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Market Scene : Poland's Maly Fiat: Life in the Slow Lane : It's ugly, cranky, lovable and hateable. It's the car that put a country on the road.


WARSAW — It looks like a baby's shoe with wheels attached. It is cranky, noisy, suffers horribly in cold weather and goes from zero to 60 in about half a day. But it does go, and, as Poles say, you have to love it.

It is the people's car, the maly (small) Fiat. Or maluch , as it is called--a word that once meant "baby" but now refers almost exclusively to the tiny Italian-designed vehicle, produced under license in Poland since 1973. It is the car that brought motor travel within reach of the ordinary citizen of Poland.

"You have to love it," said Michal Peksa, a language teacher who now owns his fifth maluch , and who waited seven years with his name on the list for the privilege of buying a new one at a special bargain price. "It's yours, and you have to love it."

Like the Trabant that was produced in East Germany, the maly Fiat is both loveable and infamous. Both are slow and clog the roads. While the Trabant, enfeebled by age, trails clouds of blue smoke, the rear-engined, air-cooled maly Fiat merely gets loud, like a badly-tuned lawn mower. But demand remains strong for the 2.65 maly Fiats (a direct descendant of the Italian 500 cc. "Cinquecento"). In fact, there is a special backlog of 191,000 maluchs on order as a result of a peculiar Communist bargain struck a decade ago. It is an agreement that is now costing the Polish government millions of dollars and is threatening to sink another branch of the Polish car-production industry.

Back in 1981, with the country in near chaos and the newborn Solidarity trade union riding herd on a largely strike-bound nation, the Polish government was in a severe economic crisis. To help placate a restive public and--most important, to soak up some of the cash in an inflationary economy--the ruling Communists came up with a plan to accept prepayment for Polish made cars--principally the maly Fiat and the larger Fiat 125.

According to the scheme, prospective owners were to put down a cash deposit amounting to 30% of the purchase price. At 1981 black market currency rates--which most everyone used at the time--that amounted to about $300. The deposits were to gather interest in the manner of normal savings deposits. In addition, the depositors were required to make small payments, amounting, in real terms to about $8 monthly. Then, one day in the future, the car would be theirs.

"The first problem was that the offer was over-subscribed," recalls Krzysztof Mlokosiewicz, deputy savings manager of the State Bank for Savings. "The offer was open for only one month, and the bank, which took in the money, collected prepayments from 600,000 people."

Mlokosiewicz remembers the scene at the bank that month as "something out of Dante," with people fighting to plunk down their money for what everyone could see was a terrific bargain. As always in a shortage economy, there was too much money in pursuit of too few products--and the one item everyone wanted was a car, however modest.

As a result, prepayments were accepted that totally committed the production capacity of the automobile plants for the next four years--and then some. And, on top of those delays, the government broke into the queue to make sure that the favored thousands of the nomenklatura got their cars on schedule, thus extending the backlog ever farther into the future.

"The government should have given at least half of the depositors their money back," Mlokosiewicz said, "but they didn't, and we're still paying for it today."

The virtually inevitable result was that depositors who thought they would get their cars in two or three years were still waiting five, six, seven years later. Indeed, even today, a decade after the deposits were made, 192,000 maly Fiat buyers are still waiting for their cars.

Meanwhile, the value of the zloty has plummeted. That down payment, equivalent to about $300 in 1981, is worth just under $4 today, for example. And filling those 10-year-old orders would wind up costing the government-owned auto maker so much money that the Parliament, by special action, has offered to "buy back" the government's commitment for the equivalent of $1,300--half the 1991 price of a maly Fiat.

A similar offer--cash instead of the car--is apparently being snapped up by most of those who were in line to buy the larger Fiat 125, considered a far less reliable machine than the much-loved maluch.

"It's no wonder," said one Polish motor industry insider. "That factory hasn't been modernized in 25 years. Every piece of equipment used to produce it has worn out."

The managers of the factory that produces the Fiat 125 have been looking for foreign investors, including Fiat and General Motors, but so far, talks have gone nowhere.

Meanwhile, the folks are happy at the maly Fiat plant in Bielsko-Biala in southeastern Poland. "They've got work for the next year or two," the insider said, "and they don't have to worry about making any improvements in the car."

Some owners of new maly Fiats might agree that a certain complacency could be creeping into the work force that produces the maluch. Like most things, newer models don't seem as durable as the old.

"After 10 years, a maly Fiat is pretty much a wreck," teacher Peksa said. "People complain there are more problems now with the new ones. Most people say it is getting worse and worse. The engines don't seem to be as good. Things fall off of it. I see rust on mine already. But you have to love it."

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