FSO Warszawa 223 Estate

Get yourself comfortable. This one's going to be long. I've been delaying it deliberately because the Warszawa is such a monster to handle that it takes time to build up the courage to write about them.

For those who don't know history, or indeed geography, Poland is sandwiched between Germany and Russia. Seventy years ago, that was a rather unfortunate position to be in, and after the smoke had cleared and the blood mopped up, the once-proud capital of Eastern Europe's largest country, brooded over by its new Communist overlords, lay in ruins.

What once had been a thriving city of palaces, factories, trade and culture, was a rubble-filled shell, and the Russians were eager to fill in the craters with their own monstrous designs, but to get anything going, you need to get the peope moving. And in post-war Poland, the only wheels on the streets were those left behind by the invaders. A mad mix of pre-war and military vehicles from all over Europe lay scattered and wrecked by the roadsides, their gasps drawn from them by enterprising Poles until the very last.

So the Russians, nice chaps that they were, licensed their own beast, the GAZ M20, to Poland with the rights to manufacture it. The M20 then was known as the Pobieda, which in Russian means Victory; not a wholy appropriate name for the Poles who, having been raped by Germany felt themselves doubly shafted by the Russians for not preventing the destruction of Warsaw. It was then decided that a subtle name change was in order, and the inspiration was obvious. The Factory of Passenger Cars was established, the Communists gave the order, and production commenced in 1951.

It took a few years for the Polish engineers to tinker with the designs enough to make the car unique to Poland, and in the meantime they satisfied themselves with just copying the Pobieda perfectly. But by 1964 the FSO Warszawa 203 was ready to roll off the production line. The Russian hump-back design was humped further into a proper boot, the front grill was flattened to a less agressive mouth, but most importantly the M20's sidevalve engine was redesigned into the S21. Note that down, as it's the most important number in Polish automotive history.

Considering the pain and anguish that had demanded the cars construction in the first place, it would be a pretty low blow for anyone to find fault with the Warszawa. But those insufferable Frenchmen over at Peugeot protested at the use of the numbers 2, 0, and 3 in that particular order, and therefore the Warszawa was rebadged as a 223.

For a country as shattered and brutalised as Poland had been over the previous 150 years, it's hard not to be cowed by the physical presence of its first automotive product. The particular hulking beast in the photos I found laying dormant in Srodmiescie, downtown Warsaw, at the top of the Vistula escarpment. A 223 Kombi, its massive bulk looms across the river to the FSO factory from where it came, thirty-five or more years ago. It is a formidable vehicle, dwarfing everything around it with its presence. What it lacks in style or grace is compensated by sheer amount; the sheet steel alone is nearly 2mm thick. Like the surviving 19th century tenements that surround it, time has mellowed the paintwork and crumbled the edges a bit, which to the car itself and the city in general adds a modest majesty. You get the feeling that another fifty years would petrify the car rather than rust it, cementing it permanantly into the character of the town.

A monster of this magnitude is unwieldy, and its location in the narrow cobbled backstreets of Warsaw's old town centre betrays the reason why you never see these any more. Such a leviathan simply could not be maintained - the fuel cost alone was beyond the means of most Poles on a ration book, and they usually only lumbered the streets as taxis.

There's something both magnificent and horrific in these cars; their American-styled lines hardened somehow into a more solid force. But don't mistake this for a cold-hearted Cold War byproduct - at the heart of the Warszawa beats the mighty S21 engine. This is a 2.1l 4-cylinder redesign of the Russian's earlier engine, the M20, but given overhead valve treatment instead of at the sides. Like any Pole, it drinks heavily, but it pushed out 70bhp which was more than enough to send this tonne-and-a-half beast, with cargo, lurching around the country. In fact, the engine was that much better than its predecessor that it saw life not just in the Warszawa but in almost every other vehicle Communist Poland ever produced. That one powerplant was solely responsible for almost every single passenger car, van, truck and tractor in Poland for a period of thirty years, and can still be heard rattling around inside farmer's trucks today.

Every single car built in Poland today owes some of its existence to the Warszawa; it's the Godfather of Polish motoring.


Tatra Man said...

Peugeot may have whinged about the use of "203" but Trabant got away with "601" and Tatra got away with "603".

Anonymous said...

it very obvious this man has no knowledge or little a about these cars he never owned one or even driven one the real top speed is 115 mph and 13 second from 0 to 60 mph mpg is over 33 to the gallon if you know how to drive right every thing on these car you can do your self with some knowledge in engineering I have owned a number of them and there the BEST 1000cc car ever made the estate is like a van its that big inside and there very good in very cold weather and snow they just laugh it handle like a dream top car better than any BL or ford cars of their day just because they were built in east Germany, THE GERMAN ENGINEERING ITS SOME OF THE BEST IN THE WORLD