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A Polski Fiat with a punch

21/10/2013 14:58 | Comments: 

Contributing editor

Ahead of most of us in the race of „who bought the most cars in the last two years”, Göbi is the real techno-pro of the mother magazine, He has an engineering job at a motorcycle brand, so he makes up for time the lost time with Torx screws in his garage, which is as clean as a pharmaceutical factory. A nice VW Bug came up in the ads with Porsche suspension? He buys it and tunes it to 146 PS. A green, bog-standard Bug is on sale in the neighborhood? He collects that too, restores it. What about a nice Fiat 127? An as-new Merc W124…? And his technical writings are just as precise as his passion for cars – they steamroller the readers.

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There is a brief, although revealing, comment in the car’s documentation: "Modified for motorsport purposes; only valid with technical manual.”

The above-mentioned manual is a booklet issued by none other than the Hungarian Motorsport Federation (MNASZ) and clipped to the door for easy retrieval. The roll cage is easy to spot too. And yet, for the man on the street this looks nothing more than a car someone bought back in the 80’s because they could not afford anything better, and then threw away happily as soon as they finally saved up for a lightly used Golf Mk.I imported from Switzerland.

Actually, their observations would be only half spot on. The owner, Gabor Katona bought this Polski Fiat 126p (a Fiat 126 clone, manufactured under licence in Poland) while in college, simply because he “couldn't afford anything better”. Alternative choices were the Trabant (even more despised than the 126p), the Lada (too large and too thirsty) or the Dacia (falls apart all the time), so he went with the Polski. Now, Gabor is not your average consumer who buys things and then replaces them at a whim. He has had this car for twelve years. The first mod job was installing a 903 cc four-cylinder Fiat engine. It was not easy to get the new engine approved but he triumphed at last and he could not have been happier. He used the car every day, the engine was sprightly but the body was getting long in the tooth. A rust spot here, a filler job there, underbody coating needed everywhere.

This is where this simple automotive story turned into a PG-rated horror flick you are bound not to appreciate unless you are both a perfectionist and a complete nutcase – like most hobby car builders who soup up their cars in their own driveway.

Whenever he took the car to the MoT, inspectors would give him a hard time about his car having non-standard wheels and non-standard clearance and all, so he decided to legalise the modification – but he wanted do it the proper way, getting a MNASZ documentation and following all specifications. That would give him more room for future mods and no authority could ever give him rap for reduced ride height or those stud bolt wheels.

Do not get into premature conclusions: this is not the most powerful 126p in the world. Heck, it's not even the most powerful one in Hungary, not to mention the car's homeland, Poland, where real mighty monsters are built with turbocharged engines and all. But the build quality and the concept are both unique and world class.

The 903 cc Fiat engine is special in its own right. Being a small displacement four-cylinder block it has tiny and ultra-light pistons. Small bore means small valves, no room for anything more substantial. Add to this the lightweight pushrods and you will have an engine that revs happily and freely despite the OHV valve train. Second gear lasts up to 80 kph which (because the Polski Fiat lacks any noise insulation), sounds and feels like zillion miles a second, just a tad over the speed of light. Together with the go-kart-like suspension and the low-slung seating you are drawn into an experience no modern car can give you – at least not the ones you can afford. Also, you don't have to chase it up to 150 kph to start enjoying yourself. No need to enter a roundabout at 80 kph for a nice healthy broadside – half that much will suffice. The car, small and light, is easily controlled in the drift, although because it is tail heavy it has a tendency to oversteer beyond recovery.

The engine hasn't been odo'd yet, so no performance figures are available. It does have higher compression, a sports camshaft and a small Weber carburetor like the ones used on Abarth cars. The crankshaft is massive, idle is high and the engine revs like a whirling dervish on meth. If I had to make a guess I'd say it must be around 50-60 PS, with a top speed of about 160-170 kph. But do trust me when I say: this is all irrelevant.

Installing the engine was not an easy process – remember, this is a water-cooled engine replacing an air-cooled one. The radiator is up front, accompanied by a heating radiator, so there is actual heating in the passenger compartment, something the original car never could boast of. Teflon tubes run in the central tunnel and attach to the radiator with rubber connectors and clamps. The apron is partially cut open to direct air to the radiator and the front bumper has also been modified – something only spotted by the keenest of eyes. During our test drive Gabor drove his car pretty hard but the engine temperature remained constant. At this load my air-cooled VW Beetle engine would be likely to leak some oil, but not this one, it remained dry and clean.

Build quality is just excellent. I have done this myself, so I know from experience just how much time and energy goes into building a car to this high standard. All nuts and bolts are galvanised, cables are run through rubber guides, internals are covered up with custom made panels. There is nothing haphazard, unplanned or botched-up about this car. It feels like a small series racing car – which is what it is, actually.

In case you haven't noticed I have completely fallen in love with this car. But that's not just me. While shooting the dynamic photos I was joined by two guys. "Holy crook what engine is that?" they cried as they readied their camera phones. They just could not match the image of the car, running up and down in front of the camera with the healthy notes.

As you are right to guess, the car is far from being completed. The engine is nothing more than a slightly modded Fiat 903 powerplant with a touch of Abarth looks. However Gabor already has the real deal: a genuine Abarth engine in his garage. Higher capacity, more power.

The test drive has actually been very educational, really. It has taught us that while the power/weight ratio may be the same– 60 HP to 600 kg – it is a lot more fun than 150 HP to 1500 kg, because weight becomes a liability in corners, during braking, and generally at any given moment. It has also taught us just what we are missing out on by the departure of these light, easy to drive, user friendly vehicles. You could easily build one, even make it Euro5 compliant (not with this exhaust note, though) but alas there seems to be no market demand for them.

So if no major brand is going to build them for us we'll just need to build one for ourselves. Out of a 126p, for instance.

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