Communist Poland was a motorbike powerhouse

The best export markets for Polish motorbikes were Western European countries, Asia and the United States. Junaks were exported to dozens of countries around the world," says Andrzej S. Połosak, author of the book "Polish Way of Ride. An Outline of the History of Motorcycle Production on the Vistula River".

TVP WEEKLY: Motorbike production ceased in Poland in the 1980s. Actually, why?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Poland was the third largest motorbike manufacturer in the world. These were mostly simple machines for everyday use, powered by two-stroke engines. However, the production - around 300,000 unicycles per year - put the People's Republic of Poland among the world potentates of the industry. Despite this, the Polish motorbike industry was driven into decline. The decision to cease motorbike production was political-administrative, not market-driven.

What were the reasons for this?

The party's 'economic macheros' saw motorbikes of domestic production as redundant products. In a situation of increased interest in cars, the declining demand for motorbikes was to be met by imports from the socialist countries, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and the countries of the so-called second payment area: Italy, France and Spain. Motorbike factories were to be re-branded.

Let us recall that in the second half of the 20th century. Poland was a real socialist state where the economy was almost entirely controlled at the central administrative level.

"Minor stabilisation", or the period of the governments of Władysław Gomułka, Józef Cyrankiewicz and Aleksander Zawadzki, was characterised by the fact that political terror eased and Polish society began to slowly but consistently grow richer. Motorbikes were then regarded as everyday vehicles, often as a means of transport for the whole family. However, the prevailing weather in our country for most of the year is not kind to motorcyclists. And on the other hand, the enrichment of society has led to a decline in interest in motorbikes and rekindled the dream of the passenger car.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE So what was the process of phasing out motorbike production like?

It took place gradually. The decision was taken as early as 1964 at the 4th Congress of the Polish United Workers' Party. The first to cease production was the Warsaw Motorcycle Factory, which was merged with the Polish Optical Works (PZO) and took over their production profile. In 1965 the production of Junaks was terminated at the Szczecin Motorcycle Factory. The plant was renamed the Car Mechanisms Factory. The new production profile involved manufacturing drive shafts for all types of vehicles, including fishing boats. The last motorbike left the production line of the Kielce Metal Works (KZWM), which produced SHL branded motorbikes, in 1970. KZWM switched to the production of cabs for Jelcz trucks and, following in the footsteps of pre-war traditions, to the production of metal components for the army. Motorbike production lasted longest at Technological Equipment Plant (Wytwórnia Sprzętu Komunikacyjnego) in Świdnik, where WSK-branded machines were produced. The reasons for maintaining motorbike production at these plants for so long, contrary to what was agreed at the 4th Congress of the Polish United Workers' Party, are somewhat more complicated.


Wytwórnia Sprzętu Komunikacyjnego PZL-Świdnik belonged to United Aviation and Engine Industry PZL. Its main products were aircraft and helicopters. Motorbikes were a side production. The plant, from the military point of view being a strategic enterprise, was always generously subsidised. Motorbike production also benefited from this. In my opinion, it was the separate ownership and organisational structure of Wytwórnia Sprzętu Komunikacyjnego in Świdnik that caused motorbike production to last the longest in the Lublin region.

The decline in demand for motorbikes in the late 1970s and early 1980s led to a bizarre situation: at a time when thousands of Poles were making down payments or queuing for years to become owners of the now iconic Fiat 126p, dust was gathering on the motorbikes awaiting customers.

To which countries were motorbikes exported?

Motorbike exports to the COMECON and other socialist countries were marginal. Even more surprisingly, apart from isolated cases, Polish unicycles were not exported to the Soviet Union. The best export markets for Polish motorbikes were Western European countries, Asia and the United States. Junaks were exported to dozens of countries around the world. However, the most noteworthy export episodes of communist-era unicycles are connected with SHL, WSK motorbikes and Osa (Wasp) scooters.
SHL motorbikes have made their way to the USA. How did this happen?

In fact, in the 1960s, motorbikes produced in Poland under the SHL brand appeared in the United States through the Sears department store chain, which sold a variety of goods, including motorbikes, by mail order. The matter of the popularity of SHL motorbikes on the other side of the Atlantic is little known, as Sears department stores distributed them under their own brand names. They were very cheap vehicles in the USA and were therefore raided in the deep provinces. A little later, Sears department stores switched to Austrian Puch motorbikes, which were sold in the USA with varying fortunes until the early 1970s.

And what has the career of Polish motorbikes been like in other countries?

In 1962, the Indian company Escorts Limited of Bangalore obtained the licence rights to produce the SHL M11 model, which was sold in the Indian market as the Rajdoot. SHLs were produced in India for much longer than in Poland, until 2005. In 43 years of production, more than 4 million motorbikes based on the SHL M11 were manufactured in Bangalore. Escorts Limited also bought the licence to manufacture Osa scooters. The model produced in India was the newer Osa M52, sales of which began in Poland in 1962. In addition, Escorts Limited developed its own scooter in India, the Rajdoot Runabout, based on the design principles of the Osa. Unlike the Polish model, it had smaller wheels, push-arm based front suspension and its styling was based on the Italian Lambretta scooters - otherwise popular in India.

And WSK?

Particularly popular export destinations for WSK motorbikes were Greece, Turkey and the UK. In 1977, Roy Cary of Barron Eurotrade in Honeychurch (Essex) signed a contract with Wytwórnia Sprzętu Komunikacyjnego, under which WSK supplied motorbikes without engines or gearboxes to the UK. Italian Minarelli engines interlocked with five-speed gearboxes were fitted to them locally. This unusual fusion proved unsuccessful. Barron Eurotrade therefore stopped importing, concentrating on sales and service of Italian unicycles. The WSK 125 Barron remains the rarest series-produced Polish post-war motorbike.

Were the unicycles produced in communist Poland of Polish design, or were they copies of foreign motorbikes?

After the Second World War, Germany's industrial heritage was taken over by the Allied countries. Among the many designs taken over was the DKW RT125 motorbike. Motorcycles based on its design solutions were produced in the UK, the USA, the Soviet Union and Poland. It is no exaggeration to say that the DKW RT125 design plans were the basis for almost all two-stroke engine-powered motorcycles produced in the People's Republic of Poland. In this group of vehicles, the only exceptions of truly Polish design were the WSK M21 and SHL M17 Gazelle motorbikes. One of their creators was an outstanding designer, Professor Wiesław Wiatrak. The styling and development of the Gazelle's superstructure was led by engineer Jerzy Pancewicz.

And Junak?

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The legendary Junak, known as the 'Polish Harley', produced at the Szczecin Motorcycle Factory is a Polish design developed by a team of design engineers consisting of: Krzysztof Wójcicki, Jan Ignatowicz, Stefan Poraziński. They were pre-war collaborators of engineer Tadeusz Rudawski, creator of the Polish CWS Sokół 600, 500 and 200 motorbikes. However, during design work, the Wójcicki-Ignatowicz-Poraziński team used the so-called reference motorbike, the British Triumph 3TA Twenty-One.

So the pre-war constructions were copies?

Yes. However, it is necessary to separate the types and methods of copying occurring before and after the Second World War. While in the People's Republic of Poland the copying of foreign solutions was based on the aforementioned war reparations, as well as on the purchase of licences and the preparation of dozens of "development versions" on their basis, in the Interwar Period reverse engineering was the personal invention of constructors. The CWS Sokół 600 and 500 motorbikes are a good example of this, with their creator, engineer Tadeusz Rudawski, inspired by British BSA-branded unicycles. Another example of unlicensed use of "other people's good ideas" is the CWS M111 motorbike, better known under the later name CWS Sokół 1000. The motorbike, a symbol of Polish pre-war industry, was in fact a mixture of American solutions. The load-bearing structure and suspension were openly reminiscent of the Harley-Davidson JD. The engine and drivetrain, on the other hand, was modelled on the American Indian Super Scout motorbike. There is a hilarious anecdote about foreign influences in Polish pre-war motorbikes.

Can you tell us about it?

In order to conceal the American origin of the CWS Sokół 1000 motorbike, information was spread that the gas control on the left side of the handlebars - typical of American designs - was a modification introduced specifically at the request of General Tadeusz Kossakowski, coordinating the project on the part of the Polish Army. He argued that the throttle on the left side of the handlebars was more ergonomic in off-road conditions, when a soldier was guiding the motorbike with the engine running over a slippery surface and, by adding gas, helping himself to guide the motorbike out of an off-road trap. I have not been able to confirm the veracity of this story, but if the author of these words really was Gen. Kossakowski, he thus demonstrated his ignorance of motorbike riding. It is much easier to drive out of off-road traps than to lead a motorbike out of them. In addition, leading the motorbike out "on foot" while applying the accelerator may end up with the motorbike overturning and the reckless soldier being covered by the nacelle of the sidecar, which is part of the 375 kg kit.

How much truth and how much legend is there in the story of Lech, the first motorbike built in Poland, in 1929?

Two people were responsible for the development of this design: the industrialist from Poznań, Wacław Sawicki, and engineer Władysław Zalewski, who had returned to Poland from emigration in the United States. Lech was powered by a relatively modern engine. It was a two-cylinder in a forked arrangement with a displacement of 500 cubic centimetres. It was characterised by cylinders fitted with detachable heads and an oil pump to force lubrication of the engine. Other design elements were typical of American unicycles of the period. A three-speed gearbox, a foot-operated clutch and no brake at the front wheel.

Who was to be the purchaser of this motorbike??

Lech was to be produced by a specially established company - Towarzystwo Akcyjne W. Sawicki i Spółka, based in Opalenica. The main customer for Lech was to be the army. Unfortunately, the lack of a decision from the Army Engineering Research Institute for several years to formally allow Lech to be used by the army and the deepening Great Depression meant that the company producing the first Polish motorbike was closed down after only a few dozen units had been produced. Lech was created after the coup d'état of May 1926. The Sanacja regime showed centralising, nationalising and statist tendencies in the economy. Lech was produced by a small private label. It may also have been a political game, although I have not been able to find information on whether Waclaw Sawicki and Wladyslaw Zalewski had any links with National Democracy, which was in conflict with the Piłsudski camp.
The neat and modern Gazelle and the young tourists travelling in it in Augustów in the summer of 1973. Photo: PAP/Chris Niedenthal
Which of the Polish motorbikes designed from scratch by Polish engineers and produced in series do you consider to be the best in terms of engineering?

Most noteworthy is the SHL M17 Gazelle - for that was the vehicle's official name. It was a neat and modern design, capable of competing with motorbikes of a similar class produced around the world.

Why didn't it succeed?

The Gazelle missed its time. It was a user-friendly and comfortable motorbike, but complicated to service. The high price was also a factor. It was an obstacle to the spread of this motorbike in everyday use. But the real reason for the Gazelle's market failure was the introduction of the Polish Fiat 125p into series production. This decision resulted in mass interest in passenger cars by potential Gazelle customers.

Why hasn't the concept of series production of motorbikes been revisited in the Third Republic? Is this a missed opportunity?

Over the nearly 40 years that have passed since the end of motorbike production in Poland, there have been a number of attempts to resume their manufacture in our country. One should mention the 1988-1993 assembly of Soviet, and later Belarusian Minsk brand motorbikes at the United Romet Bicycle Works in Bydgoszcz, or a number of attempts made by the well-known racing driver and motorsport activist Włodzimierz Gąsiorek. These included: the construction of the Maraton motorbike, designed on the basis of a Suzuki engine and an attempt to direct it to production at the Motor Car Factory (FSO), an attempt to start up the production of Kawasaki motorbikes at Wytwórnia Sprzętu Komunikacyjnego in Świdnik, a bid to start up the production of Chinese motorbikes at WSK, e.g. Jialing, the construction and small batch production of a new WFM, built in cooperation with the Minsk Motorcycle and Bicycle Factory of Belarus. It should also be recalled the production of Osa scooters at Włodzimierz Gąsiorek's company, Motor Klub Wawer, following their conversion to an electric motor. Two examples were produced. All these attempts proved unsuccessful due to the administrative chaos then prevailing in Poland.

Mention should also be made of the reintroduction of the iconic motorbike brands Junak and Romet.

But they are manufactured in China and South Korea and only sold under iconic Polish brands, the rights to which, however, are held by their importers. Nevertheless, they are now quite popular in Poland.

Do you see a chance for a revival of Polish motorbike production?

Against the background of the global motorbike market, the European Union is a small, very demanding market when it comes to homologation issues. Motorbike companies find it most profitable to produce unicycles in East Asia, where they are most popular. Motorbike production in the EU survives only in Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy. It would be prohibitively expensive to develop and put into production in Poland new types of motorbikes of domestic brands. Therefore, Poland's single-track production has probably been definitively lost.

– Interviewed byTomasz Plaskota
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Rok 1969 Włocławek. Motocykle były traktowane jako środek transportu dla całej rodziny. Fot. Sławek Biegański / Forum
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