FSM Syrena 105

If you skip back a fair few months, I mentioned that the grandaddy of Polish motoring was the FSO Warszawa, the mighty behemoth that got Poles behind the wheel again after World War II. It was a monster of a car, and unwieldy to your average potato-picker, which is why the Communist overlords of the 1950s decided that Poland needed a car for the common man. Something to show that Poland had equal prowess to Western countries. Looking back now, it seems a bit of a cruel joke. You can imagine the presidents of East Germany and Ukraine elbowing Poland in the ribs and smirking "Go on, Poland, YOU can do it, you show the Italians you can make something better than the Fiat 600", and then rolling around the floor with tears of mirth as Poland actually tries to do it. Enter then stage left, the pantomime horse; the FSM Syrena 105.

It should say something that, of the two prototypes commissioned in the early '50s, that it was the wood-and-canvas model that was chosen to enter production, as FSO simply didn't have the machines required to form sheet steel. The Syrena 101 (the first production model after the imaginatively-numbered Prototype 100) then rolled out of the FSO factory in Zeran factory in 1958 sporting a hunchback skin of hand-beaten steel (the wood-and-canvas model shook itself to pieces during a 5000km test run), spurted along by a two-stroke engine scavenged from an East German water pump.

Within seven years, another three versions (102, 103 and 104) had been knocked up, featuring such massive improvements as an exhaust silencer and a whole extra cylinder, temporarily robbing an old engine from Wartburg as part of the trade-over for the Warszawa 210 designs (the FSO prototype that became the Wartburg 353) before settling on a home-brew powerplant, the S-31. 842cc's of smoke-belching power were squeezed into the space under that hideous wart of a bonnet, allegedly capable of lurching the 1-tonne bulk up to 120km/h.

With such awe-inspiring power, the car, and its owner, were quickly dubbed "Krolowa Szos." Learning to say that is about the same level of difficulty as learning to drive the gloriously preserved vehicle here. It means "King of the Road," a phrase used to express the freedom it interred on the original owner, and I must be firm in making sure the tongue-in-cheek nature with which it is used is translated over to English.

You see, I've had one of these, or rather, the van-bodied version called the Syrena Bosto. A few years back, when I was more carefree and idiotic, I signed up for something called the Mongol Rally; a "race" of endurance from London to Ulan Bator, with one simple rule - the engine of your car has to be smaller than one litre. Think about it. You need to maintain a steady plod in a simple machine over 13,000 kilometres of road, dirt track and desert. Surely a solid-chassis'd car with leaf springs, 15" wheels and an engine containing seven moving parts would be IDEAL for this. Right?
Probably, yes. But not the Syrena. After roaring alont the length of Poland at a steady 65km/h (the top speed) for a day, the car bent its gear selector forks reversing out of a car park in the Czech Republic. That's not before losing the speedo, the exhaust and the dashboard electrics along the route; a mere 700km. I forced it to seven different mechanics that afternoon, who all laughed me out of their forecourts.

Despite all this, the original 105 was in high demand, and by 1972, the car was such an embarassment, sorry, was selling so well that production was moved to the enhanced facility of FSM, the Factory for Small-engined Cars, down in Bielsko-Biala. This new Syrena had the redeeming feature of normal hinged doors as opposed to the suicide variants sported by its predecessors. There were other magnificent items like the free-wheel handle under the steering column that acted like a hand clutch. You don't want to engine brake on a two-stroke motor because, with no fuel being fed in there's no oil either, so every time you go down a hill you yank the handle and hope the brakes don't fail. Which they do. Most Syrena owners have fond memories of installing wheel cylinders at the side of the road every 200km, or of the queues to collect the monthy petrol ration with every container the household owned to keep the engine burbling on that little bit longer. And lets not forget, this was in a planned economy, where cars were awarded to the individual on the basis of need or merit. Owning a Syrena was a status symbol. At this point, words simply fail me.

Somehow, possibly as a nasty government trick to divide the proletariat even more, there did actually appear something called the Syrena 105 Lux. Before you go expecting something luxurious like a cigarette lighter or a cup-holder or even a brake servo, the monumental feature of the Lux was a floor-mounted gearstick, which meant that the previous frantic struggle to find a gear from the gate-less selector on the steering column was now moved south. You still had to keep your arms up to hold the enormous steering wheel steady (a Syrena's steering is so vague you'll feel like a 1940's film star) or you'd career into a tree.

Astoundingly, two thirds of all Syrenas ever made were 105s, and between 1958 and 1982 half a million had been cobbled, bashed and bodged together when FSM eventually decided that, car for car, there was no point making the Syrena when the same amount of metal could make three Fiat 126's. At that point the last 105 rattled out of the factory and, 27 years later, one has ended up as a battered shell in a Warsaw carpark. Despite the smashed drivers window and the fact the car has been stood for a month, it's a testament to the sheer awfulness of this vehicle that nothing has been stolen from it. The seats are in, the wheels are on, even the engine is inside; the tramps who cart away old plumbing and refrigerators have turned their noses up at it. In that way, forgetting the Syrena is the kindest thing for Poland to do.

As a small extra, a few Syrenas took part in, and completed, some Monte Carlo Rallies. It is at this point that I'd like to point out that my 700km Mongol Rally section therefore counts as the longest and most successful international rally entry for the Syrena ever. Who's King of the Road now?