Before World War 2 the famous 570 c.c. side-valve Fiat 500
" made a great many friends throughout Europe, and suprisingly even with racing drivers who fell in love with the cars good handling, four-speed gearbox and hydraulic brakes.
After the war came the 630 c.c. water-cooled, rear-engined Fiat 600
, a compact and economical little car which was also available as the commodious but still compact Multipla mini-bus. The best-loved baby born in Turin however remained the Fiat 500, which managed to put a rather large dent in scooter-sales!
The Fiat 126, successor to the 500, represented a modernisation and mild revision of the old Fiat 500 formula
. The result was a low-priced car with a rather more boxy outward appearance, but still possessing all the desirable qualities of the earlier Fiat 500
In spite of its 731 x 70 mm. (594 c.c.) 23 b.h.p. engine, the Fiat 126 was capable of a cruising speed of 60 m.p.h. with a bit in hand, and the speedometer reading 70 at times could be easily achieved when travelling downhill with a mild tail-wind.
In spite of a wheellbase of only just over six feet and an overall length of fractionally more than ten feet, the little Fiat 126 rode extraordinarily well, without pitching, and had sufficiently generous seats to be comfortable for long runs. It was durably finished in matt-black, still the car was not without compromise. As just one example, the front luggage space was very flat, necessitating that any bulky luggage be stowed on the rear seat instead.
As you would expect, the little 594cc engine was noisy, and even more so when the heater was in operation, as this necessitated opening a flap which would let in sound as well as warm air! To make up for its strident cacaphony, the 126 offered a very nice gear change, light steering (three turns, lock-to-lock), and the heater gave more than sufficient heat.
The fold-back roof was no more, but well-arranged door handles, wind-up windows, a simple facia equipped with a Veglia 80 m.p.h. speedometer also calibrated in k.p.h. and incorporating a fuel-gauge, mileometer, anti warning lights, a rear parcel shelf, opening quarter-windows in the doors, dual sun-visors, outside and internal rearview mirrors, door pockets and the Fiat triple-stalk minor controls went some way to making up for its absense. The screen washers were still activated by a rubber press-button on the facia, from where the lamps were switched on, and there were two little levers on the floor for starter and choke.
An ash-tray, roof "grabs" and interior light were supplied, and large doors made for easy entry and egress. Thankfully the 126 retained the character of the gentle "putter-putter" of the Fiat 500's engine at idle, an endearing sound that somehow made you happy to be behind the wheel of a car with underwhelming performance. Acceleration could best be described as "sufficient", cornering could be brisk if you had enough of a straight stretch to open up the little engine, and the spongy brakes were adequate when used in earnest.
Gale-force winds provoked over-steer but then the 126 was very light - 580 kg. or 1,278 lb. It was intended for four people and 88 lb. of luggage and was permitted to tow a 400 kg. (882 lb.) load. As the engine was in the rear, where it was easily accessed by opening the louvred back panel, traction was reassuring over slippery surfaces. Oil replenishment however was a slow process and owners have advised us that the dip-stick is difficult to replace.
Nowhere near as highly sought after as the Fiat 500, nevertheless the 126 remained reasonably true to the original formula.
Minor quibbles aside, the Fiat 126 remained reasonably true to the formula, even if the sheet metal was not as pretty. In every respect it was as dependable as the old 500
. The 12 inch Pirelli tires were also economical in that they resisted wear and tear, almost matching the fuel economy, a brilliant 46 m.p.g. + achievable even when you had a lead foot. The average driver reported 50 m.p.g. as easily attainable. The fuel tank was filled via a large screw-can filler on the nose of the body, which held 4 gallons.
Providing added personality was the "loud" look-at-me horn and rectangular SIEM headlamps, which gave a very good beam. But 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.
The Polish Connection
Such was the success of Vittorio Valletta's
1966 contract to build Fiat's in Russia that it made sense to built the 126 for other European markets.
The Polski Fiat 126p (literally in English: Polish Fiat 126p
) was produced in Poland between 1973
and 2000. The original iterations were near identical to the Italian version, albiet with some differences such as a higher chassis, modified grille on the back, and the front blinkers that were white in Italy were 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"). The nickname became so popular that in 1997 it was accepted by the producer as the official name of the car.
The Polski Fiat 126p 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. Some found there way to Australia, where they were sold as the FSM Niki 650.