- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2000

WARSAW It has been ridiculed as a tin matchbox on wheels, a sputtering, snub-nosed parody of modern motoring, but it managed a feat probably no other vehicle could: putting the Polish masses on the road.

Now the tiny Polski Fiat 126 known as "Maluch," or "Toddler," to its Polish devotees is nearing the end of a remarkable 27-year run.

Born in the communist era when any car was precious, the Maluch is going out of production after this month. Post-communist efforts to modernize it did not match Polish tastes for bigger, faster cars.

Though it sorely lacked power, size and style, the Maluch had one feature that made it a huge hit in communist-era Poland: It was available.

"We may laugh at it, but it really made Poland a car-driving nation," said Maciej Brzozowski, spokesman for Fiat's Polish division.

The deal with Italy's Fiat to make the 126 in Bielsko-Biala, 200 miles south of Warsaw, was communist Poland's first big encounter with Western technology. It was intended as an everyman's car with a little Western flare.

The first models, in 1973, came in just a few washed-out colors and cost the equivalent of two years' wages for average workers, but Poles eagerly raided their savings.

"It was a lot of money then. I spent three months picking grapes in France to earn it," said Grzegorz Kotlarek, 44, a taxi driver, who paid $1,100 for a Maluch in 1979.

"But it was a dream for ordinary Poles. There were few cars on the market, and someone who had one was regarded as better, wealthier and freer than other people."

More than 2 million of the 3.3 million 126s ever built are still on the road in Poland. About 700,000 were exported, earning precious hard currency for the communist state but causing a Maluch deficit at home. The government resorted to coupon rationing, and buyers sometimes waited two years to take delivery.

One joke had it that the 126 at just 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide was so small it earned a blessing from the Vatican because it was almost impossible for teen-agers to have sex in one. Some Poles called them roller skates for elephants. One visiting Westerner is said to have remarked that Poland must be a rich country because even the children have cars.

But the Maluch was easy to maneuver in the city and light enough to avoid sinking in muddy tracks in the countryside. The two-cylinder rear engine was no powerhouse you needed a hill and a tail wind to reach the rated top speed of 65 mph but it could coax 35 miles from a gallon of gas.

Farmers packed them with produce to sell in town. You could even haul a washing machine if you removed the front passenger seat.

Polski Fiats so changed the lives of some households that they were given names and treated like family pets. A small industry developed around spare parts, spoilers, fog lights, chrome wheels and other dress-up accessories.

Young people attached roof racks and trailers against the manufacturer's advice and heaped them with cheap Polish food and camping gear for trips across Europe.

Now, 10 years after the fall of communist rule, market economics has caught up with the beloved Toddler. Poles want bigger cars and are willing to pay for them.

Though the 126 costs only $4,300, sales fell 20 percent last year, to fewer than 29,000 cars. Sales of the more spacious and twice as expensive Lanos, made in Poland by South Korea's Daewoo, rocketed to 40,000 cars from 8,000.

"A Maluch was my first car when I was young and just married," said Elzbieta Rodzinska, 42, an architect. "I have the best memories of it. It took us where we wanted in Poland and abroad. I will miss the sight of it when it vanishes from the roads."

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