Introduced at the Turin Motor Show in 1972, the Fiat 126 or “Bambino” was a direct replacement for the aging Nuova 500. This fresh but somewhat bland design resembled a scaled-down Fiat 127, but used the tried-and-true Nuova 500 drivetrain under the creased modern envelope.
Produced at factories in Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, and Tychy, Poland, it was a successful if unexciting automobile. Over 4.5 million 126s were produced, but it must be noted that 3.3 million of those were special de-contented Polish-market models, making it by far the most popular car on Polish and Hungarian roads through the 1980s. Seen as a luxury item in communist Poland, it was usually pressed into service as a family’s only car, carrying entire families on holiday, piled high with suitcases on the roof and trailer in tow! Most had to wait several years to receive their cars, as production lagged far behind demand. If one were lucky, merit-based reward coupons could advance one up the waiting list.
The particular model on display employs a not-uncommon period modification: the original anemic two-cylinder engine has been replaced by a 248 cc, 12 HP two-stroke Hirth snowmobile engine. The reasoning behind engine swaps such as this was financial – Individuals that could not qualify for a full driver’s license – too young, too poor for the license training, etc. – could get a restricted license to operate any vehicle under 250cc relatively easily. In the eyes of many European governments, a sub-250cc automobile wasn’t a car at all – it was a motorcycle!
In 1972 Poland, the average monthly wage was 3,000 zloty, or about $200. The cost for a Polski Fiat 126p was around 69,000 zloty, or about $4,600. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $24,000 in 2011!
Manufacturer: Fiat SpA
Country of Origin: Austria (?)
Drivetrain Configuration: Rear-engine, rear-wheel drive
Engine: 248cc Hirth two-stroke, air-cooled
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Top Speed: 55 mph
Years of Production: 1972-1991
Number Produced: 4,5000,000 +
Cost: Approx. $4,600 (1972)
remained in production as the Poland-only 126p model through 2000