From time to time, the tale is told of an innovative, advanced automotive design which never reaches the market, not because of a failure on its own merits, but because sinister, powerful forces don't want it to. For example, there's the hoary old urban legend of the 100 (or is it 200?) MPG carburetor allegedly suppressed by the oil companies. The carburetor legend is a total fantasy (go here for the debunking), and there are other, similar tales that are just as fanciful.
Yet, history does record one clearly documented instance of an innovative prototype car kept from production by sinister forces.
The car is the "Syrena Sport," Poland's first sports car, and the sinister forces in question were officials of Poland's Communist government.
Poland did not have an auto industry until 1950, when the Polish government established Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych, or "FSO"--"The Factory for Passenger Automobiles." In 1951, FSO began building the "Warszawa," a copy of the Russian GAZ-M20 Pobeda, under license.
FSO's first original design was a two-door compact sedan known as the "Syrena." It was named in honor of the mermaid on the City of Warsaw's coat of arms, the guardian spirit of the Vistula River. Legend has it that the mermaid picked out the location of Warsaw for Duke Bolesław II when he founded the city in the year 1300. Warsaw's mermaid is almost always depicted with a sword and shield; a mermaid who is definitely not to be messed with.
The sedan which bears her name is nowhere near as intimidating. Powered by a two-cylinder, two-stroke fire pump engine producing a pitiful 27 horsepower, the Syrena is roughly analogous to East Germany's endearingly hapless Trabant. The "Trabi" and the Syrena were both introduced in 1957 and designed to similar specifications, but the Syrena was clearly the better of the two. It was around thirty inches longer and slightly wider than the Trabant, and had body panels made of good, honest steel rather than the Trabi's semi-toxic "Duroplast." Besides, the Syrena was named after a badass mermaid, and that alone gave it a certain level of coolness that no Trabant could hope to approach.
Between 1957 and 1960, a group of FSO engineers working on their own initiative, and mostly in their spare time, built a prototype two-seat sports car on a Syrena chassis. Designer Cezary Nawrot gave the "Syrena Sport" a dramatically low fiberglass body that had to be the most aggressive, adventurous, downright individualistic bit of styling ever to come off a drawing board on the east side of the Iron Curtain. It looks (to me at least) like Mr. Nawrot may have taken at least some inspiration from the 1953-55 Studebaker "Loewy coupes." There's also a touch of Aston-Martin DB5 or '55 T-Bird in the front end, and a dash of Karmann Ghia in the rear quarters. Whatever you compare it to, or whatever other influences you might perceive in it, the Syrena Sport is a rakish and eye-catching affair. This little mermaid may be a bit derivative, but at least she's got the sense to be derivative of the good stuff.
The Syrena Sport's front suspension, transmission, and steering gear were sedan components straight out of the FSO parts inventory, but the engineers fabricated an independent rear suspension to replace the donor car's beam axle. The hood line was too low to accommodate the Syrena's vertical inline two-banger, so engineer Wladyslaw Skoczynski built a completely new four-stroke engine. He took the block of a French Panhard Dyna's two-cylinder boxer engine and gave it the cylinder liners, pistons, and cylinder heads from a Polish Junak motorcycle, machining a new crankshaft and connecting rods and other miscellaneous pieces. The result of this kitbash displaced 750cc and produced 25 horsepower at 5000 RPM.
25 HP may not seem like much, but just think about this for a moment. How many mechanics do you know who could build a working engine out of components from two completely unrelated manufacturers?
The Syrena Sport was unveiled to the public on May Day, 1960, and appears to have caused something of a sensation. In terms of looks, FSO's littlest mermaid was certainly competitive with the smaller sports cars then in production in the decadent capitalist West.
Could it keep up with them on the roads? That's harder to say--there's not a whole lot of information available on the Syrena Sport's driving dynamics. The top speed is variously reported at either 110 or 120 KPH--that is, either 68 or 75 MPH, but I've been unable to find any acceleration times. On the one hand, ingenious as it was, Wladyslaw Skoczynski's engine only put out 25 HP, a bit less than the donor sedan's mill; but on the other hand, the Sport's fiberglass body made it much lighter than the 2,000-pound sedan, and it's clearly a whole lot more aerodynamic. This Polish-language article seems to suggest (at least when rendered into English by Google Translate) that the Sport was also given stiffer springs in the interests of handling.
I guess your evaluation of the Syrena Sport's speed and handling would ultimately have depended on your frame of reference. If your idea of "sports car" was an E-type Jaguar or a "Bathtub" Porsche or even a "Bugeye" Sprite, you'd probably have found the Syrena Sport a little underwhelming--though that really wouldn't be fair. All things considered, the Syrena Sport was a good "first draft" of a sports car. Cezary Nawrot certainly got the look just right. Give the little mermaid 30 or 40 more horsepower and maybe a set of sway bars, and she'd at least be competitive with contemporary British or Italian small sports cars.
On the other hand, if you were living behind the Iron Curtain and the only cars you'd ever seen before (much less driven) were pathetic proletarian penalty boxes in the mold of the Trabant or the Pobeda, the Syrena Sport would likely have blown your mind. It should have been noticeably quicker off the line than a stock Syrena--but it would have seemed faster even if it wasn't because of the low seating position. It probably handled better, if only on account of its lower center of gravity. Most importantly, in contrast to the joyless gray conformity of government-issue East Bloc sedans, this car looked like it was having fun just sitting still. It promised speed and adventure and the freedom of the open road.
And that was its biggest problem.
Official Marxist-Leninist ideology opposed the sort of lively individualism that sports cars represent--and, truth be told, the Polish government of the time wasn't too keen on private ownership of automobiles, period. Communist Party First Secretary Władysław Gomułka is said to have once suggested that the common people didn't need cars because they could get along just fine riding bicycles! Gomulka himself got to have a limousine--but he was the boss, and apparently felt no obligation to lead by example.Good Communists that they were, the bureaucrats running FSO concluded that the Syrena Sport was "too extravagant and imperialistic" for the roadways of the Workers' Paradise. Not only would the car not be put into production, the order came down for the prototype to be destroyed, lest its decadent exuberance corrupt the moral purity of the New Socialist Man.
The engineers who'd built the Syrena Sport could not bear to let that happen. Instead, they sneaked it off to a warehouse in the Falencia district of Warsaw, where it remained hidden for over ten years. Sometime in the 1970s, the government rediscovered the car and again ordered it scrapped. No one from FSO would do the dirty deed, so the government had to send in a "commission" of "agents"--in other words, a goon squad. I don't know if the "agents" arrested anybody in the process, but the FSO engineers had to know that by defying the government in this way, they were risking imprisonment or worse.
Was the engineers' defiance just a special case of car lust, or did it have a greater significance? It's hard to say. It would probably be going too far to call the Syrena Sport affair a foreshadowing of later, more momentous events in Polish history. Still, one cannot help but think that something basic in human nature--a respect for art and craftsmanship, a love of liberty, an instinctive rejection of soulless conformity--had something to do with it.
While the Syrena Sport itself was destroyed, the little mermaid seems to have gotten the last laugh. Poland's Communists were voted out of power for good over twenty years ago, and FSO is now a privately-owned profit-making business. To judge from what I've seen in the course of researching this post, the Syrena Sport seems to have a place in the hearts of Polish auto enthusiasts roughly equal to what the Corvette represents to American car nuts, or the Austin Mini Cooper to British enthusiasts, or the Anadol STC-16 to Turkish gearheads. It's an easy matter to find modern-day CGI renderings and 3D models of the Syrena Sport done by Polish artists, and even full-blown video tributes like this one:
This particular 3D model appears to have been used to make an add-on for one of the Grand Theft Auto videogames.
The Syrena Sport's fans, however, are not content with just a virtual reality version. At least one group of enthusiasts is building a full-size, working replica.
Beneath a faithful line-by-line re-creation of Cezary Nawrot's original bodywork, their design uses a modern spaceframe and a BMW powertrain. They don't say which particular engine they're planning to use, but it appears from the CAD illustrations to be a straight six. Even with the most modest available BMW I-6, the reborn Syrena ought to have straight-line performance extravagant and imperialistic enough to make Władysław Gomułka turn over in his grave.
The group's Polish-language website doesn't go into a whole lot of detail, but it seems they have the chassis design pretty well nailed down as of this writing. I sent them an e-mail in the course of researching this article asking for more details, but I haven't gotten a reply, so I don't know how close they are to having a running prototype, or whether they plan to put the car into series production.
I do have a suggestion for them, though. When it comes time to do road testing, be sure to take the car for a speed run along the banks of the Vistula River. I think the mermaid would appreciate seeing it.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The vintage photos of the Syrena Sport used in this article can be found on Wikimedia, and in several other English- and Polish-language sources. (There's an excellent hi-res gallery of them here.) The Syrena sedan illustration came from autohistories.com. The CGI rendering came from this Polish-language article, and is apparently by an artist named "HummFred" who does add-ons for driving games. The CAD illustration came from syrenasport.pl, the website of the folks building the modern replica.