A triumph of longevity, if little else.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, Poland found itself on the wrong side of what would become known as the Iron Curtain. It became a vassal state within the USSR, with a nominally independent government, but one that, in practice, enjoyed little autonomy and was directly answerable to Moscow.
Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych (FSO) was an automaker established in Warsaw by the Polish government in 1948 to begin the process of re-mobilising the country after the destruction and devastation of the war. Its first car was the Warszawa, a licence-built version of the Russian GAZ M20 Pobeda. This was a dated if robust pre-war design and sold well, thanks mainly to a lack of alternatives.
FSO realised that, to access more modern technology, it needed to look West, and it found a willing partner in Fiat. The Italian automotive giant was encouraged by a left-leaning government to agree a tie-up with FSO, which was signed in December 1965. The first product of this arrangement was the 1967 Polski Fiat 125P, a medium sized saloon car intended to replace the Warszawa.
While it looked similar to its Italian namesake, the 125P had been shorn of some of the more advanced engineering that featured on the Fiat 125. Instead of the latter’s modern 1.6-litre DOHC engine, the 125P featured older OHV engines from the superseded Fiat 1300 and 1500 models. Despite this, the car was robust and reliable, and sold well both domestically and in other Eastern Bloc countries. It was also exported to Western Europe, where it established a presence based on its value proposition.
The Fiat 125 ended production in 1972, making the 125P look increasingly outmoded. FSO was also keen to assert some design independence and began work on a new car that would owe nothing, in styling terms at least, to any production Fiat model. That said, the design that would emerge began life as a Fiat ESV(1) project in 1970. That design, by Fiat’s Centro Stile, was offered to FSO as the basis for its new model. It was then developed as Project 137(2) into something that could be built on the 125P floorpan and utilise its mechanical package.
Production of the new car, named Polonez(3), began in May 1978 in five-door liftback form, with the promise of other variants to follow. Its appearance was quite unusual, with large black rubber covered bumpers front and rear, and rubber cappings along the leading edge of the bonnet and across the tail above the rear light clusters. A broad black rubbing strip ran the length of the bodysides at bumper level. These details were inherited from the original ESV project. The four-light DLO featured large triangular C-pillars, the width of which was only partly disguised by ventilation grilles fitted behind the rear door windows.
While the Polonez affected a tilt at modernity, the design was compromised by budget limitations. The tailgate had a high loading lip and, inexplicably, the rear seat backrest was fixed, so the luggage space could not be extended in the conventional manner, robbing the car of the versatility expected in a hatchback. The suspension and drivetrain were carried over from the 125P and dated back to the 1961 debut of the Fiat 1300 and 1500.
The Polonez, like the 125P, was sold in Western Europe. Autocar Magazine subjected it to a full road test in March 1979. The 1,481cc OHV engine had been slightly uprated over that in the 125P and produced maximum power of 76bhp (57kW) and torque of 85 lb ft (115Nm). Performance was still leisurely: it took 17.0 seconds to reach 60mph (97km/h) and the top speed was 91mph (147km/h).
The gearchange was “not up to modern standards, especially for a conventional [RWD] box…baulking into first gear at times”. The Polonez was “a sadly noisy car” and the “old 1,500 engine…always dominates all other noises”. Approaching maximum speed, there was a “strong resonant period which is almost painful to the ears”. Overall petrol consumption on test was 21.9mpg (12.9L/100km), which was much poorer than the class average.
The road behaviour was described as “coarse”, with heavy and inaccurate worm and roller steering and a cumbersome 11.8m (38’9”) turning circle. The car rolled readily and its live axle and leaf spring rear end caused “initial understeer followed by typical leaf spring roll-oversteer”. The ride was “mediocre”, but no worse than other cars with a similarly primitive suspension setup.
Instrumentation was comprehensive, with a matching speedometer and rev-counter flanking smaller gauges for fuel, oil pressure and water temperature and a clock. The Fiat-sourced column stalks and minor switchgear worked well. Accommodation in the rear was “a sad disappointment”, with insufficient head and legroom.
Overall, the Polonez got an emphatic thumbs-down, dismissed as “a cheap, dynamically inadequate vehicle with a host of variously valuable gimmicky extras”. Its list price was £2,999 and, for £111 less than the Polonez, the Ford Escort 1300L, although smaller and sparsely equipped, was undoubtedly a much better buy.
Despite its superficial modernity, the Polonez actually appeared to be a backward step when compared with the 125P and the latter would remain in production until 1991. During that time, the Polonez received modest updates, although one notable variant was the 2000. Launched in 1979, this was fitted with a Fiat 1,995cc DOHC engine and five-speed gearbox, which considerably improved the driving experience. It was produced in small numbers and supplied mainly to Polish government officials. There was also a rather unlikely rally car derivative of the 2000.
In 1980, a three-door version of the Polonez was launched, featuring a broad B-pillar and an unusually long two-part rear side window. In 1983, a turbodiesel version was introduced, fitted with an Italian VM Motori 1,995cc engine. Neither the three-door nor the diesel engine version sold in significant numbers. An enlarged 1,598cc OHV petrol engine was offered from 1987. More significantly, a pick-up version was introduced in 1988 and this formed the basis for van and ambulance derivatives that utilised glass fibre rear bodywork.
Between 1985 and 1989, the Polonez received a series of worthwhile visual updates. In 1985, the rubber lip originally attached to the leading edge of the bonnet was replaced by a body-coloured capping. In 1987, an additional rear side window was inserted into the C-pillar. Finally, in 1989, the tailgate was extended down to bumper level, flanked by new, smaller rear light clusters.
Together, these changes expunged the 1970s Safety Car look of the original model and gave it a more conventionally attractive appearance, albeit one that was fashionable more than a decade earlier(4). The car now featured a catalytic converter on the 1.5 litre petrol engine and a new 1.3-litre turbodiesel, supplied by FNM, another Italian diesel engine specialist.
1991 brought another facelift and a new name, Caro. A new front end featured an inclined grille flanked by rectangular headlamps and outboard indicators. The Caro received fully integrated bumpers that wrapped around to the wheel arches. A raft of further engine changes followed: the original 1.3-litre OHV unit was dropped. A 2.0-litre Ford engine and five speed-gearbox from the Sierra was offered in a new range-topping model, as was Peugeot’s 1.9-litre XUD diesel engine.
1993 saw a minor facelift and the introduction of yet another engine, the Rover K-Series in 1.4-litre 16V form. This engine produced 105bhp (78kW) which gave the Caro a competitive 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 11 seconds and a top speed of 111mph (179km/h).
A long-promised four-door saloon version, the Atu(5), was finally introduced in 1995. In the same year, the Polish government privatised FSO by selling the company to Daewoo, the South Korean industrial conglomerate. Daewoo initially used FSO as a European assembly operation for its cars, then began full-scale production of the Lanos and Matiz models. 1997 saw the addition of a Plus suffix to both the Caro and Atu model names, indicating another light facelift and a new dashboard. A Kombi estate version with a stepped roof and vertical tailgate was launched in 1999.
Daewoo filed for bankruptcy in 2000. The sale of its assets to General Motors did not include FSO, so the Polish company became independent again, securing deals to continue production of the Lanos and Matiz for sale in Eastern Europe. The Polonez and its derivatives had finally run their course as FSO did not have the resources to update or replace them. Production ended in 2002 after around one million cars had been manufactured(6).
That the Polonez and its successors remained in production for almost a quarter of a century might be testament to the low standards and lack of choice in Eastern Bloc markets prior to 1990, but it was also down to the dogged determination and resourcefulness of FSO to keep it going. It was also helped to survive by remarkably good results in European crash testing, possibly a legacy of the car’s ESV origins.
Perhaps uniquely for such a long-running model, the last Caro Plus, relative to its peers, seemed no more uncompetitive in 2002 than the Polonez had been in 1978. Of course, that assertion may only serve to damn both with faint praise.
(1) Experimental Safety Vehicle.
(2) The car enjoyed input from some illustrious automotive designers: Giorgio Giugiaro on the Fiat ESV and Walter Da Silva on Project 137. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither designer seems keen to claim credit for the production car!
(3) The name derives from Polonaise, the French name for a style of dance originating in Poland.
(4) The facelifted Polonez bore more than a passing resemblance to the 1977 Volkswagen Passat B1 facelift, especially in the rear three-quarter view.
(5) The Atu had a six-light DLO and resembled the 1987 Volvo 460 saloon to some degree.
(6) Excluding commercial variants.