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Culture : Drive-in Them Wild! : The car culture has finally skidded into Poland. Auto sales are up, and the first outdoor movie theater just opened.


BIALOLEKA, Poland — The screen is so small that an announcer has to read the subtitles over a microphone. The projection booth is so bulky that it blocks the best views. And the location is so poorly marked that it is easy to miss entirely.

The first drive-in movie theater in Poland is primitive--it doubles as the site of a swap meet for used cars by day--but its debut last month represents a cultural milestone in this country's phenomenal rush to the automobile.

More than 500 people, behind the wheels of cars ranging from luxury Mercedes sedans to matchbox-sized Fiats, filed into the asphalt grounds for opening night in this dusty Warsaw suburb, better known for its bleak high-rises than its cutting-edge culture.

The audience was so large that the snack bar was swept clean of bubble gum, candy and potato chips before the film even began rolling. Carside hostesses served complimentary Coca-Cola, but the soft drinks also dried up.

"If I had more money, I would like to start a drive-in myself," said Andrzej Jarosz, an awe-struck taxi driver who watched the debut movie--"Four Weddings and a Funeral"--from the same sheepskin-covered seat where he had worked for the previous 14 hours. "This would be a great business."

It was a remarkable scene--repeated many nights since--in a country where Communist authorities long restricted the availability of automobiles, compelling some Poles to make payments for a decade before obtaining one.

But since the early 1980s, the number of cars in Poland has tripled, and a new market has developed for luxury West European, Japanese and American models, particularly among young, entrepreneurial Poles who have adjusted well to capitalism. The car culture, and the drive-in movie, have arrived.

"In the past, most of our customers, about 70%, would buy a car for pleasure, to drive on the weekend," said Longin Bielak, a former race car driver who owns a Peugeot dealership in Warsaw. "Now 70% buy it because they need it for business. A car in Poland has become essential for many people."

Thanks also to changes in the post-Communist banking system, many ordinary Poles who previously could not afford a car now have the option of buying one on credit. Almost half of Bielak's customers finance their cars.

Only top-of-the-line makes, such as Mercedes, are still purchased on a cash-only basis. "Poles now want their cars to indicate what they are like, say something about them," said Tadeusz Zakrzewski, head of marketing for Mercedes in Poland. "Our buyers want to accentuate their prestige to others."

Today there are 6.7 million cars in this land of 40 million--a modest tally when compared with West European nations but the most in any former Communist country of Eastern Europe.

The Polish explosion has caught authorities off guard, with few highways designed for the increased traffic and parking in big cities relegated to sidewalks, median strips and front yards.

At the same time, police are struggling with a huge increase in car thefts. German models are the most popular but no automobile--not even the lowly Polish-made Polonez--is beyond being stolen.

"The cars are immediately transported to Russia and other countries to the east, and there is no way of tracing them," said Bielak, who is also vice president of a large automobile club in Warsaw. "Every owner of a Mercedes knows his car will be stolen--the question is when."

The growth in car ownership has been so dramatic that dozens of new service stations are being built along well-traveled routes, and American fast-food restaurants have plans to open drive-thru windows. International Fast Food Polska, which operates Burger King in Poland, expects to open as many as four drive-thru restaurants this year.

Harry Grindrod, the company's president, said the restaurants will be modified to make the drive-thru operation less intimidating for Poles who are unaccustomed to conducting commerce through a car window. Food orders will be given directly to employees, not via a speaker.

"There is a transition going on here toward the automobile as we think of it in the United States, not as they did in the former Soviet Bloc," Grindrod said. "Drive-thru locations are a natural part of that."

Dariusz Zawislak, a 22-year-old theater hand who came up with the drive-in theater idea, is equally sold on the concept. In fact, he is so convinced of his compatriots' new passion for the automobile that he staked his own vehicle on it.

Zawislak sold his 1988 Ford to pay his share of the drive-in's start-up costs, about $10,000. The rest of the expenses are being covered by his partners, a transport company that owns the lot.

"Times have changed, and Poles have fallen in love with their cars," Zawislak said. "People my age especially like new cars, expensive cars and fast cars."

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