps
Against:
Everything Aft

 

  • Timeline: 1967 to 1992
  • Total Production: 1.5 million
  • Engine/Transmission: 1.3- or 1.5-litre with four- or five-speed manual
  • Body Types: Four-door saloon, five-door estate, three-door van, and two-door pick-up

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

100 Comments

  1. And yet they still survive in far harsher conditions in Eastern Europe…

    I suspect the biggest problem in the UK was that the people who tended to own them didn’t bother maintaining such a cheap, low-rent car properly, while the only demographic who did really look afteir their downmarket cars – ie pensioners – would have bought something smaller.

  2. God, I miss the old CAR GBU “For/Against” Writeups.

    And sorting the cars into “interesting” and “boring”.

  3. The Italian 125 was an outstandingly good car in its time – the mid ’60s. Quite a bit was lost in translation to Poland, but I can’t help feeling that the usual formula of decent tyres and shocks, and a bit of general tightening-up would have gone a long way to restore the deficit.

    The Polski Fiat 125 used the 1300-1500’s pushrod polyspheric combustion chamber engine, rather than the Italian version’s twin-cam, credited to Aurelio Lampredi. In his late ’70s biography, Dante Giacosa wrote that the older engine was the equal or superior of any comparable engine, even now. Possibly a sly swipe at Lampredi, who succeeded him as Fiat Auto’s director of engineering.

  4. I was about to suggest that there might still be a market in the UK for very cheap, honest transport at a time of recession. Then I thought of the huge interest in the MINI and remembered how much the world has changed. There really is nothing anywhere like the PolskiFiat now!

  5. @4. Your right. Look at the elctrical industry and the loverly brands we had back in the 80’s which broke if you breathed on them. Nowdays the cheap electrical appliances are not much worse than the expensive stuff.

    Image is everything now, thats why the kids who come to my college wear labels even when they are doing engineering or construction courses, and the girls have more makeup on than Boots – I think they use a trowel to put it on!.

    I remember the old FSO Polenz, which was the same car in drag – with a heavy fastback body! My neighbour had one when I was a kid and rusted away badily after 4 years – he replaced with a Lada Samarra what a mug!

  6. There was a FSO pick up in a back lot of a local Citroen dealer. It was a couple of years old, originally for sale. I sure it was in the same spot for over 10 years slowly dissolving.

  7. @7 Because although they looked the same they were not – the cars were re-engineered with different suspension and engines. Also these cars were released considerably later than the Fiat – it had done well in the 60’s while Lada and FSO were launching them on us in the 70’s and 80’s when cars had moved on leaps and bounds.

  8. @ Will M (No7)

    Mainly as Robert mentions, the one huge factor that gave Fiat the edge as t`wer, namely… zingy revvy engines were not carried over. This left the engineers to at best, copy said power units without the components like Weber carbs or more reliable Marelli ignition components.

    To be fair though, both FSO & Lada featured forgiving engines that would take a good hiding and run on any type of lubricant known to mankind – even KY jelly I`d guess.

    I was once told that you got the best out of a Lada or Polski engine by running it on the thickest gloop you could find because the tollerences were so wayward. I once tried to run my Riva 1300 (belt ohc) on a quality semi synth 10/40 and ended up with really low oil pressure.

    Drained it out and poured in what resembled the contents of a chip fryer and healthy pressure was resumed and it ran as happy as Larry.

    Like I stated, they were nothing more than a metal umbrella – you paid nothing for it – ran it for nothing – sold it for nothing… thus loosing nothing!

  9. @4

    What about the Dacia Logan then? They sell huge numbers of those cars in Europe afaik and they are pretty good basic cars imo…

    Also, I’m pretty sure picture 2 is in fact black-and-white, if it really was a coulour picture the indicaters should be orange I think…

  10. @ Bob (10)

    The restyled Polonez became the Caro, and as you say, featured the 1.4 K series in MPi form. The other engine option was the PSA sourced 1.9 XUD diesel both cobbled up to a Peugeot sourced gearbox I`m almost certain!

    • I’m not sure about the Peugeot gearbox unless it came from a rear-drive Peugeot such as the 504 or 505. I know that the XUD engine only ever saw light of day in the 205, 305, 306, 309, 405, and 406 models, all of them front-driven. And yest the K-series Rover engine was also used in later Polonez models, and I believe so too was a similarly-configured (double camshaft and 4 valve-per-cylinder) Petrol unit from GM, which came about as a result of a tie-up with Daewoo in the last days of FSO.

  11. Does anybody remember the 1st ever of the relaunched Top Gear when Lotus took a Lada and made it into an insain GTI with good handling and performance? or am I dreaming?

  12. The 125 was based upon the earlier Fiat 1500 and therefore inherited the antiquated leaf srung rear suspension etc. Whereas the 124 was a new design. However they both shared similar styling. This is the main reason why the Lada is better than the the FSO.

  13. According to The A-Z of Cars of the !970s the Polski Fiat used a lot of 1500 parts that Fiat didn’t licence.

    The TV version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy features what appears to be a Polski Fiat, but was actually a 124.

  14. The Polski must be the most useful car for old Fiat lovers. The body serve as spare parts for your 125, while the engine can move your 1500!

    In short, originally first it was the 124. Fiat was developing at time an Alfa Romeo Giulia beater, as reaction to the fact that Alfa was developing the Alfasud, hence moving towards Fiat territory. But this Giulia/Alfetta beater, that we knew as the 132, was getting late, in fact just arrived in 1972, so they needed a car to fill the gap meanwhile.

    As the Lampredi bialbero engines were already available, Fiat fit the 1600cc variant of the engine over the 1500C platform (2505mm wheelbase compared to the 2420mm of the 124, Lada and friends) and the body style of the 124, a 5 speed gearbox and 4 dic breaks around and, voilá! Now Alfa had a new contender.

  15. I remember one of my neighbours buying a green Polski-Fiat when I was a kid in the mid-70s. In a street generally filled with 3-4 yr old 2nd hand Vivas, Victors, Cortinas, Maxis and Allegros, his was the only brand new car. Green it was. Rattled like buggery when he started it from cold!

  16. The CAR mag verdict would read “Hideous”, I see the Polski photos show it standing in front of an Ilyushin 62 aircraft of LOT Airlines. I remember flying in one of those from Warsaw in 1978

  17. As a too young to drive lad, I always much prefered the Lada offering.

    Bloody hell! The Wartburg! Aged about 8 years, I remember a tiny ‘dealer’ in a small Cumbrian village by the name of Pica. Ring any bells with anyone?

  18. The UK importer for FSO was based here in Stafford, the guy now imports little foreign Caravans and sells them from the former Charles Clark (Hartwell) showrooms at Queensville. His Merc even has the private plate FSO 5.

  19. One of our neighbours had an orange 125P which he had for years. He barely went out in it though, and can’t say I blame him. I pity the poor Ford dealer that took it in part ex for the brand new Fiesta Popular Plus 950 he replaced it with. One thing I do remember on FSO’s, no external boot release, but the panel still had a recess where the lock would normally be

  20. The 125 used the 124s doors which never quite looked right given the gap between the rear ones and the wheelarch due to that longer wheelbase.

  21. I remember buying a 1984 FSO 1300 for £100 in the early ’90s. It was a part-ex that a local dealer didn’t dare put on his forecourt.

    During the months that I owned it, it was fantastically reliable and amazingly comfy – but was also absurdly heavy to drive, as well as ‘boasting’ the noisiest engine I’d ever experienced in a saloon.

    I eventually re-MoT’d it when the time came, and sold it for about 20 quid profit, if I remember rightly. Body-wise it was okay … as long as you didn’t look too carefully at the inner front wings, which were largely made of poorly applied body filler.

    Still, it was all good fun while it lasted … in a slightly masochistic kind of way.

  22. @PaulG

    The FSO I drove when I had to do the MOT work was quite possibly the noisest thing I had driven with the exception of when my Riva snapped it’s downpipe.

    But as you say, they were good “craick” in a masochistic fashion!

  23. When I was at school in the mid – late 80’s my mate’s dad had a hearing aid – beige colour FSO 125 estate version. He ran a newsagent and this car gave a decent length of service for them and was perfect for transporting both the family (my mate was one of three) and stock for the shop, so whilst not the most dynamic of cars, this one at least had an appreciative home and served well. When my wife and I were looking to move house three years ago we looked at a house in a cul de sac and just further up a neighbouring house had a pick up version of the 125 that looked like it had seen better days, and was converted into a motor home. Does anyone know what the initials FSO stands for?

  24. When they were first introduced in the UK, Motor did a full test and gave it a very good report. We looked at one at the Motor Show and the quality then was good – it even had little red door marker lights.
    Many years I had an 11-year old E registered one, and it was indeed awful. I’m sure the quality etc. deteriorated over the years, and relatively they got much cheaper.

  25. I once made the dreadful mistake of taking a mate of not long acquaintance’s advice of buying a Polonez from a friend of his for a song. It was an F reg, and 7 years old with only 40,000 miles on the clock, and seemed an absolute bargain at about £250 due to clutch failure, although it was still drivable, if you didn’t mind the smell of burning, and being overtaken by pensioners on bicycles. The top of the front wings were rusted through.

    The car had interesting steering. There was there a considerable amount of play before you could begin attempting any navigational changes (about half a mile before any corner) but if any retardation was necessary (assuming you’d built up any speed beforehand) you had to rely on that car’s only claim to relative sophistication for the price, which was all-round disc brakes, which were identically sized front and rear. To no great effect. And the garage who serviced it said they couldn’t do anything to make the lousy carburettor work any better.

    Anyway, after a work shift from hell I overtook myself on the way home when the car randomly went from what seemed like terminal understeer to oversteer. Remembering not to brake and to steer into a skid (this was my first car) I managed to damage only the front wing, headlight, and cause more play in the already knackered steering mechanism (think it was worm and ball).

    Another alarming trait was that the passenger door would swing open at random moments, as the lock had no detent mechanism to prevent this. Swerving to try to avoid hitting parked cars would only cause the door to swing wider, making the chance of hitting said parked car more likely. So I had to loop the seatbelt around the door handle to stop it happening.

    I seem to remember that despite it being a hatchback, the rear seat didn’t fold, but I may be mistaken about that.

    Anyway, a bloody awful car, followed by an early Escort Mk3, which wasn’t a tremendous improvement.

  26. @ 5 daveh iteresting comment…yes frustrating times its hard to pick something to be durable and long lasting these days, our 7 year old fridge broke down the other day and not worth repair. we have another fridge in the basement and its what 40 years old and it goes and it goes and it goes……but it seems today….dont count on anything being good quality…(today qaulity seems to relate to features not durability)….cant tell me thats good for the enironment with its “4(out of 5) star energy rating”. alex

  27. If anyone really wants one there’s a pickup version languishing in a field along with an A30 and mark III Escort near Tamworth.

  28. In 1973 I hired a year-old Polski-Fiat 125p 1300 in Poland. On the standard crossplies it had a mind of its own, especially in the wet. The wire in the driver’s side window winder broke and, knowing very little Polish, I had some difficulty getting it repaired – eventually with the assistance of a Ukrainian taxi driver who spoke German even worse than mine. At the time I owned the first of two Fiat 127s, not the best for build quality but infinitely better than the Polish offering.
    Incidentally a Polish acquaintance tells me there were three finish levels for 125ps: the best for Party bosses, the middle for the (rather rare) private buyers and the worst for hire cars, which didn’t surprise me.

  29. @Marty B. (#27)- later models had the boot-lid lip smoothed out, to get rid of that silly recess, where the lock once was.

    This vehicle actually had practically NO local, Polish input. It really was a lash-up of the old 1300/1500 (v.early 1960s) and the 125 proper. Most of the interior – dash, controls, etc. – as well as its principal mechanicals, such as the Aurelio Lampredi 1300/1500 ohv units of the ‘previous generation,’ were all substituted for genuine 125 items. Being Polish myself, I tend to believe the stories from “My Lot,” that FIAT, in 1967, was NOT keen to “let go of” any “modern” bits of the car – if it could help it – and, in return for “an understanding” (i.e. back-hander to corrupt Polish govt official), FSO was “convinced” to accept “substitute items” throughout the car.

    So, effectively, it’s a bit of a close judgment-call in deciding whether it’s this car’s really an ancient 1300/1500 in a slightly more modern frock, or a 125 that’s been hollowed out and filled with 1300/1500 innards.

    There was a mere year’s difference between the 124 and the 125 that followed (1966/67) and VAZ (Lada), likewise, received a somewhat cruder car than the FIAT original.

    The FSO has a special place in my heart, as it was the 1st ever car I drove – @14y.o. along forest roads, in PL – and then @16y.o. I had official driving-lessons in, in PL. Comfy and …… relatively refined – well, for an C.&E. European car, anyway. Though handling and acceleration-wise, were pretty abysmal – even for a greenhorn teenager.

    I was chauffeur for a buddy’s wedding and piloted a Polonez 1500 all day long – the only things in its favour were the comfort, space, solidity and ….. looks (OK, so I was a tad immature).

    The 1.4 K-series remains a v.much loved variant in PL and the car itself actually has a bit of a semi-cult following to this day.

    The Polonez – i.e. the FSO 125p in drag – was manufactured in PL by Daewoo until 2002, whilst the Polonez’s commercial version soldiered on until 2003, even after the demise of Daewoo itself, after which it was finally pensioned-off.

    P.S. Oh, and that pose in front of an Ilyshin Il-62M – that’s the type that crashed in Russia 2 years ago, killing a large part of Poland’s ruling elite.
    P.P.S. Following FIAT’s abortive attempt to set up manufacturing facilities in Poland in 1920, it wasn’t until 1932 that the first Polish-made “Polski FIATs” rolled off the production lines. Today, Poland still continues to build FIATs – yes, for you too, UK!

  30. @Chris (#35)- Yep, too right about the rear-seat NOT folding down in this hatchback! DOH! … DOH!!! But, to be fair, that was only the case on the earliest models. So, only a venial sin!

    Poles today, ‘admire’ the old “Poldek” for its solidity and crashworthiness as well as its saving grace of being extremely cheap to run (many today are retro-fitted for LPG) thanks to its mechanical simplicity and wonderful ease-of-maintenance (late, Daewoo-made, were pretty-well screwed-together) – and, not forgetting, also for its security/anti-theft features. Basically, NO-ONE would ever contemplate stealing one!

  31. @Ritchie B, I owned a FIAT 126 Bis for a while back in the mid-00’s.

    When the first wave of Polish workers came over to Northern Ireland around 2005 I used to get waved at from building sites and random Polish guys would come over to me and the car when parked and chat about how it was their first car and that they called it a Maluch, they couldn’t believe that it had made it as far as Northern Ireland. A local car wash I use is owned by a Pole and I never had to pay when I took the 126 to him, still visit now in my FIAT Panda 100HP and I get discount as it was built in Poland too. 🙂

    This was my wee car in action – http://youtu.be/CPlDNXjYrZI

    Jonathan

  32. Its a funny world. How we all laugh at these crude, cheap and nasty cars. Yet BL were making such splendid cars that we didn’t buy them and so the company died a long and slow death.
    As a kid, my parents went from Mini (scrapped due to rust at 5 yrs old – uneconomic to fix and last BL car) to a Lada, because of the unexpected demise of the Mini – bigger but style-less, sold at 5 yo, to a Ford, where they have stayed ever since.

  33. On whatver day the G prefix registration came out, I saw a day old Polonez being towed away in the Birmingham rush hour.

    We need a feature on Wartburgs and Trabants and then when that has got us salivating the mighty Tatra!

  34. Thanks, Jonathan McC.- that’s just simply superb! Great to hear. I’ve fond recollections of that estate at Cultra and spent hours drooling at the transport collection nearby.
    My local milkman was using a 125p pick-up for a number of years and also there was a period of a good few years, when a crowd of my town’s Hackney-Cab drivers all bought themselves a 125p ….. Premier Motors of Mossley must’ve been having a clearance sale, I reckon.
    I can’t remember if I’ve already put this on our AROnLine FB page previously, but here’s one of my all-time fave Commie-car vids (right alongside there, with Top Gear’s/Clarkson’s gut-bustingly deadpan Commie-car “review”).
    I, too, am a huge Tatra fan and start salivating at the sight and sound of one. I’m totally mesmerised each time I watch this Commie vid ….. the nonchalantly cool, white-glove-clad Secret-Service driving that heavy beast so effortlessly ….. the cute, svelte Czech babe sat next to him. I guess if you were a cold and ruthless, but faithful party-hack, then life for you didn’t necessarily have to meen cabbages, beetroot and a shot-putter wife:

  35. No 24, David Dawson, I live in Whitehaven, Cumbria, part of the time and the Wartburg dealer you’re referring to is now a motorbike dealer. I do vaguely recall it being a Wartburg Knight showroom, but can’t remember who owned it.
    FSOs locally were sold by Leonard Stout in a pint sized showroom that became a snooker hall in the mid eighties when Mr Stout sold up probably due to the embarassment of selling such awful cars.
    Your local Lada people were Tinnion Brothers of Aspatria, who also held the Reliant franchise almost to the bitter end. This was a much more professional outfit with a decent size showroom and a paternalistic attitude to the customers and only gave up their dealership when they became too old.

  36. I’m too young to have a first-hand experience, but as far as I could gather from various sources, both online and magazines, the ‘original’ Fiat 125 indeed was a very good car and enjoyed a discrete sales success, although it was – as #10 Rodrigo correctly pointed out – a stop-gap model while the 132 project was in progress. Fiat – or better speaking, Mr Dante Giacosa – was able to create a new model using little more than the in-house parts bin; the 125’s body kept the 124’s central section, not unlike BMC did with their 1800/3-Litre/Maxi.
    I dare say that the intended big saloon replacement, the 132, was in the end less popular than the 125 – the newer car seemed old from its debut and its derivative the Argenta was nothing more than an also-ran.
    Back into topic, I read somewhere about an Italian customer who had been a very happy 125 owner and, at a time when it went out of production, managed somehow to have a 125p imported to him – only to discover it was quite different from the original design. Unsurprisingly he was absolutely disappointed with the 125’s Polish twin and voiced out his remarks to a car magazine, only to face the truth – poor chap!

    Anyway the Poles quite know their stuff when it comes to making cars – at present, Fiat Auto Poland in Tychy (formerly FSM) is said to be the best among FGA plants. Currently they make the 500, Mk2 Panda (Mk3 is being assembled back here in former AlfaRomeo plant at Pomigliano d’Arco – fingers crossed…) and the current generation Ford Ka which runs on Panda underpinnings.

    In the mid-70’s, Fiat 126 production was entirely moved from Italy to FSM – with good results, as the Poles were quite keen on this little car, modernising a lot of components and introducing the 3-door 126 BIS with a flat water-cooled engine – and a real rear luggage compartment! Quite a good job they did if you ask me.
    I’ve seen some crazy videos on YT lately showing Fiat 126s with snow ploughs fitted – and what makes me smile is, they actually work…

  37. For all they are as different as chalk and cheese, surely the Fiat Panda continues the FSO tradition of making very affordable cars. However, a Panda Twin Air is light years ahead of the tractor like FSO 1300.

  38. Simon79

    About the 126 BIS, I’ve seen pictures from the Autosoviet site that the Polish made a stillborn pick-up, estate and even lengthened / stretched prototype versions of the 126 as well as managing to convert the 126 BIS into a front-engined front-wheel-drive prototype!

    It is quite amazing really how many ground-breaking stillborn prototypes were built yet never produced in Eastern Europe / Russia behind the Iron Curtain (due to lack of money or other political reasons) and as a car enthusiast, I cannot help but wonder how things would have turned out had Eastern Europe not fallen under Communism.

  39. Back in the day a young lady I was stepping out with had one of these given to her on her 18th Birthday. I have three memories of it, doing a 360 on the Aston Express way(Spaghetti Junction), the brake caliper falling off on a steep hill and a rather enjoyable private moment which still induces a cufflink rattling session to this day.

  40. Tychy also makes the Lancia / Chrysler Ypsilon – the modern day White Hen. Which means an interesting choice, a Nuova Panda made in the Alfasud factory, or a Polish-built Lancia. Chrysler’s ‘aggressive’ pricin policy means the two are closely matched.

  41. @40 (Richie B) Agree (sort of) about your comment about the Polonez’s crash worthiness- was surprised to have sustained so little damage given the speed of my prang- by comparison, I crashed my first ABS equipped car (an early Audi A4- the most dissappointing car I’ve ever owned- poorly developed handling, indifferent build quality, dodgy locking system, an alarm that went off repeatedly in the small hours for no reason, over-servoed brakes, flacid steering and gearchange, uncomfortable seats, and a 1.8 engine which was too vocal at speed and prone to either ‘bogging down’or caused excessive wheelspin when accellerating from standstill. Not to mention very poor traction, such that twice on mountain lanes it wouldn’t go round a tight low-speed hairpin due to lack of grip). At the time I didn’t know that ABS wasn’t supposed to work on virgin snow even at 15mph- which came as news to me- bad news- as was the £3500 worth of damage. At least when it was repaired it looked good when stationary.

    By comparison with the FSO, which was crashed at much higher speed (around 40mph rather than 15 with the Audi), the only damage was the already rusty front wing, front grille, and a flat radial rear tyre- that a previous owner had, very dangerously, fittet with an inner tube.

    So it was quite easy to repair, using a wing from a scrapped one, but the grille I seem to remember was held on with something like 30 tiny screws- so ridiculously time-consuming to replace, and no doubt to build in the first place.

  42. I reverse my comments that all eastern european cars were naff – I forgot the loverly Tatras! Great cars. Imagine what they could have been if they been built in the west!

  43. @55- daveh, Tatra still make trucks, using Euro 5 rated air-cooled diesels of their own devising, and unusual spine chassis with portal axles, giving them teriffic off-road ability. Shame they don’t sell them in the UK, as they’d make teriffic tippers.

    As you probably know, the VW Beetle was a blatant rip-off of prewar Tatras, designed by Hans Ledwinka, who’s son Erich designed the Austrian Steyr Haflinger and Pinzgauer- the latter is better known in the UK. Both used the spine chassis and portal axles. The Pinz was a far more sophisticated forward-control offroader than the Landie 101, and was in production (latterly in the UK) until fairly recently. The Pinz in particular shows what Czech engineers could achieve when given adequate resources.

  44. @56 Chris – I know about the trucks – it was the mainstay of the business, cars were always the side business. The 600 Tatraplan, 603 and the 613/T700 are all fab cars and very rare, although I see a 60e every year at the Battlesbridge Motorbilla. Not many people know that the V8 was employed in a Czech supercar in the 90’s, which was made by a czech tuner – i think they were called MTX. Tatra also built aero engines before the war, and I believe are part owned by a british company these days.

  45. If the FSO was bad, surely Yugos were just as bad and also unlucky as new cars and parts supplies dried up as soon as Yugoslavia went to war with itself.

  46. Yugos were also made from hand me down part from Fiat.

    I remember being surprised at seeing one around about 5 years ago because it was the first one I had seen in almost at decade.

  47. When I visited a Slovenian mate in Slovenia back in ’98 I made a comment about NATO bombing the Yugo plant in Serbia because ‘if the Serbians ever committed a Crime Against Humanity it was the Yugo’! He thought that was hilarious and repeated it to everyone we met for the following week!

    He was at the time a refrigeration engineer and drove a Skoda Favorit cube van, which was overloaded to the point that he couldn’t accellerate even gently without wheelspin because there was so much weight on the back. Not that he ever accellerated gently! He thrashed that poor thing absolutely mercilessly for years, yet the 1.3 Skoda lump, although not the sweetest sounding engine (imagine a Talbot Horizon with a 60 a day Woodbine habit) never missed a beat.

    I once considered trading up my FSO Polonez for a Yugo 55, but a quick test drive around the block put me off. The salesman was very rude about it, saying that ‘back in the day customers would just buy a car off the forecourt without test driving it, and who wanted to take an FSO as PX anyway?’.

    A couple of weeks later I drove past that garage- and there right at the front of the forecourt was a Polonez for sale!

    I wasn’t tempted.

  48. The Yugo – its image and reputation was definitively destroyed and torn into pieces when it was imported in the US in the 80’s but resulted a failure on all accounts – looks, reliability and performance.
    Rumour has it that the Zastava ‘Yugo’ (then Yugo ‘Koral’) was an aborted Fiat design to substitute the 127, design which was put aside in favour of the Uno – which in turn was actually conceived to be a Lancia instead!

    In my opinion the little Zastava wasn’t that bad in the end, it was derived from 127 & 128 powerplants and mechanics (903 and 1116 cc engines); what it did lack was looks and appeal. Surely it enjoyed success in its home Yugoslav market – a few years ago I spent three times my summer holidays in Croatia where Yugos and Skalas (Zastava’s 128 version) were still alive and well.
    I remember the Yugo being sold as the Innocenti (yes, the same brand who made the Italian Minis) Koral 45/55 in early 90’s for few years – even in convertible form!

    The designers in Kragujevac even went as far as developing the Skala’s hatchback version – which never was considered for the original 128.

  49. A friend at school, his family were doing well for themselves and were able to move out of the local council estate to a nice semi-detached.

    They bought an R8 214SLi to replace their Montego, but tended to keep it for “good” – going to Church and the like.

    They bought a Yugo 45 for the school run, shopping etc (before everyone was obsessed with SUVs). I remember it being a basic, honest car but I also remember the suspension crashed into potholes and drains whereas my dads BX would glide.

    A neighbour had a Yugo Sana, I always thought this should’ve been a Fiat as it was very similar in design to the Tipo/a larger Uno.

    I think Fiat owns the old plant. Could be used for building the Fiat version of the Dodge Dart?

  50. The Sana was a Giugiaro design, possibly early Tipo style.

    Did any of Fiat’s South American factories build any designs of their own? I know the 127’s 1050cc engine was a Brazilian design.

    Fiat’s marketing department seemed to have a few quirks with the Fiat & Lancia range, I presume a Lancia badged Uno would have fitted neatly between the Y10 & the Delta.

    It’s odd a few years earlier the 130 was only sold as a Fiat & Lancia had the Gamma with a one-off flat 4 engine.

  51. The Uno does look like a big Y10, but then so does the Tipo.

    It would’ve stepped on the Deltas toes, and as Lancia at the time were still trading on their rallying successes, they wouldn’t have wanted to drop that.

  52. Will M 62 –

    Yes, the Zastava brand has been divested (at least for car manufacturing) and the Kragujevac plant is now Fiat Srbija Avtomobili. The first model to come out from there will be the new 4-door 500L; the Dodge Dart derivative, called the Fiat Viaggio, is going to be built in China at present – no plans are being made for EU import.
    The Yugo Sana/Florida was in fact a Giugiaro proposal for the would-be Tipo.

    Richard 63 –
    Actually the Brazilians came out with the 147 which was a modified 127 for the South American market, which also featured engines that could run on alcohol – a tradition which continues to this day in Brazil.
    They also pulled out the Oggi (a 147 with a boot – ugly as sin if you ask me!) and then the Premio/Duna, which was a booted Uno but didn’t enjoy its parent’s success at all, at least here in Italy where it quickly became the butt of countless jokes…

    The story behind the Uno is actually quite complex. It was designed by (…guess who?) Giugiaro for a then-Lancia executive to replace the small Autobianchi A112, at a time when Lancia/Autobianchi already were Fiat Auto brands. Said executive then resigned leaving the whole “Lancia Uno” project at Fiat where it was taken on by the late Vittorio Ghidella (incidentally, one of the greatest ‘car guys’ Italy ever had) who turned it into a Fiat as the 127’s successor – with outstanding results.

  53. Simon79

    Do any pictures exist of the “Lancia (Fiat) Uno” prototypes or any websites in general that show images of prototypes from various Italian Automakers similar to Austin Rover Online here?

  54. Thanks Will M

    Both the Autobianchi and Lancia Uno prototypes look interesting, it make you wonder how they would of fitted into with the Fiat Group’s range at the time, paticularly Lancia’s possible range-topping version of the Uno.

  55. Nate 66 –

    Unfortunately I couldn’t find any, I read the whole story on the recent issue of Quattroruote magazine – exactly the same one the link refers to.
    Sadly, none of the pics on the printed version are featured on the Web article – and even worse I have no means of posting them! Anyway I can tell you there were very little changes from the prototype, even basic concepts such as the Citroen-style ‘satellites’ on the dashboard made it to the production version.

    I’ve never seen those two pics @ post 67 though – and I agree in saying that the Lancia prototype tastes a lot like Mk1 Seat Ibiza…

  56. Continued –

    The 1st pic @ 67 definitely is a prototype for the Autobianchi/Lancia Y10 (see the Autobianchi logo on the front grille). The Y10 was based on the Mk1 Fiat Panda floorpan and actually was what the ‘Lancia’ Uno was born to be, i.e. a replacement for the A112 – a classy 3-door citycar.

  57. Speaking of East European cars, we’ve had features on FSO, Lada Rivas and Skoda Estelles, but how about a feature on the cheapest and one of the best 4wds for the money in the eighties, the Lada Niva. This cost a fraction of what a Range Rover would, yet could do all the same things off road and wasn’t too bad on road either as the 1.6 litre and later 1.7 could keep up with the traffic.

  58. Cheers, Mike, as I always liked these brutally honest and capable 4 wds. One was used for years as the company hack for a tyre centre, carting exhausts and the like around.

  59. Dont shoot me when I write this but, looking at the pick up truck front end and the brown saloon front end is it me or is there a resembalance to the P6???

  60. I found a few years ago that their real purpose was to get cheap- and I mean CHEAP- parts for my X1/9: how about £6,50 for a set of brake pads and less than a tenner for a front disc!!! That’s less than a CD at HMV…

  61. I wonder what FSO would have been like if they could have found the engineers and interest to help improve their cars, because last time I checked FSO pretty much dissipated around 2010/2011 because their contract to build the Chevy Aveo ran out.

    Personally, what I felt held them back was not only a lack of quality engineers (though this company was in Eastern Europe after all) but also the companies who took interest in the car company/plant including horrible Daewoo.

    I wonder if FSO can hook up with Bajoun (Shanghai GM sub brand) becuase their first car I could easily imagine as a new FSO Polonez.

  62. @76- didierz65- I think a CD from HMV would probably make for a more effective brake component than an FSO brake disc…

  63. just drove a 1985 Fiat Polski 125 salon 4000km across eastern europe without any problems. turned more heads than any modern euro box BMW, Audi etc. waved through police road blocks and board crossings. didn’t even give us speeding tickets they were so fond of the vehicle. its still somewhere in the ukraine and i wish there could have been a way of getting back to London

  64. There was enough engineers (to carsaroundworld). the problem was that Poland under soviet ‘occupation’ was banned from putting ideas into life. Russia would have never allowed to let ‘lesser people’ to advance further in any field. check SYRENA SPORT on Wiki. Very sad story.

  65. I owned one it was an 89 f redg I paid £800 for her.
    I have driven lots of old cars and it wasn’t as bad as they made it out to be.
    It was basic transport and it did its job.
    It would have been better if it had had more parts form the
    Fiat 125 which was a good car, the FSO would have been so much better with the original fiat engine and suspension.
    would have been a better respected car and blown lada into the weeds for driveability.

  66. What have I stumbled onto here… Excellent!!! I’ve owned numerous Ladas, 3 Wartburgs and 2 FSOs and LOVE any eastern block cars. All these cars did things British cars of the 1970s didn’t do, such as:
    1/ Being available for sale (No strikes in the “workers’ paradise…)
    2/ Getting you from A to B without frills and frippery.
    3/ Being built in a common-sense way, for ease of home maintenance and repair.
    4/ Usually offered at a really low price, together with a generous trade-in.

    The problem was that the buyers were more often than not slightly impoverished & skimped on maintenance, thinking the car would “struggle on” thus causing something really expensive to go “bang” & the car to be scrapped!

    In short, cars for a job, not for show!

  67. I hit a kerb at 60 on purpose in one of these years ago and damaged nothing, i have a 57 plate 3 series with the engine and ‘box out at work to have a new chassis rail fitted for a 30 mph kerbing accident- thats not a critisism by the way!

  68. Read whole article. Now I’m quite mad.

    Since last few years, when I got into cars world I’ve been watching how much the cars world has changed. My current car is 10 years old now. And yes – I was very satisfied with it. Except the fact I had to do loads of things that had broken. Now finally everything is fine (fingers crossed), but the reparings easily got very expensive. I even tried once to make one repair by myself. It didnt worked out quite well.

    Is that what would you expect from a modern car ? Is that what you are paying for to the “great brands” you trusted for years ?

    I think it’s not.

    Basically I felt in love with FSO cars, and most from East. They are easy to repair, and are very reliable if you do not manage to get it decayed by rust. Cars that are even 45 years old, and still working, while western ones mostly did not passed the time test – I mean those that were used to be rather a lorry than a passenger car …

    I also had an occasion to drive the 125P. I have nothing bad to say about this car. It’s just designed like an oldie. Inside you can easily fit 5 persons, and doesnt squeeze them like you used to do in your Mini – and even take some baggages …
    I think that a guy that wrote this article is more like Mr. Clarkson – if a car is not very expensive, very fast, and very luxurious – it is a bad car. And what about people, who just need a car with simple construction, to drive to work, and countryside occasionally ? What should they buy ?

    It’s 2013, and I’m really up to buy Fiat 125P. Since I started to interest with this one I see that this car would be perfect for me. Easy to repair, quite big, but not with engine over 2 liters, and with such a classic design.

    I wouldn’t mind buying a car from Poland again, if not the fact that FSO stopped their production (am I right ?), and if not the fact, that nowadays Poland is surely another capitalist country, and their cars would have also maximum 3 year warranty …

    Consider it – the society is not only based upon rich millionaires, driving their RR’s with their private driver. Society also cotains groups of working people, that ain’t mind a car, they will rely on. And Fiat 125P is one of those cars. Stop thinking in the way the big corporations are telling you – start thinking by yourself !

    • Well Mad Guy… that certainly was “A never ending story”

      But to be fair your reply did make me smile but me being just like Clarkson? – I think not but the fact we are both getting older, are overweight and both suffer from more than the occasional twinge of arthritis… the similarities end right there.

      I will agree the FSO will seat 5 in some kind of austere comfort and will also concur they have a certain kind of charm that goes hand in glove with many “commie cars”. But… and here is the big but… whereby Lada and Skoda of that time had clever marketing, tempting finance packages and a customer base so loyal even the Germans could get jealous, FSO in the UK was run on a shoestring, the dealer network could be found the strangest of places and the cars simply ceased to make sense – even after taking cost into the equation.

      Lada or Skoda went some way to soften the interior with a more “European accent” too with things like velour seats, sunroofs, tape cassette players, rev counters and… carpets! – the 125P had a rubber trimmed floor and vinyl seat trim.

      For the record too, I will also state my daily car is a full 15 years older than yours and I fully endorse “anti – establishment” motoring. Two Riva saloons were owned too a few years back – I loved them both so your notion of myself only interested in expensive cars is bunkum.

  69. “Mad Guy” gives a slightly philosophical slant to the usual enthusiasts threads.

    Capitalism is all about marketing, the germans are certainly very good at this – hence why every junior assistant deputy regional sales manager salivates at the prospect of a 116i or an A3 diesel.

    For the rest of us, there is bangernomics. A mixed bag admittedly, but cheap motoring, and play your cards right and you can get something reliable for less than the cost of a RR hubcap.

    The popularity of Dacia shows that there are those who want something basic, cheap but with proven old-West-European tech.

  70. I do agree – FSO wasn’t best in marketing. Maybe its just a fault of their goverment years ago ? I do not know, I’m not quite familiar with Poland those days. But I do remember seeing a brochure of Polski Fiat 125P – the one with red Fiat on the cover, and to me it looked quite nice for late 70’s.

    My current car is Renault Megane II with 1.6 liter engine. It was my father’s car back in 2003, he bought brand new from a local dealer. And so far he spent most of his time driving short distances. When I started to travel bigger distances I also had some major problems (while the car haven’ travelled hundred grand miles yet !) – I had to replace the gearbox, radiator fan and some other stuff. To show you durability of old cars, my uncle’s old Volvo drove 250000 miles without major reparings – he replaced only brakes, and changed his tyres every 5 years.

    That’s why I started to interest with old cars. I’m not that rich, to buy a real oldtimer in good condition, so I started to seek something cheaper. And then I got an occasion to drive a 125P. This has changed my point of view forever.

    I have my eye on one of them, but I have to take some time, to get some money. I even considered buying one straight from Poland, but this isn’t that simple today. I reccomend you to visit Poland, it’s a great country with delicious and cheap food, but all those nice cars are gone from streets now. Even beloved for years Polski’s Fiat 126P that I heard was as popular as Mini in UK, is not a common view on streets. Mostly people are driving used cars imported from Germany. And also the problem of steering wheel on the other side …

    I don’t know how things gone in Poland during the FSO production. I just remember that buying a car back then was a celebration – it gave so many possibilities. And how things looks now ? Everyone has a car, and there is nothing special about it.

  71. Actually the Peugeot XUD engined Polonez could have been a real success, as even in the mid nineties motorists were still very keen to buy totally unpretentious cars like Protons( I owned one and it was the most reliable car I ever owned). All it needed was aggressive promotion, a softening of the styling( which had vaguely occured) and better driveability, as the Caro, which the Polonez had been renamed, had potential.
    However, having such a dreadful badge and almost nil promotion twenty years ago, meant sales were tiny. I am sure they were sold from a dealership in Douglas Water at one stage, which is very remote.

  72. I’d like to put up bit of defence for the Polski Fiat 125p ….

    I have no doubt that the professionals & press do know what they’re talking about with respect to the technical aspects – ancient technology, poor handling, dubious build quality & so on – but you also need a bit of context.

    They were, as has been mentionioned, incredibly cheap cars. My Dad bought one new, and it was a very sucessful car. I drove it when home from college, so must be around 1980. It was (let me emphasise here – brand new! new!) , it had fantastic brakes – you whispered near the brake pedal and it would virtually lock. It had fantastic lighting – high beam seemed like laser, almost shocking.

    After he bought it, my dad felt there was an almost inaudible rumble from the rear end, so not really wanting to bug the garage, he rather diffidently took it back. No problem sir, they said the next day – we changed the rear axle – and the exhaust! His favourite story of the car, is that when working away from home one winter, on a freezing morning at a B&B another guys Lotus failed to start while the 125 started 1st time – as it always did.

    I remember driving my friends to the pub, it had plenty of room, and I’m positive that it gave no trouble at all, & I believe the warranty & support was fantastic for its time. It started on the button & was robust family transport. I recall it drinking fuel, maybe 25mpg, and the big round gearknob. It was beige with a five speed ‘box & a vinyl skin on the roof. The high life, 70’s style, comrade!

    cheers AJ

  73. Leonard Stout was my local dealer, boasting that the FSO undercut its rivals by £ 2000 and offered more space. What he didn’t point out was the car was twenty years behind its rivals, made an Escort Popular look luxurious( all plastic and bare metal), was like driving a fifties bus and had the refinement of a tractor. I knew a manager at Sellafield who was suckered into buying an FSO 1300 and after two years of breakdowns and bits falling off, his car had depreciated by 80 per cent and he had to sell it privately as the local dealer had wisely given up and no one else wanted to know. He bought a Nissan Sunny after this, which at least was well equipped, reliable and OK to drive.

    • The amazing thing is I’ve found a picture of his garage in a book by Alan Routledge, titled “Whitehaven And Aroud from Old Photographs” and a black and white picture of the garage is therein, showing it as a B.M.C. dealer. I guess it’s from the early 1960s.

  74. I had one of these new in 1975 when I was a student. It followed a succession of real Fiat 124s / 124 Special and a 124 Special T. After the real Fiats it really was awful and only lasted 6 months. I then bought a “luxury” Lada 1500 which was actually a great improvement but not a patch on the real Fiats.

    Fast forward to October 2013 and we were on holiday and visited a car museum on Malta. Going round a corner, there was a REAL Fiat 125 Special. A month later it arrived back in the UK and I sat in it on the drive and started it up. Within minutes steam was pouring out from under the bonnet and it turned out to be blocked solid with gunge. The only person to fix the engine was Guy Croft who prepares them for racing!

    This week, 13th. March 2015, it passed its MOT and can now be registered. When the MOT tester stood underneath and looked up he said that it looked like it had never been on the road.

    Now waiting impatiently for a plate!

  75. Interestingly, the land of the dreaded FSO has now built up a fair sized industry making cars for Fiat, Vauxhall and Suzuki, and there seems to be no difference now in quality between what is made in Poland and the rest of the world. I suppose having Western companies making Western products in a competitive market is a world of difference from a state controlled Communist enterprise where no competition existed and the few Poles who could afford a car were grateful for an FSO

  76. I do recall a revived version of the Polonez appearing in 1994 called the Caro, and featuring a Peugeot diesel engine that endowed it with 50 mpg economy and acceptable performance and economy. Only thing was the brand still had a bad image and few dealers were prepared to take on a franchise, one typically set up in Douglas in a remote part of Lanarkshire, and the Caro fizzled out after a couple of years. Yet had the Caro been promoted more aggressively, with much made of its Peugeot engineering and being sold through PSA dealers, it could have done better.

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