Cheap, yet available: Syrena, "The Rabbit Catcher"
The car?s name came from the legendary mermaid of Warsaw ? Syrena, which is Polish for siren.
Poland had been making the Warszawa, a limousine fashioned after Russia?s Volga, under license. It decided in the early 1950s that it needed a Lada-type people?s car.
The crew at Warsaw?s FSO auto factory gave it the name Syrena, which anyone who had visited the city could relate to because of a famous statue of the mermaid on the banks of the Vistula.
The cheapest Polish car ever made was so popular that its production run lasted for 30 years. But you rarely see it on the streets today, 24 years after it stopped being produced. Syrena clubs are keeping the cars? legend alive, however.
The Syrena is one of only a handful of car models developed in Poland, which has never been an automotive powerhouse.
Communist officials? announcement of the car in the early 1950s said it would be built to fill a need for a ?popular, time-saving means of transport for official business as well as recreation.?
Tomasz Borejza wrote in an article on the web site www.trybuna-robotnicza.com that the government said the Syrena would be for such people as ?labor leaders, activists, scientists, leading representatives of the intelligencia.?
The reaction to the first few Syrenas to come off the production line was sensational. In every city where they were sent on promotion tours, eager crowds awaited. At the time, the main means of motorized transport in Poland was motorbikes.
A group of engineers led by Karol Pionnier designed and built the first Syrena in 1953. The car was unveiled at the Poznan International Fair in 1955.
The frames and interior of the first Syrenas were made mostly of wood. The engine was adapted from a fire-engine water pump.
Thus, from the moment of its introduction, the Syrena was a technical anachronism.
There were two reasons for the wood body and interior: Sheet metal was hard to come by in Poland at the time, and wood was cheaper. Communist officials wanted to make the car as inexpensive as possible.
Over the years the engine evolved into one capable of powering the car up to 125 kilometers an hour. The 40-horsepower, three-cylinder model was based on the engine of the Wartburg, a car manufactured in East Germany.
The car?s body and interior also evolved, although those changes were mostly minor.
By the time the production run ended three decades later in 1983, half a million Syrenas had been made.
Several versions were produced. Some were only prototypes, however ? like the Syrena Sport, which auto enthusiasts in the West called the niftiest car on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Professor Cezary Nawrot, who led the team that created the Syrena Sport, said ?a sports car was an object of our dreams, but impossible to realize, during those years.? Still, his design team created a model with some of the trappings of a beautiful Porsche or Morgan,? a handmade English sports car with a 1930s design, he said.
The Syrena Sport was supposed to satisfy Poles? desire for a glamorous but affordable car, he said. It never went into production, perhaps because it was too expensive, wasn?t a practical car and smacked of capitalism.
The regular Syrena actually took part in the Formula One Monte Carlo Grand Prix competitions during the 1960s. The driver, Stanislaw Wierzba, said he even qualified for a pole position, a big achievement.
The Syrena had lots of defects so it had to be repaired often. Its designers tried to fix the problems in successive versions ? the 100 through 105 models and the Bosto and R-20 pickups.
Other prototypes besides the Syrena Sport included the Syrena Laminat luxury car, the 110 limousine and the Syrena Minibus. Like the sports car, the Laminat and the 110 were attempts to achieve Poles? dream of a top-quality domestic-made car.
Poles enjoyed joking about the Syrena?s shortcomings. For example, the first version had a front-door hinge that was opposite where most cars? front-door hinges are. That meant the door opened from the frame along the windshield rather than the frame along the driver?s seat. When opened, the doors looked liked scoops.
That led to wags saying that, if the doors were left open, the car could be used for catching rabbits or chickens. They nicknamed it the ?Rabbit Catcher,? or ?Zajacowka.?
Another story that brought laughs was that it was common for the Syrena?s steering wheel to fall off once its mileage had reached 70,000 kilometers.
Then there was the problem of the Syrena?s door locks ? or lock. It had only one, on the driver?s door.
Krzysztof Witczak, a member of a Syrena car club, said the car was never exported, an oddity given that Communist countries often exchanged products. ?We know about only a limited number of enthusiasts from abroad who own a Syrena, repair and use it,? he said.
That may be partly because the car is little known outside Poland, in contrast to the Polish Fiat.
A Syrena and Warszawa car club from Nekla, a town in west Poland, organized a European rally of the cars in May of this year. The 30 cars, with 90 drivers and passengers, traveled 3,000 kilometers from Nekla to Paris.
The length of the route was a real test for the cars, some of which are 40 years old. Syrena owner Krzysztof Witczak noted during the rally, however, that while a ?Syrena has its problems,? they ?are easy to locate and fix? because of the simple design.
The Kekla car club plans new rallies through countries to the south or east of Poland.
Some of the Nekla enthusiasts are young. Daniel, 15, who likes to go by his nickname Ogarzysta, said: ?I was 14 when my love for the Syrena began. I saw a Syrena 105 on an Internet auction site and convinced my parents to buy one of the old, legendary vehicles. It was my dad who helped me pick out a suitable car.?
Ogarzysta said he has spent a year restoring the car, a process that ?is slowly coming to an end. ?
Enthusiasts like him will be helping to keep the legend of the Syrena alive for future generations.