The Polski-Fiat 125P

The more car-per-pound car.

WHEN MOTOR SPORT talks about a road test car representing good value today we have to say it with tongue in cheek, for normally the description is only relative to the overall picture of absurd prices. If incomes had risen in proportion to car prices (none of this average income business, please) we might not have cause to complain, but as it is many members of the car-buying public are having to move down market when buying a new car. Take a man with three children needing a fairly large car, but with only £1,200 to spend. Last year he could have bought a Cortina 1300 2-door for £1,180. Today he would have to find £1,579 to buy exactly the same car. For his £1,180 (plus £4) today he could get a Mini 850, which he could have had in mid-1974 for £820! So what should he do? Hang on to his present car, or buy second hand? Casting aside patriotism and using common-sense, since the end of of April he has had the perfect answer. Buy a Fiat-Polski 125P! My photo caption for this Polish-built Fiat last month described it as “The Bargain of the Year”. Having road-tested this 1500 c.c., four door, five seat saloon since that was written, I can only say how right I was. For £1,159 this stolid, conventional work-horse provides more car per pound than any other vehicle on the market. Possibly an even better version is the capacious estate car version for £1,299.

Made by the State-owned Fabryka Somochodow Osobowych in Warsaw and imported by Polski Car Imports (GB) Ltd., a sister company to the British Mazda concessionaires with former VW director John Ebenezer as Managing Director, this bargain saloon, built under licence from Fiat in Turin, uses the same body as the old twin-cam engined Fiat 125S. In the place of the twin-cam engine is fitted a Lampredi-designed, straight-four, pushrod overhead valve, three-main-bearing engine of 79.5 mm. stroke and 77 mm. bore, giving a capacity of 1481 c.c. The crossflow cylinder head is aluminium and is described as having “polyspherical” combustion chambers, said to be more efficient than hemispherical or wedge-shape chambers. Whatever, with the aid of a twin-choke, downdraught Weber 34DCHD carburetter, this quite old design gives 70 b.h.p DIN at 5,400 r.p.m. This is sufficient to give the 1 ton car a maximum speed of 93 m.p.h. and acceleration which is surprisingly brisk; for various reasons no acceleration figures could be taken, but as a comparison I should say that the 125P is at least as quick as a British Leyland 1300. Certainly it is not the outright disappointment one would expect after the swift 125S.

Drive is taken through a 200 mm., hydraulically-operated, diaphragm clutch to an all-synchromesh, four-speed gearbox. Ratios are quite wide, but not unduly so and the change is positive, though a bit notchy on this 1,500 mile test car. Maximum speeds in the gears are marked on the ribbon speedometer as 25 m.p.h., 40 m.p.h, 62 m.p.h, though the engine feels willing up to 30 m.p.h., 50 m.p.h., and 70 m.p.h. The propshaft is two-piece and connects with the traditional 125 live axle, the differential of which was vaguely noisy. Semi-elliptic lead springs and inclined telescopic double-action shock-absorbers are all that support the axle. At the front there are swinging arms, each with a torque arm, coil springs, telescopic shock-absorbers and an anti-roll bar.

For your £1,159 you even get four-wheel disc brakes, servo-assisted, with a split system and a pressure regulator for the rears – all inherited from the 125S of course, as is the over-servoed sensitivity! Designed for a more powerful model, they are more than adequate for this pushrod-engined car. Fiat worm and roller steering has come in for criticism over the years, but in the 125P context it doesn’t feel out of place, reasonably positive with no lost motion and not feeling anywhere near so low-geared as the Lancia Beta saloon. It’s quite heavy at parking speeds, though.

Driving this new re-incarnation of a popular old saloon made me wonder where saloon car design is going. We’ve gone styling mad, at the expense of low roof lines and freedom of passenger space above the waistline. The lofty, square-rigged 125P may look dated but its freedom of space is refreshing. There is plenty of space for five on well-padded, vinyl-trimmed, comfortable seats, the rear of which has a fold-down arm-rest in the middle. The front ones have adjustable reclining back-rests, by an awkwardly placed knob at the front of the seats. A respectable standard of carpeting is fitted throughout, as is sound insulation material behind the headlining (a good sign of no skimping), a functional rather than attractive black vinyl-trimmed facia and centre console, and there are arm-rests/door pulls on each door. An illuminated, lidded cubby hole is in the facia top and there are shelves below. A very roomy boot is another part of the bargain, but this is one of the many cars in which heavy objects sliding about in the boot can damage the rear wings from the inside.

Detail equipment is impressive by the standards of most cars costing at least twice the price and worthy of listing, at least in part, to make the point: twin interior lights operated by courtesy switches in all four doors; courtesy lights under the bonnet, in the boot (both of which panels are self supporting) and in the cubby hole; thermostatically controlled, electric engine cooling fan; four headlights which switch off automatically with the ignition; automatic reversing light; cigarette lighter; mud flaps; passenger grab handles; a hand throttle as well as a choke control; full through-flow ventilation, a good heater with two-speed fan and opening front quarter-lights, electric screenwashers; wipers with variable intermittent speed control; and dipping rear view mirror. The dashboard is simple – apart from the ribbon speedometer with trip mileometer there are only temperature and fuel gauges. Yet there are warning lights for choke, oil pressure, sidelights, mainbeam, fuel lever, alternator charge, indicators and handbrake.

Handling is typical Fiat 125, with under-steer brought about by too much positive camber on the front wheels and a tendency for the inside wheel to attempt to lift as the car rolls on tight corners taken quickly. The ride is lively, but not uncomfortable and though there is plenty of roll when driving fast, this is not a “wallowy” car. In fact it hasn’t any really nasty vices at all and is so conventional that is is very easy to adapt to. Maybe it won’t go round corners like a Lancia Beta Coupe, but look at it’s price! Oh, and the standard tyres on which its safe road-holding is based are British-made Dunlop SP68’s of 13 in. diameter, exported to Poland to be brought back on the cars.

One point should be made very clear: the 125P is not to be confused with some of the ill-handling, rubbishy tinware to have come from behind the Iron Curtain in the past. It is a proper motor car, practical, sturdy, well-finished and proven in more than 40 countries to which it is exported throughout the World. Setting aside its datedness, the only thing I can find to damn it with at its price is praise. Apart from a dribble from the rear main bearing oil seal, which may have been responsible for slight clutch judder, this Polish saloon served me more reliably and comfortably in all kind of use than have the more expensive test cars of late. Though driven with the second choke open much of the time, it contrived to average 30 m.p.g. from its 45-litre tank. When delivered the engine “pinked” like mad, obviously not tuned to run on low grade fuel and a symptom I had noted on similar cars in Poland; a dose of four-star transformed the performance.

There will be those who question the political and economic astuteness of allowing the importation of such a cut-price machine. All I will say is that the British are the ones getting the bargain and that the majority of the machines I saw employed in the 125P’s manufacture in Warsaw were British. There is said to be no subsidy from the Polish State to sell us the cars at such a price: when you pay your workers in zlotys, worthless abroad and you’re paid in Sterling and Dollars, there’s no need for a subsidy. Nevertheless, I can’t see the price staying so low for very long. Over 150 dealers should have been appointed by next month (hardly surprising dealers have been clamouring for franchises) and we are told that more than adequate spares are in stock. Surely many Fiat spares will fit too?