Top Gear Magazine 08/2007


Polski Fiat 126 Group2 Ex-Works

Posted: August 16, 2007
Source: TopGear Magazine

Small Wonder from 08|2007

In the 70s, the Polski Fiat 126 put in some very big performances as a rally car. Bill Thomas heads to Poland where it was established.

There had to be a moment when I saw the Polski Fiat 126 Group 2 for the first time. It happened as we drove down a narrow road near Bielsko Biała, in south-western Poland – there, amid glorious rolling countryside, sitting in front of a neat, red-roofed workshop, was the little blue and white rally car, resplendent in the markings the original wore in the late 1970s, during some of the most heroic drives in rallying history.

This is a car that defies the laws of perspective, because it looks bigger from further away, and gets smaller as you approach. You need to be right up close to appreciate its sensational lack of size – if you’ve seen a 126 on the road recently, you’ll know what I mean.

Its lines have aged more gracefully than any 30-year-old car I can think of right now – it’s beyond ‘cute’, it’s properly pretty, clean, uncluttered, sweet. As we’ve read elsewhere in this magazine, if it’s small and it’s a Fiat, it’s hard not to fall in love with.

So I did – I had no choice. I fell in love, at first sight, smitten to the core. And so did Top Gear creative director Charlie Turner, another self-confessed small Fiat nut. Only ‘nut’ can describe a man who would willingly volunteer to accompany me on this 126 drive – a thousand miles from the factory in Poland back to London via Berlin. 

You can now buy a 126 replica like this for around £7,000. The cars use original 126 bodyshells and are lovingly prepared by 126 Group 2 in Bielsko Biała, just as the old Polish works rally cars were – roll cage, tuned engine, trick suspension, stripped bare.

Over three million Polski Fiat 126 road cars were license-built by FSM in Poland between 1973 and 2000, so there are plenty of bodyshells to go round. Polish roads are still clogged with the things.

However, to qualify for FIA-spec in historic rallies – the main raison d’être for this replica, though I suspect many people will buy it just to cherish it – the 126 must use a bodyshell constructed between 1978 and 1983. No problem, thousands to choose from.

It’s a little-documented part of rallying history, Poland and Eastern Europe in the late 1970s, but talking to some of the participants and hearing their stories, I can tell you it’s at a very high level for sheer guts, bravado and skill. And the FSM-OBR Polski 126s were in the thick of it, scrapping with far bigger, more powerful cars, and often putting them down. 

Andrzej Lubiak, one of the most successful of all the Polski works drivers, met us at the 126 Group 2 factory and told us some tales. I’ll never meet a more brilliant raconteur. Andrzej showed us one of his old stage results sheets – and there was his 126, running eighth overall, among Renault Alpines and Porsche 911s.

Tremendous. On one event, he lost a right front wheel – so his navigator climbed onto the left rear corner of the car to keep the nose in the air, then Andrzej finished the stage flat-out. One year he competed in Russia and had to deal with a centimetre of ice inside the windscreen.

The demister cleared only a tiny, heart-shaped area in the centre, yet, with his legs wrapped in newspaper, feet clad in ski boots, head bent low to peer through the heart, he carried on at full speed with the temperatures outside at -40°C.

Our first stop would be one of Andrzej’s old hunting grounds, the Walim-Rościszów road to the north-west, near the Czech border. Though it was hard to leave the factory, I couldn’t wait to try Poland’s most famous rally stage in the 126. 

Firing up the engine gives you a shock – it is unbelievably loud. Mounted in the rear, of course, there isn’t much between it and the cockpit. It’s a two-cylinder, 650cc unit, balanced and blueprinted, with works pistons and cams and a very serious exhaust system.

The engine is rated at between 48 and 54bhp depending on spec – that doesn’t sound like much, but the car only weighs 550kg, remember, and 54bhp from 600cc is an exceptional power output. We donned ear defenders and hit the road.

It’s a crazy machine to drive. Nothing much happens under 4,000rpm, but keep it above that and the 126 zips along briskly – Group 2 engineer Michal Kumiega told us to keep it below 5,500, but the tiny twin revs so keenly, it was hard not to let it creep toward the 7,000rpm peak-power point.

Neither Charlie nor I are small people, but we fit inside the 126 without drama. The racing bucket seats in this car are too narrow for my frame, with the side bolsters causing discomfort if I didn’t slide forward, but that’s easily fixed – more importantly, the driving stance is surprisingly natural given the car’s diminutive proportions, with a classic long-arm, short-leg Italian driving position, and the co-pilot sat lower and behind the driver. There’s plenty of headroom, too. 

The stage near Walim is fabulous, a tight snake across steep forested hills, and the 126 tackled it with élan. This kind of hairpin-infested road is what the 126 is made for, especially with the optional short-ratio gearbox fitted to our test car – its 18kph per thousand revs in top (fourth) didn’t really make much sense on fast A-roads, but here it was perfect.

The trick is to keep your momentum up at all costs, and keep the revs up with it. That’s a lot of fun, because the 126 turns in with great precision and holds its line with proper determination – the 165/55 Yokohama 12-inch tyres don’t want to let go, and you can adjust the tail with a little lift when the car is at the limit of adhesion.

Held tight by the racing seats, dialling in the lock with the Monte Carlo steering wheel and keeping the revs high with constant use of the quick, easy-shifting ‘box, it’s not hard to imagine master drivers like Andrzej embarrassing those pesky Alpines.

I’d like to say we drove the 126 all the way to Berlin, our overnight stop, in a marathon endurance run, but that would be a bare-faced lie. The short-ratio ‘box meant that 60mph equalled 5,500rpm and it wasn’t fair on the car. We slid the little Fiat into a truck. 

Heading through Berlin the next morning, we blasted pedestrians and other motorists with deafening engine blips before parking the 126 at the Brandenburg Gate for a photo. Surely no car in the world has such a massive sound-to-size ratio, and judging by the reaction of everyone who set eyes on it, there can’t be many more attractive cars in existence, either.

We did a long stint on a mostly derestricted autobahn, sitting at 60mph and dicing with trucks. As big Mercs and Audis piled past, the 126 rocked on its little wheels and I quietly dreamt of leaving the execmobiles behind on a switchback road. If you’re thinking of tackling longer journeys, I’d recommend the longer-ratio ‘box option, where a top speed of 90mph makes a lot more sense.

‘Sense’ isn’t a word you’d normally associate with a rally replica, but maybe the guys at Group 2 are onto something here – this is a car that works brilliantly in the world we find ourselves in.

Tiny, nimble, charismatic, inexpensive to buy and run, and above all, a gigantic dollop of unmitigated fun – you can sit in it and flick the bird at the world. Then, when you step out, you’ll turn to look at it and it feels like the first time. Every time. I have to have one. Have to.