Poland Trip June 2019: In Search of Polish Curbside Classics

First Polish CC, outside Pope John Paul II airport. Anyone? Anyone?

A trip to Poland is one I’ve always wanted to make. All four of my grandparents emigrated from Poland in the early 1900’s in search of a better life. My parents spoke the language, and we celebrate our Polish heritage then and now. Basic details of my Polish ancestry remain elusive as sadly, what our grandparents told us about their past was not well chronicled. Nevertheless, I have been fascinated with the country my entire life. Like the old cliche goes, when you have the time, you don’t have the money, and when you have money, you don’t have the time. We finally were able to take a trip this summer, and made stops in Krakow, Zacopane, Częstochowa  and Warsaw and drove a fair bit in central and southern Poland. Of course, I started observing and photographing cars here  the very instant we were found ourselves waiting outside Pope John Paul II airport in Krakow for our rental (a Mazda CX-5) to arrive.

Palace of Culture and Science, 1955, Stalin’s gift to Poland

I think Americans might be inclined to associate any former communist countries as a bit behind the times owing to the Cold War. Make no mistake, Poland is a thoroughly modern country. At their core, the Poles are freedom loving people.    It was tough sledding for  Poland after the end of communism in 1989 as they transitioned to democracy and capitalism. Thirty years on, they have come out of it pretty well.  They want to distance themselves from the communist era as much as possible.   Poland was admitted into the European Union in 2004.  The country has a good infrastructure, a low crime rate, an excellent educational system, national health care, a good economy and at least that I saw, a high standard of living.   Their  annual household income is roughly $29,000, higher than that of EU nations like Portugal and Greece and picking up steam. Larger cities we visited, Krakow and Warsaw were cosmopolitan, vibrant and bustling. Road and building construction was everywhere.  By the way, locals would much prefer you refer to Poland as a Central European country, not an Eastern European one.

Available for Rent!Our Zuk tour bus in Warsaw- Natural Gas ConversionOld Lada Being Daily Driven, Looking Sharp!Who needs an F-150 4×4 with a plow when you have an old Polski Fiat!Old Fiat’s still getting it done!

I certainly did not expect to find a lot of communist era automobiles here. Those are almost all gone and those that survive seem to be a novelty or collector cars.  Poland has an automotive producing tradition that extends back almost 100 years. Opel’s and Fiats are currently produced in the country, among other smaller makers of commercial and specialty vehicles. Historically, the most iconic Polish-manufactured car is  the Polski Fiat 126p (above, orange), affectionately named the Maluch, or “little one”.  Over 3.3 million units were produced in the period from 1973-2000. Our tour guide in Warsaw, Arthur, told us his father had to wait 6 years for one during communism, and when he finally got the notice that it was ready,  he forgot that he had ordered it. People would take entire families in this tiny car on holiday in the summer, luggage on top, all over Poland, powered by a two cylinder 500 CC motor (in the early ones at least). Quick aside, if ever in Warsaw check out the Museum of Life Under Communism …  fabulous!

Penned in during Krakow rush hour by 2 trains!Want to park your old Citroen on the sidewalk? A-OK in Krakow

Driving here can be a bit interesting, at least in the city.  The amber is usually after the red light, not after the green, opposite of what we’re used to.  In Krakow, you often have to contend with driving very, very close to light rail trains. Pedestrians do not generally look at crosswalks, no catching of the drivers eye to make sure you see each other.  In Krakow, there were intersections where you think there should be a traffic light but there isn’t and it’s chaotic. Yet somehow, it all works. Oh, and parking on the sidewalk is fair game in designated areas, at least in an old city like Krakow where parking spaces just don’t exist.

High Design Polish Roadway Bridge- Now That’s More Like It!

There has been a road building boom here, and the roadways and bridges are well engineered and of high quality…better than in my home State. I remain perpetually embarrassed that Michigan cannot seem to build or maintain roads to a standard like this or even our neighboring states, but don’t get me started.   Poland is rapidly expanding and upgrading their national highway system to link the major cities, but we were only able to sample a bit of it.

Dacia Duster- A Romanian RenaultSkoda Superba- Thick on the Ground In Poland

I would say the new car market is pretty fragmented here, every  global brand seems to have a presence. The most popular  car brand for new car sales in recent years is Skoda, a brand of VW (think VW-lite). Skoda used to be a state owned company under communism in the old Czechoslovakia, but survived the transition to capitalism.  Models like the Octavia, Superba and Rapid are strong sellers.  Toyota is  making huge inroads in this market.  This year, for the first time, a Toyota model  took the top monthly spot, the Corolla. Opel’s, VW’s and the Korean and French brands are also thick on the ground, as well as Fiat and Seat (another VW brand).  When we were in Ireland, one of our party had a diesel Dacia Duster, which is a Romanian-built Renault brand targeting the lower end of the market. I was quite taken with this handsome little crossover (above, too), and Dacia’s were a common site here as well.  Diesel cars are plentiful in older models but newer cars are overwhelmingly petrol, reflecting the rapid global trend away from diesel  passenger cars. 95 octane at the pump is base grade unleaded. Gas was….about $5.25 a gallon.

True American cars, as expected, are nearly flying unicorns here. The most common seemed to be Chrysler products:  Jeeps and Dodge caravans.   If I recall, select Chrysler models were built in Austria by Magna Steyr for European consumption for awhile. Many of the Jeep Wranglers I saw  appeared to be something of a status symbol here, with lift kits and custom wheels.   There were sighting of multiple Neon’s, a Caliber, a Stratus, a 300 and a Durango . I wonder what drew people to seek out and purchase these cars?   I can’t imagine a Pole saying, “Man, I’m really, really diggin’ the lines on that Dodge  Stratus and I think I’ll import one!” It cannot be easy, fast or inexpensive to get parts for an old Chrysler.

The ride of the Warsaw Chapter President of the Buick Club of Poland?Krakow: The little red Corsa is giving the Durango lots of space!Rough but Running Older Chrysler’s, KrakowWell cared for V-6 Mustang, Old Town WarsawMalaise Era Mercury Coupe in Czestochowa’s Town Square looking right as rain!

Czestochowa Taxi: Aussie Ford Falcon? Anyone?

Turns out, I found that  a  slightly modified Dodge Stratus was produced  by GAZ in Russia and sold as the Volga Siber from 2008-2010, but the one above is definitely not one of those.  I did see a few other surprises, like this mid-70’s Ford in Czestochowa in absolutely pristine condition as it burbled by, and a random mid-90’s Buick Regal in Warsaw.  I saw a couple of V-8 new Mustangs and Camaro’s as well.  Oddly, I saw this Ford taxi…and I believe it to be an old Australian Ford…but can’t be sure..in Czestochowa.  Cannot say this one was a looker. One of Ford Australia’s deadliest sins?

Krakow: Someone’s old Fat Cinquecento needing some  TLC Gen 1 Ford Ka in WadowiceSouth of Krakow: Opel Tigra A- bad shot but so rare I had to post itZacopane: Older Seat LeonOpel Corsa CRoadside, Rural Poland: Opel Vectra B(eater)Euro Ford Escort Estate, Circa 1990’sPraga Neigborhood, Warsaw: Best guess, Fiat 238 Van

The most common car type here seemed to be small cars and subcompacts.  Polish motorists are, however, like everyone else, migrating to crossovers of all sizes except the really massive ones.  I also saw plenty of German and other exotics on Polish roads.  However, the average household  income is about half that of the US, and fuel cost is about double, so car ownership is a big expense for the common working Pole. This is the most affordable price point, and owners keep their cars going a long time. Very common to see 20 + year old cars being daily driven here.   Above is a collection of random workaday cars that spoke to me somehow. This is a four season country, but I didn’t see too many rust buckets here. One local told me that people in general maintain and care for their cars very well here, especially the older generation who weren’t given the opportunity for car ownership under communism.

Warsaw: A 1999 10 year Anniversary Miata- just like my old one!Warsaw: Euro spec UK built civic Type R,  forbidden fruit – for North AmericansWarsaw: Gen 3 Supra- just a little worse for wear. Wait, what, a V-8 conversion?Warsaw: Spotless MR-2. Somebody’s baby.Krakow: Neat as a pin Mazda MX-3Not for U.S. Consumption- Toyota Avensis, a tweener’ between Corolla and Camry.

I was surprised by the presence of so many new and older Japanese cars here. I guess they know a good thing when they see it. For years the Japanese brands like Toyota and Honda were consistent but niche players in  Europe, despite European production facilities. Not so anymore. Prius’s, Corolla’s, and newer crossovers like the RAV4 and CRV were everywhere . As in Ireland on our visit,  the very conservative looking Avensis seemed to be popular as well.  They also have a fondness for older Japanese sports cars, and me seeing an old Miata like mine in Warsaw made me want another one.

Older Opel Astra and VW Passat Getting The Job Done!

And Poles are not afraid to put their cars to work.  Most smaller front wheel drive cars in North America have in their owners manual “not recommended for towing”, or have very low ratings. Not so here. Many have a little hitch and tow anything from not-small campers to open trailers of lumber or anything else that needs hauling.

Polish Made Zuk- A Rugged, Workhorse Truck Made until 1998Mercedes Unimog: All I know is…I want one!Isuzu D-Max Mid-Sizer of the Polish Park ServiceGlobal Ford Ranger Earning it’s Keep!Nissan Territory- best guess?

As far as trucks go, it holds here that trucks are mostly for work.  I saw approximately 3 American full-size pickups in my 11 days: 2 F-150’s and a Dodge Ram. Others like the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, VW Armonk were out there as personal vehicles, but were rare.   With gas prices this high, it’s not viable for most people. Near a ski resort in Zacopane I came upon a bruiser of an older full frame SUV that I instinctively thought was a Toyota Landcruiser, but it wore a Nissan Badge…and best as I can tell, it’s a Nissan Patrol. Never seen one in the flesh, and it was bad-ass.

Communist era border station, Sucha Hora, Slovakia, not needed in the Schengen Zone.

Only 2100 Miles To Tangiers!

While we were in southern Poland, near Zacopane and in the Tatra Mountains, we decided to make a run across the border to Slovakia.  Mrs. Carlsberg66’s  maternal grandmother, Margaret Novotny was 100% Slovakian through her parents, who emigrated to Pennsylvania.   She died in 2001, and  was quite a pistol and tons of fun, and was the closest thing I ever had to a grandmother, as mine all passed long before my birth.  Both sides of the border were breathtakingly beautiful. When we crossed back, near Chocholow (ho-ho-lov), we came across these  fellows, driving from Kuwait to Morocco via  Europe in a pristine 1973 Datson GT-R. I love it but would love it even more without all the stickers. Hope they made it OK.

In the end, we had a great experience.  I came away very impressed by the country and by association, the European Union. The people we encountered were universally hospitable and friendly.  Although I tried to string together whatever Polish I do know to get around , English was widely spoken. Polish is not an easy language, not even for themselves.  Getting around was not a problem.  We thought prices for rooms, food, etc. was very reasonable.  Poland certainly is not a small country, and I saw only a fraction of it. I hope to go back some day, to see places like Wroclaw and Gdansk, and maybe get more information about where my grandparents were from and visit those places. Hopefully, we will have that chance. If you got this far, with all these pictures, thanks for  hanging in there.