In memoriam : FSO Caro 1.9D

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

FSO Caro, available with a PSA diesel and K-Series petrol engine
FSO Caro, available with a PSA diesel and K-Series petrol engine

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However, as the 1980s morphed into the ‘90s, and with the Polonez’s 1.5-litre petrol engine had become laughably outdated, and the company was left with little choice but to buy in new power units from the West.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?


FSO Caro, available with a PSA diesel and K-Series petrol engine
FSO Caro, available with a PSA diesel and K-Series petrol engine

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

Keith Adams


    • Don’t be so closed minded! ARG stuff is getting boring now, need more interesting cars to read about

  1. We had a small bunch of Polonex turn up here in nz, the NZdairy board probably swapped them for some butter, a similar thing happend with Lada i think (how appropriate – Lada – butter no) anyway, my land lord had one, he liked because it was an in line engine and RWD so he said (at the time I had a Citroen DS20 or an HQ Holden 202 not sure which). I saw it a couple of years later and it was very rusty, there was only one or two around here. but while im the subjcts of Lada they didnt sell many cars after the NZ agent on national televesion told a grannny she wasnt getting her money back after the car had been in the garage (for warrantee repairs) moer days than it had been out. alex

  2. Never had much time for these – they always tried to be trendier than they were,(along with the Yugos as well) as opposed to the Lada Riva/Skoda Estelle which seemed much more genuine, and robust.

  3. I think the Polonez I am referring to is cicra 1988 or there abouts and I think it had a squareer front alex

  4. Sorry, think I got that wrong. Think the article was written in March 1996, so it’s probably actually about the above car. I am therefore presuming FSO are still in business with Daewoo holding the 70% stake.

  5. – still in business!

    “Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych Spółka Akcyjna is an enterprise with a 60-year tradition. It was established on August 1, 1948, as the State-owned Enterprise under the name FSO, which was given the task to launch and run a passenger car factory in Warsaw. Start of production took place on November 6, 1951. Following liquidation of the State-owned Enterprise, in February 1995, a sole shareholder Treasury Corporation was established under the name FSO Motor, which in less than a month was accessed by a foreign investor. In March the company name was changed for Daewoo-FSO Motor Sp. z o.o., and in October 1999 the company was transformed into a joint stock company. In December 2003, the main shareholders of Daewoo Motor Co. and the State Treasury made a decision on swap of their liabilities into the Company’s equity. Daewoo Motor Co. resigned on its stocks’ voting rights, which means that all the stocks belonging to Daewoo became silent stocks. It was agreed also that the Korean owner would withdraw from management over the Company. Thus, the new Polish Management Board and Supervisory Board were appointed. On August 31, 2004, the General Shareholders’ Meeting decided on change of the Company name from Daewoo-FSO Motor S.A. for Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych Spółka Akcyjna. Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych S.A. is the joint stock company under the Polish law, and according to the Commercial Companies’ Code, it has the status of a legal person. Since 2007, the Company’s main shareholder is CJSC ZAZ.”

    Who ever owns them now (GM, indirectly?), they basically just make “Chevrolets” (i.e. Daewoos) for GM’s European operations.

  6. According to that Clarkson column – £4,527 for a brand new car with the PSA XUD engine?

    I would’ve been tempted…..

  7. FSO do indeed still exist but sadly cars like the Caro have long gone. They have their own website which is mainly in English.

  8. My parents had a Polonez (mentioned elsewhere in the forum) The dashboard had all the bells and whistles and was modern in that 80`s way. The rest of it ? No, not good. BTW in May 2010 I visited the Warsaw motor museum and plenty of FSO s there,including a rallying Polonez and other obsurities that are never seen West of Bratislava.

  9. I remember the FSO Polonez 125 and likened it to a better built LADA(?). Never heard of the Caro until now. Although not a wonderful design, it has hints of a Nissan Sunny and Honda Quintet about it (in side profile). The alloy wheels and inoffensive blue colour maybe “flammed it up”

    I wonder what size K engine it got – I guess it was the 1.4.

  10. Cars like this fascinate me, its nice to see what to other guys behind the wall where driving sometimes

  11. “I remember the FSO Polonez 125 and likened it to a better built LADA(?)”

    The Lada was another Fiat joint venture. As i remember though the FSO 125 pretty much stayed the same, where as Autovaz (Lada) did give theirs a face lift and develop it a bit in later years.

  12. The Caro was sold in the UK in 1.5 petrol guise, as well as the 1.9D – I have both models listed in several UK magazines from the time. Must admit though, I never realised the petrol was a K-series engine…

  13. Looks like a baby Tatra T613/700. IIRC wasnt the calibre a saloon only model, all the ad stuff for it showed a red saloon, I dont remember any info on a hatch model. The SRi 130 was the hatch with all the silly plastic. Ah, the happy memories of SRi’s and Cliff Richards *shudder*.

  14. I was over in Poland in 2002 and saw many of these. There were many varients including double cab pick ups and ambulances built on an extended wheelbase. You may or may not know that before FSO died, it was bought by Daewoo. Daewoo slightly “tarted it up” and made a 4 door notch-back version that looked rather like the 4 door Volvo 340/260. Following the death, Daewoos were manufactured in Poland.

    Interesting that Fiat sniffed at communism when touting for business. In recent times, they negociated a manufacturing deal with the North Koreans!!

  15. I was over in Poland in 2002 and saw many of these. There were many varients including double cab pick ups and ambulances built on an extended wheelbase. You may or may not know that before FSO died, it was bought by Daewoo. Daewoo slightly “tarted it up” and made a 4 door notch-back version that looked rather like the 4 door Volvo 340/360. Following the death, Daewoos were manufactured in Poland.

    Interesting that Fiat sniffed at communism when touting for business. In recent times, they negociated a manufacturing deal with the North Koreans!!

  16. There is a chap on FB who has just rescued a FSO from a scrap yard and while discussing it all sorts of vehicles based on it came to light. The fun and interesting thing about Eastern European car makers and their owners, is their skill to make do and adapt with what is available. The Polonez spawned a not just the 5Dr hatch but also a pick-up, estate, limo, ambulance, 2dr coupe and also lots of race/rally versions. There is also a Group ‘B’ style rally car with a mid engine and 4 wheel drive.

    Its not my cup of tea but I can’t help but admire the ingenuity of FSO or the owners who modify them, after all it’s a bit more than a re-badged 60’s Fiat, even if its based on one. As for showing it on the site go for it, other than the K series connection there are lots of similarities in making many variations from a single range with other vehicles on this site. The results may not be the same but clever use of raiding and adapting parts from the co-orate parts bin is. Take the Marina from roughly the same period, it used bits of Morris Minor and had a huge range of variations for every occasion. If you included the Chinese built version, it stayed in production for over 30 years, providing affordable motoring for the masses.

    I like the alternative car stories, there is plenty to read on here about BMC/BL/ARG/MGR for people with a preference for just those products. The alternative stuff makes a interesting read for those who like a bit of motoring variety.

  17. Wondering … presumably FSO had head gasket issues with the K series like everyone else. How were they dealt with? Anyone know what impact that had on the agreement?

  18. Hate to say it, but part of me quite likes it, in a strange sort of perverse way. The same reason that sees me having a soft spot for Lada Samaras with bodykits and Skoda Favorits I suppose.

    Keep the articles about non-AR stuff coming – variety is the spice of life!

  19. I presume they had the 1.4 K-Series. Which didn’t suffer so much from HGF. It was only really when they enlarged the capacity the HGF problems started to surface. The larger the bore the less capacity there was for coolant, so it didn’t take much of a leak for it to become fatal. The smaller units were a little more forgiving.

  20. I remember someone having a Polonez in the late 70s. It was utterly dreadful. it made a Lada look desirable. I think one of the standards parts was built in rust because they used to fall apart within 3 years and would fail an MOT on rust in the 4th year.

    I also remember that it was probably one of the worst cars ever to drive. In fact, drive is probably being too polite, it hopped, wallowed, crashed into potholes and yawed alarmingly on anything rougher than a billiard table.

    I would rather have a secondhand Escort than one of these (and I never liked Escorts).

  21. Always had a perverse desire to buy one of these, its crudity and cheapness alway appealed to me, the 125p and Lada Riva did also. I owned a nearly new Riva back in the 90s and loved it, its hideous 60s era black plastic dash was so minimalist and the smell of glue & cheap carpet made me dizzy!

  22. Fascinating story, well told. Had no idea the car could have had a K series in it in its petrol version so the comment from “Paul” above is well off the mark. K series engine = Rover content = spot on for this site.

  23. Back in 1991 a customer of mine traded in a 1985/C FSO Polonez in a sort of orange colour for a new Seat Marbella.
    Back then the Seat was only £3995 on the road and i can vividly remember giving £50 for this awful [but only 6 year old]FSO in PX!

    • The SEAT Marbella, along with its siblings the first generation Ibiza and the Malaga, is probably extinct now. I do remember a local councillor owning a 1992 Ibiza diesel, where the dashboard rattled like an old bus at idle, but for all it was a horrid, plasticky car inside, was one of the cheapest diesels on the market and returned 45-50 mpg. I think the engine was a 1.7 sourced from Fiat.

      • I’ve heard the only Malaga taxed in the UK is an LHD personal import.

        There used to be a Marbella van around in Stockport until a few years ago.

        Greece still has a lot of old Fiat based SEATs.

        • They were aimed at the sort of buyer who bought East European cars, but wanted something slighlty more sophisticated and modern. Actually later versions of the Mark 1 Ibiza in white with the System Porsche cylinder heads did look acceptably modern and went OK.

  24. I used one for taxi-ing from 1996 until 199 when I was hit head on in a country lane. Car written off but I survived due to this motor being built like a Tank!!! Crap switches and cables but engine and body were good!

  25. I bought a three year old 1500 as a student for £900. It only had thirteen thousand miles but first gear was already broken. The local dealers had a second hand box which they sold and fitted for £50 in 12 minutes flat; they asked my brother to watch and time them.

    The car was dreadful. It rather uniquely managed to combine a washboard ride with wallowy corners. I remember in one fast corner you could feel the back axle moving separately from the car, so unpleasant. We’d had a couple of 125s and they were crude but safe enough, chuckable even, but the Polonez was about 200kg more and it felt like they were all in the roof. Apparently FSO had experimented with the 2 litre twin cam Fiat engine; in that chassis it’s a simply frightening concept.

    The seats were staggeringly uncomfortable and the trim shocking. I couldn’t understand how such low geared, inaccurate steering could be so heavy. Interestingly the paint finish wasn’t that bad.

    To cap it off the importer had plastered it with cheap FSO stripes down the side. An hour with a hairdryer had all traces removed. Quite a few people mistook the car for a Passat and referred to it as a VW. Maybe not such a surprise as that was also a horribly misshapen lump of steek, it’s just that steel was far, far better quality.

  26. I still have a FSO Caro 1.9D. It is taxed and insured and I take it for a run about one afternoon every week. I bought it a number of years ago off Ebay for £25 and spent a number of years restoring it, in my spare time and it looks and goes well now. Bodywork bits are practically non existant now, but spares can be sourced from Fiat 125 and 131 and Lada Riva models. I replaced the fuel tank sender unit with one from a Lada Samara. The clutch cable snapped not long after I put it back on the road, I could not obtain a RHD cable but with a bit of ingenuity got a LHD one to fit. The hatchback struts were shot, but I sourced a couple from Germany at a reasonable cost.
    The Citroen/Puegeot XUD diesel was used in a lot of different vehicles over the years, so engine spares are not a problem.
    Whats it like to drive? A bit like a tank really, the non PAS is heavy at low speeds. Acceleration is not a strong point, as it has a very heavy body, a bout 1.5 tons, so I’m told. But once up to 70mph, it will tootle around all day at about 50mpg, driven sympathetically.

  27. I owned a FSO Caro 1.9 GLD that was used as a taxi. I modified mine by fitting the Differential and speedo drive from the Petrol version (the gear ratios where the same in both cars)so to lower the gearing. This suited the car better,for the round town driving it did. It was a good solid easy to fix car (no computers etc) and I was very sad to see it go, after 300,000 miles !

  28. I believe there was a dealership in Douglas, just off the M74, a bit of a one horse town surrounded by two half abandoned ex mining villages. I saw two Caros when I was based up there in 1994. Again, people probably needed a car that would start in a harsh winter, was economical and cheap, and image probably counted for nothing in a remote part of Lanarkshire. Also the XUD, while not the last word in refinement in non turbo form, at least didn’t sound like being in inside a steelworks like the FSO engines from the eighties.

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