Polski Fiat 126p

Matka Polka is a wonderful phrase. Translated it simply means Polish Mother, but so much is lost in that little translation that an entire article is needed to describe such an enormous idea. All the culture, all the vitality, all the history of a nation, encapsulated into a tiny phrase that itself is applied to the perfect role model for generation upon generation of Poles.

During all the many trials and occupations in Polish history and the terrible loss of all the fighting young men, it was the Polish Mothers who were responsible for passing on all that Polishness onto their children; making sure that their offspring grew up knowing exactly what it meant to be Polish.

In the Polski Fiat 126p, Matka Polka did herself proud. Known affectionately as the "Maluch" or "Baby", the Little Fiat sums up everything for Communist-era Poles; every memory, every event, every story has a Maluch in the background.

Paint the picture. It's the early 1970's, and Communism is in full swing. Big concrete blocks everywhere, heavy control over every aspect of life, massive and rapid price increases for simple items; it was not a good place to be. Even owning something so fundamental to western culture like a car was limited; the few Syrenas or Warszawas that trickled out of the factories were granted to only the most ardent Party supporters. Poles became restless, and vented their fury in a serious of protests and riots that led to 42 deaths and countless wounded. The fallout led to the resignation of the First Secretary, Gomulka, to be replaced with the dynamic young face of one Edward Gierek. He offered a modern Poland, where consumer goods would not be so heavily limited, and specifically offered the cornerstone of modern mobile population; a cheap car.

The Little Car That Could was a triumph. In a deal scraped together with Fiat of Italy, Polski Fiat purchased the rights to manufacture the 126 from new under its own name, and the two countries started pumping out the 600cc motor with surprising speed. But while the Italian invention was simply a replacement for the more iconic Fiat 500, the Polish product was a character in its own right; its identity became twinned with Gierek's new, modern, urban Poland of consumerism. The car itself was something completely new; not a rehashed unit built on old mechanicals but a proper Turin-fresh design that looked 1970s, drove 1970s, smelt 1970s. It was a beautiful bouncing baby.
Like any growing family, having a Maluch was a commitment. Workers scrimped and saved for years to buy one, and when they did the Maluch became a member of the family, a loved companion and faithful friend that would be expected to live with you for years and years.

Many did. Despite being a city car, those 12-inch wheels carted Poles to Zakopane for winter holidays in the mountains, to Hel and Swinoujscie for summers by the beach, and up down the spine of Poland as city workers visited their village-based mothers every Easter. It was the epitome of freedom, the sign of a New Poland being born.

The next steps of that rebirth are well-known; the money Gierek used to fuel his industrial renaissance was borrowed heavily from the West with heavy interest, and was grossly mis-spent by the central authorities, leading in a straight line to the firing of workers, the Gdansk shipyard strikes of 1980 and the rise of Solidarity. But in the background of all this; the rise, the fall, the martial law, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the freedom of Poland, the Fiat 126p chugged on; that little icon of Polishness encapsulating all that pluck and grit and we-won't-die hardcore attitude that Poland is so admired for.

In 1987, the fifteen-year-old motor came of age. In a fitting analogy of teenage hormones, the old air-cooled motor was changed for a 700cc water-cooled unit, and the 126p became the 126-bis. But this and another eight hundred modifications to the car were short lived; over-heating forced the 126-bis out of production in 1991; in that way, the bis can be seen as the emo, black-nail-varnish Fiat. More power, more grunt, but a lot more tempremental with it. But you know, with kids, it's just a phase, and the 126p soldiered on. In 1997, at the age of 25, the name Maluch was officially adopted by the manufacturer for the car in recognition of the warm place in Poles hearts it had earned. In 2000, at the grand age of 28, the Fiat 126p finally moved out of its parents' spare bedroom and into retirement, leaving behind over 3million examples of its progeny.

Any Matka Polka would be proud of the little baby that blossomed under Poland's nuturing care, and the sight of two such children huddled together on a side street, ten years after production ended, still puts a smile on many Poles' faces. Everyone has one tale to tell of a family trip, or a first car, or a first kiss in the back seat of one of these machines. Such a little car meant so much, to so many.


marta said...
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marta said...
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