The sight of a Polish Maluch – a flimsy death trap on wheels – is now rare, but can still be seen from time to time on the streets of Poland. Like the Skoda in Czechoslovakia or the Trabant in East Germany this was to become the defining engineering product of communist Poland. Lesser known – essentially because it was never exported - is the Warszawa Syrena, a nimble vehicle inspired by the Russian Volga limousine. Its history dates from 1953 when the government took the decision to design a ‘car for the people’, aimed specifically at ‘labor leaders, scientists and intelligentsia’. Karol Pionnier was put in charge of the design team and over the next two years his crew worked tirelessly on producing a prototype. The car made its debut at the 1955 Poznań International Fair to national acclaim. Details included an engine adapted from a motor used to power water-pumps on fire engines, while the postwar scarcity of sheet metal meant that the frame was primarily fashioned from wood.
By 1958 the Syrena – so named after the Mermaid symbol of Warsaw – began rolling off the production line. Over the next few years numerous models were developed, including the Syrena Sport (vaguely modelled on a Porsche) and the 110 Limousine. By the time production was brought to an end in 1983 over half a million had been produced, with the car even making appearances during the Monte Carlo Formula 1 rally in the 1960s; its driver, Stanisław Wierzba, managing to miraculously score a pole position finish during one qualifying heat. Today the one-lock car is a collectors' dream though all too rarely seen in public.