Something has changed on Poland’s roads and it is not their state of repair, which remains atrocious. It is the disappearance of the once ubiquitous Fiat 126p, the car that introduced motoring to Poland’s masses.
The decline of the rattly two-door car, which strains to break 100km per hour, is a tangible sign of Poland’s increasing wealth and modernity. It is now found mainly in the poorest parts of eastern Poland and in the hands of penniless pensioners and destitute students.
Since Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004, the Fiat 126p, known affectionately as the Maluch, or “titch”, has been pushed aside by the deluge of used cars that have flooded across the border. More than 3m such vehicles have been imported from western Europe since 2004, and even the most clapped out Volkswagen or Seat is seen as superior.
The car, a mere 3m long with barely space to seat four, is nevertheless part of the motoring past of most Poles. “It was my first car, the car which gave me the most pleasure,” says Wojciech Drzewiecki, head of the Samar agency, which analyses the Polish motoring market.
“I bought a six-year-old car in 1982 and I drove it for six years. I remember it as the best car I ever had, at least that’s the way it seems to me now.”
The Maluch was a symbol of 1970s Poland, when the communist regime tried to stifle workers’ discontent by borrowing heavily in the west to supply scarce consumer goods.
It was developed by Fiat and produced under licence from the Italian carmaker by Poland’s FSM between 1973 and 2000. More than 3m were produced, some for export but the overwhelming majority for the domestic market, where before the 1970s private cars had been a rarity.
Iwona Sarjusz-Wolska, a Warsaw office worker, remembers being taken by her parents in 1979 to buy a Maluch, after pulling an enormous number of strings to be able to buy the car. The only model available was green, and they took a friend who was knowledgeable about cars to inspect them and choose the one with the fewest defects. “It was one of the most exciting days of my life,” she says.
Because they were so badly made, a handiness with tools was a necessity for Maluch drivers.
Marta Czartoryska, who works for Onet, one of Poland’s leading internet portals, remembers having to keep a stick in the car to poke it underneath when it failed to start, as well as a roll of string to tie back the covering of the rear-mounted engine to stop it from overheating. “It was terrible, it would break down all the time, but we had a lot of fun in it,” she says.
For some Poles the Fiat 126p is a symbol of the decrepitude of late communism, and they view its passing with no regret.
“Why should I miss it? It was a truly horrible car,” says Pawel Zalewski, an independent in Poland’s parliament who drove a Maluch in the 1980s to transport illegal underground literature. He now commutes in an Opel.
But the Maluch retains some fans. For those who have no money and do not mind the spine-tingling thrill of puttering along while frustrated drivers in heavier, faster cars hurtle past them, a model can be bought for as little as €100 ($158, £79).
For others the Maluch has become a cult car in the same way that the Morris Mini is prized in Britain or the Volkswagen Beetle in the US.
“I’m a collector,” says Michal Mozyszek, a 27-year-old car salesman from the central Polish city of Lodz, who has two Maluchs and plans to buy a third. “I can’t stop at a gas station without people coming over to me and telling me how they used to own one.”
Carmakers have yet to seize on the Maluch’s nostalgia value and produce a revamped version, however. Poland is still too poor and the change to more modern cars too recent for such a move to make much sense, says Mr Drzewiecki.
“For the Polish market a redone 126 would be a cult car. But I think we’ll have to wait for quite a long while for someone to make one,” he says.