The Fiat 126 (Type 126) is a four-passenger, rear-engine, city car manufactured and marketed by Fiat over a twenty-eight year production run from 1972 until 2000, over a single generation. Introduced by Fiat in October 1972 at the Turin Auto Show, the 126 replaced the Fiat 500, using major elements from its design. A subsequent iteration, marketed as the 126 Bis, used a horizontally oriented, water-cooled engine and featured a rear hatchback.
The majority of 126s (some 3.3 million) were manufactured in the Tychy plant in Bielsko-Biała, Poland and were marketed as the Polski Fiat 126p in many markets. Fiat stopped marketing the 126 in 1993 in favor of its new front-engined Cinquecento. Total production reached approximately 4.7 million units.
In Poland, the car became a people's car, and a cultural icon, earning the nickname Maluch, meaning "The Little One" or "Toddler", a name that eventually became official in 1997, when 'Maluch' started appearing, badged on the rear of the car.
In early 2020, the 28-year production run of the Fiat 126 was counted as the twenty-sixth most long-lived single generation car in history by Autocar magazine."
The 126 shared its wheelbase and much of the mechanical underpinnings and layout with the Fiat 500, featuring a revised, slightly larger bodyshell designed by Sergio Sartorelli with improved safety and interior space. The added interior space resulted from two things: the move of the starter from the top of the engine bellhousing to the side which permitted shifting the bulkhead/rear seat rearward approximately 10 cm, and the lengthening of the roof for rear-seat headroom.
The engine capacity was increased from 594 cc to 652 cc at the end of 1977 when the cylinder bore was increased from 73.5 to 77 mm. Claimed power output was unchanged at 23 hp (17 kW), but torque was increased from 39 N⋅m (29 lb⋅ft) to 43 newton-metres (32 lb⋅ft). The 594 cc engines were still available in early 1983 production.
A subsequent increase took the engine size to 704 cc in the new "restyling" model Fiat 126 Bis (1987–1991), with 26 hp (19 kW) of motive power.
The 126 was manufactured at Fiat's Cassino and Termini Imerese plants, until 1979; with an overall production of 1,352,912 manufactured in Italy.
The 126 was also manufactured under licence by Zastava in Yugoslavia. In Austria, it was briefly assembled by Steyr Puch as a successor to the successful Puch 500, with assembly lasting until 1975; and production of 2069 examples. In Greece, there was an attempt to produce a small car named DIM whose technical layout was largely based on the 126, but only ten were produced before the project was abandoned.
The 126 did not achieve the popularity of the 500 in Western Europe, as the rear-engined layout was displaced by better packaging and handing front-engine, front-wheel drive cars. The 126 became one of the last and longest-production rear-engine small cars manufactured in Europe, survived only by the VW Beetle whose production lasted until 1978 (2003, globally). The 126 was also the last rear-engine small car to be manufactured in Europe until the advent of the Smart Fortwo.
For a brief period in the early 1990s, a German company called POP also offered convertible versions of the 126 BIS. Two models were offered: a lesser equipped one called the "POP 650" and a more luxurious model called the "POP 2000".
In Poland, the car was produced under licence by Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych (FSM) (En: Small-Displacement Car Factory) in Bielsko-Biała and Tychy under the brand Polski Fiat 126p (literally in English: Polish Fiat 126p) between 1973 and 2000.
Due to a relatively low price, it was very popular in Poland and was arguably the most common Polish car in the 1980s. Its very small size gave it the nickname maluch ("the small one", "small child", pronounced [ˈmalux]). The nickname became so popular that in 1997 it was accepted by the manufacturer as the official name of the car.
At first, it was almost identical to the basic model: differences included a higher chassis, a modified grille on the back, and the front indicator lenses that were clear white in Italy, but orange in other markets. To distinguish it from the original Italian car, the letter "p" was added to its name.
Throughout the 1980s the 126p was continuously modified. First, it received upgraded brakes and new wheels from Italian Fiat, then hazard warning lights were added to meet new lighting requirements.
In 1984, the 126 received a facelift, giving it plastic bumpers (for all versions) and a new dashboard. This model was named the Fiat 126p FL. In 1985 a single rear fog light and reversing light (on opposite sides) were added to the standard plastic bumpers; an electronic ignition system and alternator replaced the undersized generator in around 1987. In 1994, the 126p received another facelift and some parts from the Fiat Cinquecento; this version was named 126 EL. The 126 ELX introduced a catalytic converter.
In 1987 the 126 BIS went into production, featuring a water-cooled 704 cc engine of Polish construction. However, the original model continued to be produced for the Polish market. BIS used some parts from the Fiat Cinquecento.
The factory battery in 126p had a 35-amp hour capacity, which, combined with the undersized generator, resulted in the car often not having a fully charged battery unless driven for an extended time. An upgrade to a 45-amp hour battery from the Fiat 125p (1.5 Litre engine) improved the cold start reliability.
The 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 as well. It also found a minor market in Australia between 1989 and 1992, under the name FSM Niki. During that period it was Australia's cheapest car. There was a convertible version developed for the Australian market. It was also successful in Cuba where it was one of the best-selling cars of its time and an estimated 10,000 are still registered today.
The 126p also has a history in China: In the early 1980s, it became one of the first passenger cars to be imported to the country. The government initially bought 10,000 which were mainly used as taxis, but later the 126p also became available for private buyers - a rarity in the country at the time. In the 1980s, it was one of the best-selling cars in China, selling around 30,000 units per year.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were several experimental prototypes developed in Poland. A cargo version was designed in 1974 called "Bombel" (literally "bubble", but also a colloquial term for "small child") because of its fiberglass bubble-shaped cargo area; an off-road version propelled by caterpillar tracks and a front-wheel drive, front-engined model, with a longer front end and a flat cargo area in the rear where the original 126 had its engine. The rear of this prototype was similar to the 126 Bis which also had a rear hatch for accessing a cargo space created by mounting its flat water-cooled engine under the floor.
There was also an attempt at installing a small diesel engine (due to gasoline rationing) in the classic 126p body. It is also a popular platform for electric motor and motorcycle engine swaps.
The global production of the car was 4,673,655 units: 1,352,912 in Italy, 2,069 in Austria by Fiat-Steyr, and 3,318,674 in Poland.
The PF 126p has special meaning for Poles and its story had a connection with Polish politics during the communist period (Polish People's Republic, up to 1989). During the absolute rule of the PZPR, a private car was considered a luxury item, due to limited availability and low salaries. In 1971 there were only 556,000 passenger cars in Poland. In a top-down planned economy, decisions on whether a state-owned factory could produce a car were taken on political and not just economic grounds. The authorities themselves initially did not find the idea of private cars attractive. The first relatively cheap Polish car was the Syrena, but it was outdated and its production was limited. Limited numbers of cars were also imported from other Eastern Bloc countries. It was difficult to buy a Western car because the Polish złoty, like other currencies in communist states, was not convertible to Western funds and there was no free market in the country.
Thus, the PF 126p was intended to be the first real, popular, and affordable car, to provide mobility for ordinary families. The license was bought after the rise to power of a new PZPR leader, Edward Gierek, who wanted to gain popularity by increasing consumer spending after the austerity period under Władysław Gomułka. Despite the fact that it was a very small city car, it was the only choice for most families, filling the role of a family car. During holidays, it was common to see families of four driving PF-126s abroad with huge suitcases on a roof rack; sightings of PF-126s towing a small Niewiadów N126 caravan especially designed for the PF 126 were also occasionally reported. PF 126p production, however, was not sufficient and the PF 126p was on sale with a waiting list. Usually, families had to wait a couple of years to buy a car. A coupon for a car could also be given by the authorities based on merit.
In Polish it is called Maluch, which literally means "small one" or toddler (and was an official name since 1997), as well as mały Fiat ("small Fiat"), in contrast to Fiat 125p, called duży Fiat ("big Fiat"). In some regions, it is also called Kaszlak, literally "cougher" (derived from kaszel, "cough", as its engine's sound resembles a cough when it is started).
In Albanian it is known as Kikirez, meaning a "little rooster".
In Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian it is known as Peglica (meaning "little iron").
In Slovene the 126 is also called Bolha ("flea"), Piči-poki (loosely translated as "fast-and-loud") or Kalimero on Slovenian coast after a cartoon character Calimero.
In Hungarian, it is known as kispolszki ("Little Polish", while the 125p is the nagypolszki, meaning "Big Polish"), kispolák ("Little Pole") or kispók ("Little spider"); also, the car was nicknamed egérkamion, meaning "mouse truck".
In German the Fiat 126 was known as the Bambino, the Italian word for child.
In Cuban Spanish it is known as the "Polqi" or "Polaquito", meaning "Little Pole" or "Little Polish man", in Chilean Spanish as "Bototo".
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