Keep On Holding On

A triumph of longevity, if little else.

1978 FSO Polonez. Image: autodata24.com

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 Instead of the latter’s modern 1.6-litre DOHC engine, the 125P featured older OHV engines from the superseded Fiat 1300 and 1500 models.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.

1967 Polski Fiat 125P. Image: favcars.com

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.

1978 FSO Polonez Interior. Image: pistonheads.com

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.

FSO Polonez in Police Spec. Image: autopaedia.com

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 FSO Polonez Caro. Image: madforwheels.com

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.

1995 FSO Polonez Atu. Image: polskajazda.pl

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

53 thoughts on “Keep On Holding On”

  1. Thanks for this interesting article Daniel. The Caro even looks pretty attractive to me. I never knew they used the Rover K-engine. I owned a Rover 214 once, I liked the engine. Although it was a bit noisy, it had that beautiful raw sound which reminded me of an Alfa Romeo.

  2. Keeping the Polonez running was thanks to the tenacious determination and ingenuity of the FSO. They engineers even installed Peugeot 405 headlights on the pre-production version of the Polonez Caro.

    1. The bonnet may also have been from a Peugeot 405. But narrowed. To keep the Polonez running.

    1. Good morning PJ. Sadly, it was liquidated in 2011, having failed to secure a new overseas partner when the Daewoo/GM licences expired.

    2. FSO no longer exists. The factory site is slowly being turned into a housing estate. FSO did not have the recognition of Skoda, for example, nor did it have much engineering experience of its own, which would have allowed it to start producing its own cars. FSO’s only own car was the Syrena, but it is better not to say anything about this car. The trade unions in the 1990s did not agree to the conditions set by most potential investors, such as laying off some workers or ending production of the obsolete Polonez. Then came Daewoo, which at that time was crazy with spending and agreed to all the conditions. We know how it ended for Daewoo, and FSO.

      Poland has never specialized in the production of passenger cars. Public transport is our specialty: buses, trams, trains, etc. We make pretty good ones, they sell all over Europe, but cars… not really.

    3. Thanks, Kamil. Good to have some local insight on this story. 👍

  3. Was the 1.6 OHV used in the Polonez a development of the 1300/1500 unit or despite the slight difference in cc’s sourced from the 124 Series?

    1. I think it was drilled up from the 124 Series. FSO did not have the resources for a new 1.6-litre engine
      in the 80′ after Poland’s Martial law .

    2. Bad CTRL + C. I wanted to write that it was drilled 1500. Becase state owened FSO did not have the resources for a new 1.6-litre engine in the 80′ after Poland’s Martial law .

    3. Makes sense that the 1.6 OHV would be a development of the 1300/1500.

    4. Interesting polyspheric combustion chamber. Dante Giacosa was very enthusiastic about that engine in its 1300/1500/2300 application, yet it was short-lived in Italy. The head is almost symmetrical, if anybody was thinking of making a V8 – unlikely in its new home in Warsaw.

    5. This head design is shared with the 1800/2300 six.
      The exhaust valves are nearly vertical and the inlet valves sit at an angle of about eighty degrees to them. Makes for very straight inlet porting and a strangely voluminous exhaust manifold. It’s astonishing that Aurelio Lampredi was allowed such a design for an everyday engine – this maybe shows how upmarket a 1,300cc car was in Italy at that time.

    6. Could the head design and other elements of the 1300/1500 (FSO 1600) and 1800/2100/2300 engines also be traced back to the 1100/103 (plus 1200 Granluce) and 8V/104?

    7. Here’s a picture of the FSO 1500 x 1.5 engine in a Fiat 2300S:

      Regrettably beautiful engines have gone the way of visibility, ride comfort, and manoeuvrability in motor car desiderata.

      There’s an even better looking version of the polyspheric-head OHV six in the lovely Michelotti-styled Abarth 2400 Allemano coupe:

  4. Hi Daniel, thanks for this. These ‘modern’ cars built on ancient underpinnings almost always had a stance that suggested the bodywork was too large for the underpinnings. The slightly more bulging sides of the Polonez compared to the more slab-sided 125 don’t help things. Not that truly modern (for the times) designs were necessarily much better. The Volvo 340 is another car with hiked up skirts (even though it’s a bit mean to such a mint condition early example).

    Speaking of Volvo: I can somewhat see the 460 – Polonez Atu link , but I think it’s a bit specious (decidedly not mint this time):

    I think the FSO is stylistically more related to its fellow Iron Curtain survivor, the Lada Samara saloon (aka VAZ 21099/Lada Sagona):

    1. Hi Tom. Two of the image links in your comment didn’t work. I’ve fixed the 460 one, but couldn’t find your 340 one, so substituted another image. Fair comment about the 460: the resemblance to the Atu isn’t that compelling.

    2. Thanks Daniel, somehow you managed to find the exact image I was trying to link. I didn’t know you were a psychic 😁.

  5. I don’t think it would be right to say that the Pobeda/Warszawa was a pre-war construction, as long as it was intruduced in 1946. Compared to other cars from the immediate post-war era it even looked quite up-to-date with its ponton body sides.

    1. Hi Asgeir. I suggested it was a pre-war design as work on the GAZ M20 Pobeda actually commenced in 1938, but was interrupted by the war as the factory was turned over to military production, but you make a fair point as the car wasn’t actually launched until 1946. A ‘wartime’ design might gave been a better descriptor.

    2. 1946 GAZ-M20 Pobeda:

      1949 (Second Series, also produced as the FSO Warszawa starting in 1951):

  6. And which other car companies made cars with ponton body sides in 1946? I can only think of Kaiser.

    1. There’s the Darrin, too, although it’s not from what you’d call a major manufacturer. The GAZ / FSO had very up-to-the minute styling. It reminds me a bit of the Standard Vanguard which arrived a year or two later, although I prefer the FSO.

  7. There is something of a ‘who really designed?’ story going on with the Polonez. FSO designer Zbigniew Wattson (1938-2010) was unquestionably working at Centro Stile for some time on Project 137 – this according to the Polish Wikipedia article on Wattson:

    https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zbigniew_Wattson

    “In 1975 , Wattson worked on a delegation in Italy, at the Turin design center Centro Stile Fiat , on the future Polonaise prepared there . He was the author of car interior elements, including the dashboard. The analysis of the exterior design suggests that its influence on the final form of the vehicle could have been greater.”

    The footnotes refer to a 2013 article by Marek Ponikowski in the Gdansk -based newspaper Dziennik Bałtycki titled “A forgotten FSO prototype – who designed the Polonez?”

    Going by my visits to Poland in the last few years, the 125P, Polenez, and even the 126 seem to be near-extinct, although I did hit the jackpot with this sighting of a rare Rover-engined Polonez 1.4 GLi in Międzyzdroje:

    1. The true facts I suppose have been lost to the mists of time, but there are certain corners of the internet which suggest the base for the Polonez’s styling was drawn from this (rejected) in-house 1974 design for the Delta:

    2. Good morning Stradale. There’s more than a passing resemblance between the Delta proposal and the Polonez coupé:

    3. Robertas, I think this is post-1991 Polonez Caro retrofitted with older front. It’s actually very common In Poland to make socialist era cars look older than they are. Even the latest Polonezes from 2001/2002 are being converted to 80s/70s models. This is because the later Polonezes offer slightly more modern travel conditions and are much more accessible and cheaper. This does not only apply to the Polonez, for example the Fiat 126 from the late 80s are being converted to an early 70s models.

    4. Hi Kamil. That’s interesting. Is it some form of inverted snobbery or a retro fashion statement for Soviet-era chic?

    5. Kamil – that’s interesting information about retr0-modification of post “socialist era” cars back to the appearance of their predecessors. Is there an equivalent Polish word to the German “Ostalgie”?

      I’d have liked to ask the owner of the Międzyzdroje Polonez some questions, but my Polish language skills are virtually zero.

      I also noted your comment: “Another interesting fact, the production of the Polonez increased significantly after the fall of communism, because almost overnight it went from being a hard to get prestige car to one of the cheapest new cars on the open market.”

      It was a similar story with the Wartburg 1.3, the last incarnation of the 353, with a transversely installed VW EA111 engine made in the Barkas-Werke. An impressive 152,775 produced in 28 months (including 920 export-only pick-ups). Was it just cheapness, or middle-aged Ossies finally being able to buy the car of their dreams?

    6. I would say it’s definitely something similar to Ostalgie. We have PRL (Polish People’s Republic) themed bars everywhere. Communist era furniture is expensive and fashionable, some of them are in production again. The same applies to cars etc. We hate those times in general, but there is a lot of nostalgia for simpler times, being less focused on getting rich ASAP

      During communist period the reverse was being done for cars. People modified their older cars to look more similar to brand new ones. Times have changed 🙂

    7. I would say it’s definitely something similar to Ostalgie. We have PRL (Polish People’s Republic) themed bars everywhere. Communist era furniture is expensive and fashionable, some of them are in production again. The same applies to cars etc. We hate those times in general, but there is a lot of nostalgia for simpler times, being less focused on getting rich ASAP

    8. Who really designed the Polonez is a really hard question. In Poland there is said that Giorgio Giugiaro designed Fiat Project 137 on the basis Fiat ESV 2000 Libre as a Fiat 132 successor. But Gianni Agnelli disliked it. Polish Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych wanted an change of the Fiat 125p for the 1970’s. But designs from Fiat Centro Stile were not enough for them. Walter Da Silva that worked for Fiat Centro Stile then changed Giugiaro’s Fiat Project 137 on the Fiat 125p floorpan. Maybee that’s the reason also why Fiat 132/Argenta were make so long. And therefore neither designer keen to claim credit for the production Polonez.
      https://scontent.fprg5-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t39.30808-6/273240373_4913613458716269_4837846824918411582_n.jpg?_nc_cat=106&ccb=1-5&_nc_sid=dbeb18&_nc_ohc=pPKT-bVCu0MAX-a4CmU&_nc_ht=scontent.fprg5-1.fna&oh=00_AT_vJKkz0Q3lqtEoJsoIv0qJ1Xw3jvQRZeRY1JzGTxBt6w&oe=626305B6

    9. Hi Martin. Thanks for the information and images. The four-door saloon version reminds me of the Peugeot 604, albeit on a smaller scale.

  8. I think FSO Polonez is a story of unfulfilled expectations. The Polski Fiat 125p world records of 25,000, 50,000 km and 25,000 miles previously held by Ford Cortina or the success of the Fiat 125p “Monte Carlo” 1600 and the Polski Fiat 125p “Acropolis” 1800 brought good sales of the regular Polski Fiat 125p in the west. This led to an ambitious plan for a new type of car, increased production and sales under its own brand. However, the resulting car, which complied with the strict passive safety regulations of the USA, even before their slowing down, was difficult and did not achieve the desired sporting success even with the Fiat 2.0 DOHC engines as effective unpaid advertising. The name Polonez, which may have been targeted at large communities of Poles in the West, did not work. On the contrary, a new brand had to be built expensively. Sales were poor and did not provide the means for the necessary innovations or the planned increase in production. And so Polonez was produced and sold little for the little Western currency, even in Poland. He did not even export to the Eastern Bloc, even though his conditions were a modern and bulky car and there was interest in him.

  9. Based on the car’s background, it is kind of surprising FSO never contemplated a smaller Lada-sized model to sit beneath the Polonez.

    1. For those on the other end of the Iron Curtain, this is a little surprising. However, the Soviet Union, which attacked Poland militarily under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939 to eventually liberate it and to pay it due from its post-war reparations under the Potsdam Agreement, never did so. Therefore, it is not surprising that Poland did not receive any investment. In addition, the CMEA had to trade at dictated prices favorable to Moscow.

    2. Another technical thing was that at that time East Germany was allowed to produce cars with engines up to 1 liter, Czechoslovakia up to 1.2 liters and Poland 1.3-1.5 liters.

    3. They sort of did, with the 1300cc 125 and Polonez. There’s only 85mm wheelbase difference between the 124 and 125 , although the 125 is 202mm longer. It wouldn’t have been beyond the wit of the Polish engineers to devise a truncated 125 platform, perhaps adopting the 80mm shorter Fiat 1300 floorpan and a shortened tail. But why bother? They could sell every car the factory could produce, and variations would require expensive new tooling, sourced from the west with hard currency.

      SEAT took a similar approach with their long-lived 124, making it do the jobs of both the 128 Berlina and 125.

      Life was so much easier in a closed market…

  10. Just for fun I dug up these three FSO Polonez brochures I have; the first one is from around the introduction of the car and shows it in its original guise. The second one shows a slightly facelifted car (with a less chromey grille) and a cheaper entry level variant with single rectangular headlights that give it a Passat-ish face; in its day I saw quite a few FSO Polonez’ on Dutch roads but I don’t recall ever seeing this single headlight version. The last brochure is from 1991 and displays the facelifted 1.5 Injection version, which according to the brochure now finally featured a fold-down rear seat. Also according to the brochure text the fuel injection system was developed with help of the Dutch TNO institute in Delft.

    1. Good morning Bruno. Thanks for sharing your brochure pictures. Is the Polonez one of those unicorns, a car that got progressively better looking with each successive facelift? Ignoring the naff decal on the C-pillars, this is almost stylish (for 1980):

    2. You can say that it was getting more stylish in a way 🙂 1991 Caro looked much better than previous models. It had redesigned both front- and rear-ends. In 1993 the rear track width was extended, which made the car look much neater. The problem was that this 1993 model would have looked contemporary in 1983 maybe. Another interesting fact, the production of the Polonez increased significantly after the fall of communism, because almost overnight it went from being a hard to get prestige car to one of the cheapest new cars on the open market.

    1. Hello Richard. Haven’t you got the hang of this yet? 😁

  11. Hello Daniel. The Polonez were not rare to see around here, on the other hand they were not seen frequently. I remember the 5 door car, with the round headlamps. Never seen the 3 door car. The version with the third side window was in exclusively limited numbers.

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