The Poles did not check the quality. The beloved and cursed Fiat 126 celebrates its fiftieth birthday

In socialist Czechoslovakia, the small fiat was the only representative of a Western-style car that remained affordable even for motorists with a regular salary. It cost only a little more than a bakelite Trabant and significantly less than a Škoda 105. People who succumbed to its temptations have mixed memories of it.

In October 1972, the Turin Motor Show, which no longer exists, had its grand premiere. The successor to the famous Fiat 500, the car that powered post-war Italy, appeared here for the first time. The new model was also completely different, designer Sergio Sartorelli gave it edges instead of curves. Fiat, which set fashion trends on European soil at the time, started a new era of angular bodywork a year earlier with the 127 type.

However, the novelty came at a different time than its cute round predecessor. Western Europe was already much wealthier and the demand for miniature cars with spartan equipment was declining in favor of larger cars offering more comfort.

The Type 126 would probably never have achieved such popularity if the incoming head of the Polish Communists, Edward Gierek, had not noticed it and bought a license for its production from the Italians. At the time, there were only 500,000 cars in Poland with a population of 40 million, and for an ordinary Polish family owning a car was an unattainable dream. That was to change with the arrival of the small Fiat.

The FSM plant in Bielsko-Bielá in the south of Poland was established in record time, cars began to be assembled here a year after the Turin premiere. The cheap labor force there was so attractive to the Italians that already in 1979 they stopped the production of the 126 in domestic factories and completely handed it over to the Poles. This was two years before mass unrest gripped the country and the new first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared martial law in the country.

A shed instead of a factory

The original form of the FSM factory was a far cry from the modern plant. “They were such hastily knocked down shacks. There were no production lines, finished bodies were transported by trucks around the yard for further assembly,” recalls František Černovský, who visited “Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych” in its early days. The former employee of Mototechna in Pardubice and the current chairman of the local association of 126 owners remembers the condition in which the cars were put on sale. “The one in brick red and gray looked the worst. When you ran your hand over the body, it was like you were touching sandpaper. That’s how rough the paint was.”

Back then, the warranty for parts lasted only a year, for labor half a year. Those who did not pick up all the unfinished business at the very beginning paid for the correction out of their own money. Construction defects, however, were usually solved only by the intervention of a handyman. For example, water was leaking into the trunk of the car around the headlights and accumulating in the recess for the reserve. So it was necessary to drill a hole so that it could drain somewhere.

“The problem with the car was that it was not only the assembly that was of poor quality, but also the individual parts from which it was built,” says the 70-year-old witness, who has allegedly been repairing small Fiats since he was nineteen. “As long as the 126 was assembled from parts made in Italy, everything was fine. The little ones with a smaller engine from the beginning of production were reliable,” says Černovský, adding his own experience: When the crankshafts were reground, red sparks flew from the Polish ones, purple ones from the Italian ones . The Italian handle was made of a much harder material. It was said to be the same with the piston rings. Who wanted ones that really seal, never bought those from Poland.

Despite the questionable quality, the one hundred and twenty-six girl literally went wild in Czechoslovakia. “People who had acquaintances at the station would echo each other when a train with Fiats came to us. They lined up in front of the store before we even had time to unload them from the wagons at the station,” recalls Černovský. Later, waiting lists were created on which the interested party could also check the desired color of the car. The more colors he listed on the waiting list, the better chance he had that the car would actually arrive in the end. However, according to František Černovský, those who came with a voucher from the Secretariat of the Communist Party had the priority right to collect the car.

Roar with a falling ceiling

Daniela Vaculíková bought a Fiat 126 in the early 1990s as a five-year-old used car with less than 30,000 kilometers on the odometer. “The car looked like new, but there were problems with it from the beginning,” he recalls. The very first drive from Benešov to Prague almost ended in disaster for her. “At the first traffic light after the Nuselské bridge, I pressed the brake pedal all the way to the floor. Along the way, the right front wheel braked, because of this the brake fluid overheated and the fiat refused to stop.”

The doctor then lists about a dozen defects that have affected her during the two years of ownership of the car. “We parted ways after the gearbox fell out,” he recalls of the last fatal problem. “The repairs weren’t expensive, but I didn’t enjoy dealing with just the car all the time, I had other things to do.”

Fiat 126 in numbers

28 That’s how many years the little fiat lasted in production. The last one rolled off the rails in 2000.
4 673 655 Total number of units produced in Poland and Italy
42 500 The price in CZK for which the car was offered in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia
48 000 With a bigger engine and cosmetic modifications, the car became more expensive
3054 Car length in millimeters
48 The time in seconds required to reach a speed of 100 km/h
100 The volume of the luggage compartment under the front hood in liters
21 Fuel tank volume in liters
580 Curb weight of the car in kilograms
2 The number of cylinders of an air-cooled engine

Nevertheless, he still remembers the fiatka fondly. “I learned to drive in it, it was ideal for a beginner. A fantastic view, a great ride, it parked everywhere and in the summer the hot leather of the seats smelled nice,” she enumerates its advantages with a smile. At the same time, he also admits some character flaws. “The engine was horribly noisy. You couldn’t even imagine listening to the radio in this car. And sometimes the carpet that covered the ceiling fell on my head.”

Although the Fiat 126 was produced for a very long time and was created in millions of series, it is very rare to meet it in regular use today. “They all rotted,” states František Černovský dryly, adding that the car had virtually no anti-corrosion protection.

Current owners of 126s are already avoiding the winter sleet, their price is too high for that. Those interested in a car in good condition must prepare at least 150,000 crowns, well-preserved examples from the beginning of production cost easily twice as much. Rusty wrecks are best avoided in your own interest.