Written and photographed by Shayan Bokaie
Jul 1, 2022
I own a Fiat 126 and, for the life of me, I can’t tell you why. It’s slow, small, finicky and, by today’s standards of speed and comfort, impractical. So why, I frequently wonder, do I put myself through this?
Maybe my love of this car stems from the knee-jerk glee I experience whenever I see something small, colorful, and Italian. Or perhaps it’s the humble charm of “people’s cars” that – not unlike a Mini Cooper or Volkswagen Beetle – become a source of national pride, allowing entire populations to side with the underdog.
What I do know is that cheap, oddball cars are a common reference point. Because they are attainable and, at least in their home countries, common, people have experienced them and have attachments to them. They’re also approachable, lovable even. When it comes to smiles-per-mile, I’ll put a Fiat 126 or a VW Beetle up against the priciest supercars any day – and my money is on the People’s Cars to emerge victorious. These cars simply have a way of bringing people together and attracting the right kind of attention, even from people who have no interest in cars whatsoever.
A few days ago, I was puttering along in the slow lane of a Los Angeles freeway when I noticed that the car in front of me was driving a bit erratically. Suddenly, the driver maneuvered the car to the side of the road and came to a quick stop. My recognition took a beat to catch up with the moment, but once it did, I realized what I was seeing: a Fiat 126p, the Polish cousin to my own Fiat 126.
As my heart skipped a beat, I forgot about my original destination and became squarely focused on getting myself to the freeway shoulder and meeting the owners of the only 126p I have ever seen in the United States. Once I got myself off the road, I discovered that this car, its story, and its owners were even more special than I could have imagined.
Our journey across the USA with our Fiat 126p has ended, but in fact our adventure to travel with our small Fiat 126p has just begun. This was only the first step.
Allow me to introduce you to Joanna Kaszowska-Grabińska, Robert Grabiński, and their lovely 2000 Fiat 126p. To look at their car, I could not have told you the model year: after all, aside from the modern Fiat logo, my own car – a 1976 model – is almost identical in appearance. Underneath the sheet metal, this 2000 126p has a few modern upgrades that mine lacks (plastic bumpers and electronic ignition, to name a couple), but the end result, as Robert was quick to boast, is that his car has a total of one additional horsepower over mine. Much like those Mini Coopers and Beetles, once Fiat found their recipe, their factories just kept churning out these cars, decade after decade.
When I accosted them in Los Angeles, Joanna and Robert were near the terminus of a lifelong dream to drive the entirety of Route 66, a dream that – between life, jobs, and a pandemic – had been six years in the making. And while Joanna, Robert, and their car might be the marquee stars of this story, this adventure has a whole team of “angels” – as Joanna calls them – back home in Poland, friends and supporters who gifted their time, love, and mechanical expertise toward making the 126p roadworthy. After some tentative shakedowns in the Polish countryside, the time had come: the little “Maluch” (the Polish nickname for the 126p, which translates to “toddler”) boarded a ship bound for New York.
Joanna’s and Robert’s American adventure had barely begun when, in the chaos of Times Square, they realized what they were in for with this car. Toodling through Midtown Manhattan, their progress was repeatedly, delightfully impeded by fanfare, curiosity, and excitement as onlookers gave them the thumbs-up, flashed smiles, honked horns, took photos, and – the ultimate car enthusiast compliment – flagged them down for a stop-and-chat. Even in empty space, the Fiat 126p is not a fast car; surrounded by crowds in New York City it became a less a car than a conversation piece.
Once on the road, Joanna and Robert spent three days reaching Chicago, during which time the exhaust system handed them their first breakdown (insert Fiat joke here). Even this hiccup, however, offered yet another opening for this car’s charm to shine through.
“We met people [in Chicago] who not only helped us, provided a second exhaust, and made additional brackets.” Joanna says of the Auta PRL Chicago (a club devoted to the cars of the Communist-era Polish People's Republic). “They also invited us for a picnic, and showed us their own beautiful cars from the Communist era.”
As it winds its way south and west, Route 66 becomes dryer, hotter, and less accommodating of little Polish cars not intended for such vast American landscapes. For Joanna and Robert, this meant calculating distances and optimizing departure times around cooler temperatures. Even with these precautions, the little Fiat still encountered bumps and bruises, but Joanna and Robert always found a helping hand along the way (remember what Joanna said about “angels”). A Fiat 126p simply has a way not just of attracting attention, but of drawing out the best in people who want to help and to be part of a fun story.
28 days, 14 states, and 5,300 miles later, Joanna and Robert reached the end of Route 66 in Santa Monica, California, where I flagged them down for an impromptu photo shoot.
Now back in Poland, Joanna and Robert assure us that they have more fun in store for their Fiat. “Our journey across the USA with our Fiat 126p has ended,” says Robert, “but in fact our adventure to travel with our small Fiat 126p has just begun. This was only the first step.”
Which begs the question: what's the next step? For starters, it involves another Fiat 126p. "We'll drive them together, says Joanna. "We're both born drivers, not passengers and we want to avoid arguing [over who gets to drive]."
While the Fiat 126p is a national icon in Poland, it was never available as a new car here in the United States, and they remain an oddity on American roads. This is just fine: if these cars were more common, I would have taken no notice of Joanna and Robert on the freeway that day and would have missed out entirely on the sort of new friendship that comes only from that moment when lovers of oddballs collide.
Maybe that’s why I own a Fiat 126.
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