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?
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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