1983 FSO Polonez 2.0 D Turbo
Country of Origin: Poland
Design Info: The Polonez was primarily a five-door hatchback, though was also available variously as a three-door hatchback, pickup truck, or van, and also purpose built police cars and ambulances. Based upon an updated version of the Fiat 125p (which would eventually be called the FSO 1500), the Polonez featured a new design by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro, designer of the DeLorean, Lotus Esprit, and De Tomaso Mangusta among many other storied cars. Built largely of cheap materials with outdated manufacturing equipment, the Polonez was distinct from the other cars manufactured in the Eastern Bloc chiefly in safety: It was the only car built in Eastern Europe that successfully passed crash tests in the United States in 1978.
Engine Info: Some Polonez (Polonezzes? Poloneze?) were equipped with a 2.0 Fiat Twin-Cam engine, but these were mostly given to government officials, and because FSO could not secure rights to produce the engines, production of these models remained low. Most Polonez were equipped with a variety of small displacement four cylinder gasoline engines, also of Fiat origin. The 2.0 D Turbo, released in 1983, was instead equipped with an Italian VM Motori turbo diesel inline four. This engine made around 82 hp, slightly more than the available gasoline engines, and was good for a top speed of 91 mph.
Type: A rear-wheel drive economy hatchback, the Polonez is comparable to other economy cars of the era, including the (also Giugaro-designed) Mk I Volkswagen Golf, Fiat 131, AMC Pacer, and other Eastern cars like the Lada Riva.
History: Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych, or FSO, was founded to domestically produce cars for the Polish population. The company began by building a badge-engineered version of the Soviet GAZ-M20, but by 1957 had begun building a car of their own design, the two-stroke Syrena.
Seven years later, looking for a more modern vehicle to produce, the Polish government struck a deal with Fiat for license production of their 125 model. This car, which would later also be licensed for manufacture in Yugoslavia, Egypt, Argentina, Chile, and Morocco, would be built by FSO as the Polski Fiat 125p. When the licensing deal ended in 1983, FSO continued producing the car as the FSO 125p and later FSO 1300/1500.
In the early 1970s, FSO began exploring production of another model using 125p components. Initially based on a 1971 Fiat concept called the ESV (European Safety Vehicle), it was determined that many changes would be necessary in order to bring the new design in line with Polish regulations. FSO hired Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro to work with its own engineers in developing a body for the 125p mechanicals that would be suitable for the Polish populace. A reader’s poll in the Polish newspaper Życie Warszawy (Life of Warsaw ) was held to name the new car, and the Polonez (named for a traditional Polish dance, the polonaise) entered production in 1978.
FSO began predominantly with 1300 and 1500 models, though rallying cars were racing later that year, eventually to be homologated for Group IV, Group II, and Group B. Two-liter models began production in small numbers in 1979 for VIPs, and beginning in the 80s, FSO began experimenting with new styles and trim levels.
In 1983, FSO produced a number of turbo diesel powered cars, called the Polonez 2.0 D Turbo. These cars were slightly more powerful than the gasoline powered cars, but were also heavier, leading to a small, but not insignificant, increase in performance. The advantage to these cars, however, was in context of the struggling Polish economy: While the diesel cars were a bit more expensive, gasoline was being rationed in Poland, but diesel fuel was not.
FSO would continue building the Polonez in various forms, including pickups and small vans, as well as with different engines including diesel Citroen and FNM motors and for the final years, a 2.0 liter Ford. Production ended in 1991, alongside the 125p, though a second generation version (no longer based on the 125p), the Polonez Caro, would be built until 1997. Over one million Polonez across both generations were produced. FSO itself was sold to Daewoo Motors in 1995, became independent again when Daewoo went bankrupt in 2000, and produced its final cars in 2011, Chevrolet Aveos built in partnership with GM. FSO remains a solvent company in the auto industry, building suspension and electrical components, exhausts, and fuel tanks, as well as non-automotive products like household lamps and Legos.
Why it’s cool/unique/significant: On an episode of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson once posited that the FSO Polonez inspired Polish statesman Lech Wałęsa to stand up to the Soviet Union – because he “wanted a new car”. In typical Clarkson style, he proceeded to deride the Polonez as the worst car he’d ever driven, and hung it from a crane to use as a wrecking ball…to destroy another Polonez. It is likely that many UK motorists old enough to have driven one of these cars thought this was an appropriate fate.
For the Polish people, however, a much different narrative would be likely. The Polonez is a point of pride for some Poles, both as a people’s car and as something that was once aspirational. Over the course of the Polonez’s production, Polish citizens wanting a car either had to wait on a list for years before one would become available to them, or take a chance at buying a used car in a “curbside market”, paying more money in cash (often USD) than a new car would have cost, if it were available.
Many of the original Polonez are no longer on the road, breaking down or rusting away, which has made the car hard to find for enthusiasts who appreciate it. Nevertheless, an FSO Polonez club with over 20,000 members exists in Poland, with members who own, drive, and modify their cars meeting for various events in the country. Many cars with wide cult followings started as attainable cars for the masses, and are celebrated as icons today. It would be hard to point out a more iconic Polish car than the FSO Polonez.