Happy Birthday, little one! Iconic Fiat 126p, known fondly as Maluch (little one), turns 46 today
The legendary Polish Fiat 126p known as the “Maluch” (the little one) began production in Poland 46 years ago today.
The FSM factory in Bielsko-Biała and after a while the second line in Tychy made 3,318,674 of what would become the most popular vehicles in Poland up to the nineties.
The official version is that the production started on July 22nd, 1973. The date held a special meaning to the communist authorities, as it was the National Day of the Rebirth of Poland instated on the Polish Committee of National Liberation Manifesto proclamation.
In truth, the first cars were ready on June 6th, while the contract with Italian Fiat, which allowed the Polish factories to make the cars, was signed on October 29th, 1971. In the 30 years it was produced, Maluch kept its outside appearance, while the engine was made more powerful.
To the confusion of today’s car enthusiast, the trunk was located in the front, while the engine in the back. The rear-wheel drive allowed the little car to drive up steep roads, which it should logically shouldn’t be able to reach.
A car used by generations of Polish families, it still lacked a very basic feature – any comfort inside, despite the improvements made by FSM engineers. In dzieje.pl, musician Wojciech Karolak recalls his experience driving a Maluch: "Only once in my life I drove a Maluch and I think that was enough for me. I felt like a suicidal person, who is getting into a catapult. The horrifying discomfort of the ride was not as troublesome as the realization that an accident in this car means death. The car should be the size of a car, not a soap dish.”
Despite its miniscule size, the car fulfilled the dream of Poles struggling under the communist rationing. All of a sudden, having a car of their own became possible, even if at the beginning it cost the equivalent of 30 average month salaries.
Although the three million plus Maluchs rolled out may seem a large number, it was only a drop in the sea of needs. Curiously, the start of the mass production coincided with the communist authorities deciding to make Saturdays a work-free day.
To divert public attention from the real crisis within the system, the authorities pushed for an increase in tourism. Giving the people the ability to travel in a car was part of this plan, as were facilitations in issuing passports.
Historian Paweł Sowiński wrote: "Changes in tourism wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for a fundamental change in the course of social policy within the communist camp. As a result of a significant increase in funds intended for collective consumption, it took on dimensions previously unknown in the history of Soviet communism.”
Those changes led to an interesting result – car owners started travelling more, spending money on touristic services, rather than alcohol.
The legendary car even had a sports version which, according to driver Robert Herba, reached up to 170km/h.
The Maluch production stopped in the autumn of 2000, with the last 150 cars leaving the factory lines – with a series called Happy End. However it wasn’t the end of Maluch’s story, as his legendary status united fans from Poland and abroad.
The Chinese city Wenzhou boasts having 5,000 Maluchs serving as taxis. In Cuba, the car is also extremely popular, with the owners asking every Pole they met for help in getting new parts.
Maluch’s more recent claim to fame came from actor Tom Hanks and adventurer Arkady Fiedler. Hanks declared his love for the vehicle on Twitter, leading to the people of Bielsko-Biała sending him a white Maluch of his own across the Atlantic.
Arkady Fiedler, writer and traveller, grandson of the “Squadron 303” author, took a Maluch on epic journeys – across Africa and across Asia. Recently he moved on to an electric Nissan Leaf, to once again drive through Africa, this time from south to north.