In late 1983, Poland was just stepping out from under the crushing weight of martial law from an extremely oppressive government, which suppressed pro-Democracy activism, ruined the economy and directly led to the deaths of dozens. After martial law was lifted, old Top Gear visited the country to explore its remarkably depressing car culture.
In the days before over-the-top, action-packed films, glamorous globe-trotting, international acclaim and Jeremy Clarkson punching people, Top Gear was just an earnest motoring show that was mostly strictly educational and informative. One of the best episodes is there above, when the show covered the Polish car market when the country’s economy was at its most devastated state.
The episode explores one of the two main FSO car factories, which pumped out 85,000 cars a year at the time, which were mostly modified versions of the Fiat 125, under the name FSO 1300 and FSO 1500, and had been produced since the late 1960s.
In 1978, the Polonez was developed—an 82 horsepower 1500cc, four-cylinder updated “luxury” hatchback model, which was exported among other Soviet Union cars to the UK. It had a zero to 60 mph time of 19 seconds, needed servicing twice as often as its Japanese counterparts, so every 6,000 miles, and had a top speed of 90 mph.
According to the episode, four out of every 100 new cars sold in the UK were from the Eastern Bloc, and the show reviews the Yugo 45, Skoda Rapid Coupe, Lada Riva and the fancy FSO Polonez.
Keep in mind, these are cars that range from two-to-five years of the average Polish worker’s wages, and you had to apply to get a car years in advance, and then be able to pay years worth of work once you got approval.
The episode also covers the Polish truck and bus manufacturing industry, which funnily enough used engines sourced from British Leyland, the complicated and years-long car buying process, the Polish used car market, driving in Warsaw (including traffic fines worth two weeks of the average worker’s wages), and how the government rationed gasoline, didn’t ration diesel, but had almost no diesel cars on the road.
It’s a fascinating and detailed look at not only a different time, but an entirely different society from almost anything you’ll see today, shot at one of the weakest and most pivotal moments of Polish history. So give it a good watch and be grateful for whatever dream you have parked in your driveway in comparison.