The Fiat 126 was a city car introduced in 1972 as a replacement for the Fiat 500. Most were produced in Poland as the Polski Fiat 126p until 2000. It was replaced by the front-engined Fiat Cinquecento in 1993.
The 126 used much of the same mechanical underpinnings and layout as its rear-engined predecessor, but with an all new bodyshell closely resembling a scaled-down Fiat 127. Engine capacity gradually increased from 594 cc to 652 cc and then to 704 cc in new “restyling” model Fiat 126 Bis (1987-1991), with 26 bhp of motive power.
In Italy, the car was produced in the plants of Cassino and Termini Imerese until the 1980s.
The car continued however to be manufactured by FSM in Poland, where the 126 was produced from 1973 to 2000 as the Polski Fiat 126p. After the introduction of the 126 Bis (126p with water-cooled engine – Polish own construction), the original model continued to be produced for the Polish market. The car was also produced on license by Zastava in Yugoslavia. In 1984, the 126 received a facelift, giving it plastic bumpers (for all versions) and a new dashboard. This model named Fiat 126p FL. In 1994, the 126p received its next facelift, and some parts from Fiat Cinquecento, this version named 126 EL. The 126 ELX introduced a catalytic converter.
Despite clever marketing, the 126 never achieved the frenzied popularity of the 500. The total number of 126 produced is estimated at c. 1,300,000 in Italy, 3,300,000 in Poland and an unknown number in Yugoslavia.
Polski Fiat 126p (literally in English: Polish Fiat 126p) was produced in Poland between 1973 and 2000. At first it was almost identical with the basic model, but there were some differences, like the higher chassis, the modified grille on the back, and the front blinkers that were white in Italy but orange for other markets. To distinguish it from the original Italian car, the letter “p” was added to its name. It was produced by Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych (FSM) in Bielsko-Biała and Tychy under Italian Fiat license. Due to a relatively low price it used to be very popular in Poland and was arguably the most popular car in Poland in 1980s. Its very small size gave it the nickname Maluch (“the small one”, pronounced “Mah-looh”, IPA: ['malux]). The nickname became so popular that in 1997 it was accepted by the producer as the official name of the car.
It was exported to many Eastern bloc countries and for several years it was one of the most popular cars in Poland and in Hungary, too. It also found market success in Australia for several years from the the late 1980s to the early 1990s under the brand name FSM – Niki 650.
History of PF 126p
* 1972 – the FSM car factory was built in Bielsko-Biała.
* 6 June 1973 – the first Polski Fiat 126p constructed from Italian parts. It cost about 69 000 zlotys (an average monthly salary in that times was about 3,500 zlotys while low income was 800 zloty)
* 22 July 1973 – the official opening of the factory’s production line (till the end of that year over 1500 Fiats were manufactured) .
* September 1975 – production started in a factory in Tychy.
* 1977 – engine capacity increased from 594 cc (36,26″) to 652 cc (39,80″). Engine power increased to about 24 hp equal about 17 kW.
* 1978 – production of types with engine capacity 594 cc stopped.
* 1979 – production of Polski Fiat 126p continued only in Bielsko-Biała.
* 1981 – 1,000,000th Polski Fiat 126p produced.
* December 1984 – technical changes in the construction and body. Type FL created.
* 1987 – beginning of the production of Polski Fiat 126p Bis version (capacity 700 cc – 42,73″).
* May 1993 – 3,000,000th Polish Fiat 126p produced.
* September 1994 – body improvement, creating type “el” with parts similar to those used in Fiat Cinquecento.
* January 1997 – introduction of a catalytic converter.
* October 2000 – production was stopped after a production of 3,320,000 units. All Fiats of the last limited Happy End series were yellow.
The global production of this amiable car was 4,670,000 units : 1,350,000 in Italy and 3,320,000 in Poland.
The PF 126p has a very special meaning for the Poles and its story had a connection with Polish politics in a communist period (Polish People’s Republic, up to 1989). In a communist system, a private car was considered a luxury good, due to limited availability and low salaries. In 1971, there were only 556,000 passenger cars in Poland. It should be noted that in a socialist planned economy, a decision whether a state-owned factory can produce a car was taken on a political basis, not an economic one. The authorities themselves initially did not find the idea of private cars attractive. The first relatively cheap Polish car was Syrena, but its production was limited. Limited numbers of cars were also imported from other Eastern Bloc countries. It was difficult to buy a foreign car because the Polish currency złoty was not exchangeable, just like currencies in other communist states, and there was no free market. The PF 126p was supposed to be the first real popular car, to motorize ordinary families (from this point of view, it is commonly considered as the Polish Volkswagen Beetle or Citroën 2CV). The licence was bought after the rule in Poland was taken by the new communist party leader, Edward Gierek, who wanted to gain popular favour by increasing consumption after spartan times of ascetic Władysław Gomułka. Despite it was a very small city car, in reality it was the only choice for most families, playing a role of a family car (common holiday view were four-person families riding PF-126s abroad with huge suitcases on a roof rack; sightings of PF-126s towing a small-type caravan were a few times also reported). Its production, however, was not sufficient and the PF 126p was distributed through a waiting list. Often the families had to wait a couple of years to buy a car. A coupon for a car could also be given by the authorities for merits.