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Who’s Driving that Jag?

What are the early signs that Poland is closing the gap with its Western European neighbors?

September 24, 2001

What are the early signs that Poland is closing the gap with its Western European neighbors?

Driving through Europe, an American visitor sooner or later notes little white stickers on the rear of most European cars. They indicate the national origin of the driver. A ‘D’ stands for Germany, a ‘CH’ for Switzerland, an ‘NL’ for the Netherlands, and so on. Those stickers can be especially useful in exploding old stereotypes. Case in point: the assumption that nicer cars on the road always come from the wealthy Western part of the continent.

There are two kinds of visitors to France: the ordinary tourist and the more refined Francophile, who speaks the language, savors the finer aspects of cuisine and culture and might even hop over for a long weekend.

Most of us belong to the first group. Many wealthy English people, in contrast, seem to belong to the second group. And with the opening of the Eurotunnel a decade ago, the number of British cars on French roads— many of them on a weekend jaunt to the continent — has increased dramatically.

Driving on a French autoroute last summer, I thought I saw one such British sophisticate. As we fumbled with our wallets at a tollbooth, looking for the right amount of French francs, out of the corner of my eye I saw a fantastic-looking Jaguar pulling up next to our modest rental. Ordinarily, I’m not much of a car buff, but that one was different.

It was of the 1970s’ vintage, when cars in many cases still looked like cars — and not like Japanese-designed UFOs or plastic soap dishes. Painted in an elegant burgundy, it was built in the days long before Ford took over the ownership of the brand. As it turned out, it was a classic — a Jaguar XJ12. The car appeared to have British license plates — the same old-fashioned white numbers on a black background.

In my mind, I instantly formed the picture of the owner. You know the type: a highly sophisticated London investment banker on a quick journey through Normandy. I had visions of his trunk loaded with French wines and cheeses, which he would enjoy in his posh West End home.

But looking more closely at the ‘Jag’, one thing confounded me. I noticed that the car didn’t have its steering wheel on the right, where it would be in any other UK car. Instead, it was on the left — as is common on the European continent.

For a moment, I thought that the Brits were becoming more Europeanized in their ways — or that the bureaucrats in Brussels have finally imposed the common European driving standards on recalcitrant Great Britain.

Then, the Jaguar pulled away. A last longing gaze on this work of art and a fine example of British craftsmanship revealed another, important bit of information.

Puzzlingly, there was a small ‘PL’ sign attached on the rear of the car — off to the side of the license plate. Those letters, ‘PL’, obviously stand for Poland. The license plate, too, was actually Polish – and only looked similar to older vintage British tags. It turns out, the owner of the ‘Jag’ was a Pole!

I still remember when the first Polish cars began to appear on Western European highways soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

They were instantly recognizable. They were tiny, antiquated Fiats built in Poland under license, or else East German Trabants. They stayed in the slow lane, clinging to the shoulder, since they could never dream of matching the breakneck speed of Western European cars.

Over the years, this image of a typical Polish driver has gotten stuck in people’s mind. But now it seems that this stereotype should go out the window. That’s because the Pole driving the classic ‘Jag’ was clearly different. In order for him to choose this car, he would not have to have quite a bit of money, but also the good taste and the sophistication that goes with owning a classic.

Although the image of the London investment banker instantly crumbled in my mind, it was replaced by that of a Warsaw partner in a major accounting firm.

The difference was nationality, not substance. In fact, the expensive wine and cheese that I had imagined in the Brit’s trunk was probably there anyway, destined to be enjoyed in an elegant country home outside the Polish capital.

Here it was, then — a powerful sign of economic transformation: Over the past three centuries, Poles used to come to France as refugees from their land that was both poor and ruled by foreigners. Deprived of their own country, the permanent colony of Polish refugees in Paris was the symbol of the enduring division of Europe.

Now, a Pole driving through France in one of the finest examples of British design has become a symbol not only that Polish communism is gone forever, but that Europe is growing ever closer together.