From Bambino to Maluch.
In the normal order of things, the cessation of Italian production by mid-decade should really have signalled the end for the Fiat 126. Outdated in concept, outclassed by an increasingly sophisticated and capable cohort of putative rivals in the budget car sector – not least Fiat’s own Panda model – its residual appeal largely a function of its cheapness, compact dimensions and miniscule running costs, the rationale for continuing appeared marginal at best.
Whether it had been FIAT Auto’s intention all along, or simply a happy confluence of factors, but the wholesale shift of 126 production to Tychy, not to mention the ongoing demand for the Maluch in its adopted Polish home, would facilitate the 126 remaining available to those amid Western European markets for whom nothing but a 126 would do.
This state of affairs prompted FIAT to consider a series of revisions to the car, in effect the most far-reaching in its long life. Introduced in 1987, the 126 Bis arrived with another boost in power and for the first time, a rear hatchback; these two traits conjoined insofar as one facilitated the other.
The all-alloy 704 cc twin-cylinder engine was as good as new; now water cooled, it was installed on its side, with external access through a hinged trapdoor within the (rear) boot floor. The new (lighter) power unit developed 26 bhp at 4,500 rpm and peak torque of 34.6 lb ft at a much lower 2,000 rpm, making the little twin considerably more flexible in use. Quieter too, owing to the silencing characteristics of the water jackets and the engine’s encapsulated installation.
A rack and pinion replaced the previous worm and roller steering mechanism and wheels and tyres too were upgraded. Inside, the cabin received a makeover, with matters like cabin ventilation brought up to 1980s standards. The revised engine layout also allowed for the provision of a shallow load area, capacity of which could be increased considerably by folding the rear backrest. Externally, integrated polyurethane bumper shrouds now clad both extremities, with lower-mounted side rubbing strakes to harmonise, while flush wheel trims, new design tail lamps and that hatchback rear brought further visual distinction.
In its December 1987 issue, Car magazine’s Ian Fraser sampled a 126 Bis (again in Italy) for no better reason it appeared but to reprise his 1972 verdict. Time did not appear to have mellowed his disdain – Fraser continuing to pour scorn upon the bambino, even if he had, grudgingly, to concede that it had some merit. Nevertheless, “More bovver than a hovver” would subsequently become the official GBU throwaway party line, to be replaced by the even pithier, “Are they taking the Bis?”
Fortunately, at least one fellow scribe grasped the 126’s appeal. In the April 1990 issue, LJK Setright, having also essayed forth in a 126 Bis delivered an entirely different verdict. “The 126“, he admonished, “is simply not to be taken seriously. It is far too much fun.” Setright knew what he was about, driving the bambino as it ought – flat out at all times, employing the time-honoured principle of “circumventing the impossibility of going fast by simply never going slowly“. Possibly shamed into submission by LJKS’ elevated logic, Car enacted a GBU volte-face in May 1990, elevating the Bis from ‘Boring’ to ‘Interesting’, with the sobriquet, “Gives you a buzz.”
As the 1990s dawned, those for whom automotive Bis remained 126-shaped dwindled, FIAT UK ceasing imports of the model from around 1992. With the Turin carmaker now pushing the new Cinquecento model, European demand was also fading – Mirafiori’s Panda standing in to maintain the entry-level flame.
Meanwhile in captive-market Poland, demand remained buoyant, the Maluch having become as much cultural touchstone as transportation tool. Such was the name’s prevalence that FSM badged the cars as such for the final years of production. With Poland becoming confirmed as a European Union member state in 1994, EU environmental mandates meant the 126 would require both fuel injection and a catalytic converter, both of which it received. Safety regulations too saw headrests being fitted front and rear. In 2000, the final Maluch ‘Happy End’ was built in Tychy. Italian production of the 126 would conclude with in excess of 1,350,000 units, while over 3,318,000 cars were built in Poland by the time production ceased entirely.
Sales figures are hardly a reliable barometer of virtue or success, but they do tell a story of sorts. But as FIAT’s spokesman asserted in 1972, the true arbiter in the case of the 126 was the passage of time, rather than the outpourings of motor journalists, feckless or otherwise. Any car that carries the accolade of having facilitated an entire nation towards motorisation cannot be altogether reprehensible. To grasp the true nature of the 126 was to appreciate it – not for what it couldn’t do, but for what only it could.
Nobody took the 126 seriously – nobody, apart from FIAT themselves (who in Setright’s opinion took it very seriously indeed), not to mention those who owned and enjoyed it. History has yet to grant the 126 its due acknowledgement – living in such close proximity to the more vaunted Nuova 500’s outsized shadow will do that for you. But while the Cinquecento motorised an entire nation, the 126, so closely based upon its illustrious forebear, it could equally be argued, motorised two of them.
So perhaps the question does not centre around whether the 126 was a good car (it was), but whether it was a significant one. Because that, on the other hand, is entirely beyond doubt.
Not a bad epitaph for a little one.
 Maluch translates from Polish as child or little one.
 By the mid-1980s, around 40,000 126s found homes in Western European markets per annum. Not huge numbers, but not worth turning one’s nose up at either.
 “In one respect, the 126 is a truly economical car. It costs very little to buy; depreciation, what is more, can be altogether ignored, for you should never sell it. You would only have to buy another (there is no effective substitute), which would be no better and no worse; better to keep it, and keep on using it, until it has been used up”. (LJK. Setright – Car: April 1990)
 A neat feature of the tailgate design was how Fiat designers employed a clamshell effect, utilising the pre-existing drainage channel as a shutline.
 By 1987, the 126 was Britain’s cheapest new car.
 This was the only way to get the most out of the limited power at one’s disposal. Driving it this way did little for fuel consumption, but even so, the 126 cost little or nothing to run. It also made driving the car an absolute hoot.
 Perhaps LJKS’ reference to a “feckless horde of motoring journalists” struck a nerve with Mr. Editor G. Green, Setting him upon the Path of Righteousness.
 At the time of writing it was unclear as to when exactly Western European 126 sales ceased.
 The very last Maluch to leave Tychy was not a 126 Bis, but retained the older bodyshell with the bottom-hinged engine cover. This car has been retained in the FCA Heritage collection, along with a pre-production 126 from 1972.
 The 126 also sold in useful numbers in China.
Sources: FCA Heritage/ FIAT Publicity/ Car Magazine December 1972, December 1987, April 1990/ Autocar August 1973, 6 April 1974.