Monday December 5, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts
She looks winsome. They look like bit actors from Man About the House. The fashions look as though they were created in the dark. And the car in the middle of the frame is the Polski-Fiat 125p which, for many years, was second fiddle in the British market to the Lada.
But this is to neglect a machine that on its UK debut 41 years ago, could easily match the Soviet machine for sheer utilitarian finesse inch for inch. This brochure promises glamour and excitement but the reality was so often a minicab at Southampton Eastern Docks on a wet October morning.
The Polski-Fiat was the result of the need of the Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych (Passenger Automobile Factory or FSO) near Warsaw to manufacture a car to earn Western currencies in the export markets. After various negotiations, the 22nd December 1965 saw Fiat grant FSO a licence to build 70,000 cars per year and the new model would combine the body and disc brakes of the forthcoming 125 with the power plant, suspension, gear change and dashboard of the soon to cease production 1961 1300/1500.
The 125p was formally launched in March 1968 under the ‘Polski-Fiat’ brand, although the chances of a Polish driver acquiring one were remote as it cost 185,000 zlotych, or virtually seven years’ wages for the average worker. FSO extensively marketed its wares overseas, including the UK from 1975 onwards and to cater for the Polski-Fiat there was a network of 80 dealers, some of them based in villages that regarded The Wicker Man as a public information film.
In appearance, the Polski-Fiat may have resembled its Italian parent but the driving experience was somewhat different. Many enthusiasts know that the Fiat 125’s sober appearance belied its abilities as a sports saloon but the 125p was not just pretending to be less than thrilling to drive – it really was less than thrilling to drive. A 93-mph top speed from the 1500 version may have been acceptable but the 125p had a gear change that was moderately horrible, steering that was vague and handling that was best described as ‘interesting’. Yet, none of these drawbacks prevented it from becoming quite a commercial success in the UK - its road manners may have been antediluvian but to motorists who were considering trading in their ten-year-old Morris Oxford or Vauxhall Victor FC the Polski-Fiat seemed almost up to the minute.
Better still, for the budget-minded British motorist of 1975 the 125p offered value for money, for just £1,159 for the saloon or £1,299 for the five-door estate, a version never offered by Fiat. This compared very favourably with £1,579 for a Ford Cortina 1300 2-door Mk. III or £1,180 for a Mini 850 and although the 125p’s road manners were about as gripping as an average episode of Take the High Road the equipment list included a reversing lamp, laminated windscreen, a wiper delay, a cigarette lighter, electric screen washers and reclining front seats. Motor Sport found the 125p to be ‘a proper motor car, practical, sturdy, well-finished and proven in more than 40 countries to which it is exported throughout the world’ and even those acerbic chaps at Car magazine, thought that it ‘could not be faulted in terms of value for money as all-round family saloon’.
The expiry of the FSO/Fiat agreement in 1983 lead to the demise of the Polski-Fiat brand but the 125p was made until as recently as 1991, some 29 years after the demise of the Turin built 125. Some 1,445,689 were produced but few still exist as the Warsaw-built cars proved to be as corrosion-prone as their Italian counterparts. Any surviving 125p conveys an idiosyncratic fascination as they are cars that were designed to be workhorses, with driver enjoyment seen as largely irrelevant; it remains a rare example of a car that was at its best in pick-up truck form.