Keith Adams takes another look at some of the less likely extinct – or near-extinct – cars in the UK, according to data supplied by the brilliant How Many Left? website based on DVLA data.
8: FSO Caro 1.9D
Car manufacturers in the command economies of Eastern Europe had a very difficult time during the dying days of the Cold War. Their engineers were as talented as the best that Japan or Germany had to offer, but instead of vast development budgets to play with, they had cost-cutting dictats from the Politburo. ‘Spend more than 10,000 Zloty per year on development,’ the head Communists would bellow, ‘…and it’s off welding ships in Gdansk for you…’
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. In 1951, the Polish car industry, which essentially meant FSO (for Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych), had been launched with government billions – and a wave of optimism – to create high technology jobs in Warsaw. The car that followed, the Warsawa, was tedious fare, but proved good enough a young priest called Karol Józef Wojtyła to buy and run – before he was chosen to do bigger things under the new name of Pope John Paul II.
The story of the Caro really began in 1965, when FSO struck a deal with Fiat to licence build a version of its 125. The visually similar FSO 125P followed two years later, and then remained in production unchanged for a very long time. Lack of any serious funding meant that serious thoughts of replacement had to wait for nearly a decade – but when it did, the engineers knew they needed an FWD hatchback to compete with the decadent West. Instead, all they could afford to do was rebody the 125P with a reasonably contemporary looking five door shell, that in truth, was past it when it hit the market in 1978.
But in Poland – a market starved of new metal – it proved a sizeable hit, even if the benefits of a hatchback were negated by the lack of folding rear seats.
However, as the 1980s morphed into the ‘90s, and with the Polonez’s 1.5-litre petrol engine had become laughably outdated, and the company was left with little choice but to buy in new power units from the West. In 1991, and along with a facelift, which heralded the arrival of a smoothed out front end, a Rover K-Series petrol and Peugeot-Citroen 1.9 XUD engine was stuffed under the bonnet, and the strange new Caro name for added appeal.
The diesel model appeared in the UK in 1995 (unsurprisingly, Rover wouldn’t let them sell the petrol car here), following FSO’s four-year hiatus here. Despite its well-respected diesel engine and low-purchase price (it was the cheapest diesel in the UK), the Caro sold quite slowly from launch, less so in pick-up form. Its 1970s square-rigged styling and inept dynamics were off-putting, despite the amenable way it drove. Its ride quality was actually rather cosseting, and it rolled like a yacht in a swell at the merest hint of a corner – for undemanding drivers looking for an honest drive, it was worth a punt, but most readily turned to similarly priced rivals from Skoda and Daewoo.
Today, these cars are rare. Near-extinct rare. Which is a shame because as the first East European diesel to be sold in the UK, it does have niche appeal. But even the Poles have turned their back on the Polly – as they are ruthlessly wiped from the streets of all its large cities. Maybe, that’s a good thing – the Cold War was grim after all – but would it be right to say good riddance?
1995 FSO Caro 1.9D
Price in the UK £7350
Engine: four-cylinder normally aspirated diesel
Power: 65bhp at 4,600rpm
Torque: 88lb ft at 2,000rpm
Maximum speed: 91mph
0-60mph: 17.1 seconds
Fuel consumption: 43.6mpg *combined