The first gasoline powered automobile was built by Karl Benz of Germany in 1885, and the American Henry Ford introduced mass production of the motor car to the world. What about Poland's involvement in the auto industry? In the early years of the automobile, Poland was still occupied by the three partitioning powers. Poles were oppressed and generally relegated to being farmers or laborers. Still, those of means, like those from old noble families actually became involved in business and could indulge their interest in the horseless carriage. Count Karol Raczyński was an investor in Belgium's automobile industry and one of the first owners of a car in Poland in 1897. In 1896 the first car had appeared for sale in Warsaw, a Karl Benz model, in the shop of StanisŁaw Grodzki. The following June he drove a Peugeot model from Warsaw to Paris.
When Poland regained its independence following World War I, the retreating armies had left behind a huge number of military vehicles on Polish territory. Many were totally damaged but thousands only needed to be repaired to be useful again. Needing vehicles for its army, the new republic's Defense Ministry set up the Centralne Warsztaty Samochodowe (Central Auto Works) or CWS in Warsaw to repair the abandoned cars and trucks. When the number of repairable vehicles began to dwindle, CWS began to import new ones, including Ford Model-Ts, which were converted into the desired military vehicles.
Meanwhile, Polish entrepreneurs and engineers began developing their own cars. In 1921 in Warsaw Stefan KozŁowski and Antoni FrĄckowiak built three small vehicles called the SKAF. They sat two persons and could go 25 m.p.h. The car was advertised for sale but not much else is known. Neither photos nor the car itself exist today. In 1924 MikoŁaj Karpowski built a large open car named the Polonia, which seated four and went 60 m.p.h. He could not attract investors and the only one ever made was raffled off, its fate unknown.
Other cars produced in Poland in the '20s and '30s included the Stetysz (20 cars), AS (200), and WM (2). But the businessmen interested in bringing automobiles to Poland concentrated on bringing foreign cars into the country for sale. The Depression of the 1930s put most of the manufacturers and importers out of business.
On the other hand, the Defense Ministry's CWS began making its own cars in the early 20s, offering the first for sale in 1927 and converting into a private company. The automobiles were almost wholly constructed of Polish-made components. With names like T1, T2 and T8, hundreds of CWS cars were sold and their reliability and performance were as good as any in the world. Production ceased in 1931 and the company, now called PaŃstwowe ZakŁady Inżynerii (National Engineering Works) began making cars under license from Italian firm Fiat. The Fiat was the first mass produced car in Poland and 10,000 were sold before the eve of World War II. Also, tax laws encouraged GM and Ford to assemble cars in Poland for the European market.
Abruptly ended by the war, car making was resumed afterward. The Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych (Passenger Automobile Factory) or FSO company was established. Under Soviet control, Polish-built versions of unreliable Russian models were made, like Warszawa and also popular Syrena (Mermaid). In 1965 Poland was allowed to sign a deal with Fiat to produce better cars - Fiat 125p. In 1973 the Fiat 126p began production. This was the tiny car affectionately called the Maluch (baby). The government, wanting to appease the masses, wanted this utilitarian, relatively cheap vehicle so that the average wage earner could afford one. It sold well but once freedom returned to Poland and foreign models became more available, production ceased.
After an ill-fated investment by Korea's Daewoo, FSO became an independent producer in 2004, still putting out Daewoo models under agreement with GM, Daewoo's eventual buyer. Presently, a Ukrainian company is majority shareholder in FSO. In 2006 the company secured government backed loans and currently is licensed to make the Chevrolet Aveo. GM builds cars in Gliwice, Toyota has a gearbox plant in Poland, parts maker Delphi has a plant in Gdańsk, and American Axle will build a plant in Olawa. Volkswagen has operated a factory in Poznan for many years. Today, Poland is quickly catching up to the rest of Europe in terms of car ownership, but an independently designed and manufactured Polish car is not in the current picture.
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers