California Dreams origins.

Home Forums Previous Months 50 – November 2020: Street Rod California Dreams origins.

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  • rasz_pl

    Playing Street Rod you might get the impression it was indeed developed in California by people deeply embedded in custom car subculture. Nothing further from the truth.

    California Dreams was an American sounding name for a publishing label started by Lucjan Wencel, Polish immigrant. All of the released games were created in Poland/Warsaw, under the Iron Curtain, aka Russian occupation of central and eastern Europe. This is especially impressive when you realize the restrictions imposed on Comecon countries by the west in form of COCOM – illegal to import computers, and Russia itself – cultural and technological repression, censorship, prohibited ownership of Radio transceivers/ photocopiers/ printing presses/ foreign currency, prison sentences for listening to Radio Free Europe (1), special permits for computer ownership, etc.

    Lucjan Wencel’s wife name was Karen Lee, hence P.Z. Karen. ‘P.Z.’ is a legal business type designation ‘przedsiebiorstwo zagraniczne’, stands for foreign company. LDW in Logical Design Works comes from his full initials Lucjan Daniel Wencel. Mister Wencel’s LDW was the first company to start officially importing computers, 8-bit Atari, to Poland. Of course you couldnt just buy one, they were only available at special government run Internal Export Company PEWEX line of shops. ‘Internal Export’, just try to process that one for a second haha. How were they special you might ask? They only accepted western currency, the ILLEGAL to own kind, very Kafkaesque :-). Poland desperately needed hard western cash to pay back international loans, Pewex shops were designed to suck it out of the black market by ignoring inconvenient parts of the legal system. 80s were a crazy time in Poland. Almost everything was illegal, but nobody batted an eye as long as you didnt touch politics and knew or bribed right people. Security apparatus was paranoid about political revolt (2).

    P.Z. Karen company was a very special place in Poland. Developers there immersed in US culture at an unprecedented, if not straight up illegal level. Western movies on VHS tapes (American Graffiti, etc), magazines (Car Exchange, Hot Rod, Road & Track), music, everything unobtainable to normal citizen, all in an effort to produce truly American games. Street Rod is a great proof it worked.

    1. In 1981 Radio Free Europe Munich headquarter was bombed by Romanian special agent call-sign “Carlos the Jackal”, straight up movie plot. Life imitates art :o.
    2. In 1978 government imported armored Cadillac Fleetwood for the head of the country. Not for daily use tho, it was part of an emergency evacuation plan in case of insurrection. Trunk had special hidden human sized compartment, outside stylized to look official US Embassy, designated driver on call was assigned USMC uniform. Car was hidden in a shipping container and never driven.


    Wow, thanks for posting this, @rasz_pl! Really fascinating to read; I had no idea games were being developed in this way.


    Thanks so much for this! Very interesting indeed and makes the game all the more impressive.


    Im glad you liked a little background. Some more for flavor, plus translation of an article about PZ Karen.

    Secret armored limousine, now in a car museum:

    Life in Poland under Russian occupation

    Round table discussions and first semi free elections,exhi
    Elections happened on June 4 1989, you might remember this date due to another big event that day (300-10000 civilian victims depending on sources)
    It wasnt entirely out of the question for Poland in 1989 to share Chinese students fate, Russia already had one Tienanmen square massacre under its belt (137 civilians killed)
    In a twist of irony China condemned it at the time. 1968 Eastern Bloc army intervention in Czechoslovakia started with “little green men” occupying Ruzyne International Airport, something Russia would repeat in 2014 taking over Simferopol International Airport before invading Ukraine

    Capital of Poland, Warsaw
    April 1989
    July 1989 Tram-spotting video 🙂 but shows a lot of contemporary cars.
    Picture of average Warsaw street 1991

    Cars of Poland 1989, domestics
    Fiat 125p 1967-1991 might look like Fiat 125, but internals were from 10 year older predecessor
    Fiat 126p 1973-2000
    Polonez 1978-2002 Fiat 125p internals with new chassis

    For reference Fiat 125p price oscillated around 60 to 120 monthly wages in 1986.

    There were also extreme cases. Some of them were so sloppy that they prevented safe participation in road traffic. One of the readers of “Motor” received the FSO 1500, in which a factory defect in the body made its driving almost impossible. In the TV program “Kram”, aired on October 12, 1986, an interview was conducted with a man who found 41 defects in a new car he had bought. After consulting with an expert, it was found that there were 45 of them. There was an opinion that in order to drive the new Polonaise without any problems, it was necessary to invest 100,000 zlotys in its renovation (~10% of total value). These cars, however, passed the zero inspection without any problems. The sentence of one of the engineers working at FSM can be considered the best justification for this: “People will buy any car”

    desirable Soviet Block imports

    It will come as no surprise, if you read my first post, that you couldnt just waltz into an Auto Salon and buy a car. You needed Ration Stamps! received after waiting 5-10 years in queue while paying installments, or as a political reward / work bonus (strategic fields like miners, ship builders, foundry workers, olympic winers, high ranking party officials, directors of state run companies, security apparatus, diplomats etc). Once again Pewex offered western imports (Opel Senator, Ford Taunus, Volvo 244, Citroen CX) provided you paid using _illegal to own_ Dollars/Marks/Pounds, but prices approached astronomical levels of 300-500 average salaries (1986 ~30 USD). There was black market alternative, with 4 year old used cars commanding above new sticker price due to limited supply and rationing. Western cars sold for double their western walue.
    So you managed to buy a car, want to take it for a spin? Not so fast Hot Rod! Fuel sale is regulated and limited, you need Fuel Stamps!

    Polish computer press scans
    Bajtek is the oldest one
    Top Secret was Bajteks game dedicated spinoff
    First issue, January 1990, has article about P.Z. Karen on page 4. Digital remaster of original magazine

    English Translation. Half google, half me fixing butchered translation:
    Computer games – one of the most profitable software markets. Sales in hundreds of thousands of copies bringing manufacturers huge profits from the first days of existence, i.e. from the turn of sixties and seventies.

    “The engines howled at full speed. Maverick machine tumbled down in a hellish twist. G-forces left the lieutenant breathless, but not for a second did he forget about two Migs 23 “Foxbat” perched on his tail. A moment more and the F-14 will climb up. He will catch enemies from behind and then you just need to press the trigger to send two Sidewinder rockets to their destinations. Don’t hesitate! Play Top Gun!”

    These ads encourage you to buy. Advertising campaigns cost millions, but the income is huge. There are also people in Poland who decided to earn money from computer games. In Bajtek we wrote about “Mózgprocesor”, a game from Computer Adventure Studio, we mentioned “Robbo”, we’ll be discussing “Fred”. We know work is underway to implement further ideas.

    However, only professionals can achieve significant success. The most serious game producer in Poland is Karen company. For several years it has been implementing orders for major American companies and creating own programs. Karen writes for Amiga and IBM.

    Over the past six years, Karen has developed over 50 commissioned games for partners such as Activision, California Dreams, Electronic Arts, and Strategic Simulations Inc.

    The first success was the conversion of the game “Realms of Impossibility”, which in 1986 received President of Electronic Arts Best product Award. Three programs developed by the Vistula River this year are archiving success in USA: BlockOut, Street Rod and Tunnels of Armageddon, sold by California Dreams.

    BlockOut is an evolution of the popular Tetris. The author, Aleksander Ustaszewski, created wonderful three-dimensional graphics, trying to make the most out of computer animation capabilities.

    While BlockOut was appreciated mainly by professionals, Street Rod gained wide recognition. Authors of the game skillfully took advantage of the American sentiment for cars from the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. Those crazy years of rock and roll, Elvis Presley and Drive-in theaters. The era that has not yet tasted Vietnam, the hippie movement, LSD and the Black Panthers – things that permanently changed American cultural landscape. Street Rod is a return to simpler times, long gone years.

    Karen’s latest product is the game “Tunnels of Armageddon”. Great graphics are the main advantage here. The idea is also original – a lonely fighter moving in a maze of tunnels.

    These three games have earned the company a good reputation among American partners leading to new opportunities. At the moment Karen is working on five new games that will appear on market overseas at the end of this year. Will they be a success?

    Let’s remember that not every good game can be successful. There are very good ideas that did not reach intended target audience due to lack of marketing. There are also weak games, which, thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign manage to sell, but do not satisfy buyers.

    Karen’s example testifies to the possibilities of Polish programmers, certifying its A grade status.

    Today, production for the domestic market is still not profitable due to non existent legal framework for computer software protection. Nevertheless there are still people in Poland working on games. That’s why we appeal to all interested parties:

    If you wrote a game – contact us. We will try to introduce you and your work in “Top Secret”.

    Perhaps in a few years we will have a game company we could call “Polish MicroProse”.
    Marek Czarkowski

    Surprisingly Karen wasnt good enough for this journalist :o, despite being the only Polish gamedev house publishing internationally at the time, and with quite the success. Plus he didnt know California Dreams was in fact Karens inhouse publishing arm.

    8-bit Atari and Commodore constituted majority of the market, with Spectrums in the back. Amiga was an absolute top end hardware in Poland around 1989. Cheaper, more popular than PCs, and easily obtainable even before the fall of Iron curtain as long as you had hard cash. The cost was ~5-10 salaries, C64 was 1-3. PCs were rare and crazy expensive. Bare XT cost almost twice as much as A500. 1989 salary was ~100 DM using black market exchange rate. 1990 was the year Russian occupation of Poland officially ended, salary doubled. Possesion of western currency finally became legal. 1991 salary went up to 300 DM, and so on. By 1994 PCs started taking over from Amiga with around half of the games covered in magazines being strictly PC DOS.


    You seem to be quite knowledgeable about the subject, @rasz_pl! Maybe you’d like to join our podcast discussion about this game? I’m sure you could tell us a lot of interesting things!


    Thank you for an invitation. Im not big on public speaking, rather stay a lurker.

    Article looking at Karen from modern perspective. Published by Pixel magazine, one of the last men standing of Polish paper gaming press. Even includes quotes from one of the original Street Rod programmers, Przemysław Rokita.

    I dug deeper into PZ Karen. Its surprising how important and influential it was for Polish IT sector.

    Apparently Atari/Karen moved over 160K units thru PEWEX. 8bit Atari scene is still very strong in Poland to this day.

    Four members of Karen board of directors listed in this article went really far.

    Bogdan WiÅ›niewski – Director General, then Chairman at Karen. In 1991 moved to Sales Director at Dell Poland. Director General at Apple Poland. Vice President at ComputerLand Poland. Back to Director General at Apple Poland. Briefly Chairman of the Board at Optimus SA!(1). Partner at MCI Capital. CEO at Yandex, yada yada.

    SÅ‚awomir DudziÅ„ski – Vice Chairman at Karen. Board member Damovo Poland (former Ericsson). Alcatel Poland. Chairman of the Board at Polish National Lottery Association (Lotto, etc).

    Tomasz Sielicki – Software Development Director at Karen. Founder and President of ComputerLand Poland, later Sygnity. IT consulting, software development and deployment.
    Made “Stars of Europe 2005” BusinessWeek list. Nowadays various board seats.

    Michał Jaworski. Marketing director at Dell Poland. From 1994 at Microsoft, today National Technology Officer.

    1. Optimus SA was the biggest IT company in Poland in 1988-2004. In 2011 Optimus SA went thru share swap with CDP Investment, owners of CD Projekt/ CD Projekt Red/ GOG (Witcher series,, renamed itself to CD Projekt Red SA and divested non gamedev assets.

    From Karens Street Rod thru Bogdan Wiśniewski to Optimus to Witcher, connected by association. Fascinating 😉

    My first experience with Street Rod was around 1992-1993 in a computer club. A cellar full of 286 boxes linked over Novell NetWare. I think the idea was to teach us networks, but we ended up just playing Street Rod and F29 Retaliator over whole summer.
    Btw neither Street Rod 1 nor 2 were officially distributed in Poland, probably none of Karen games ever were. As Pixel magazine article from the top of my post stated, rampant piracy and low wages made it totally infeasible. Officially 1994 was the first year Polish law regulated copyright, CD Projekt was created same year … by two pirate game salesmen 🙂

    There was a somewhat modern spiritual successor to Street Rod series from Hungarian developer Invictus Games. 2002 Street Legal and 2003 Street Legal Racing: Redline. Online shopping replaced Los Angeles News classifieds, but you still had to wrench on your cars manually. There are drag events, street races and special races, plus whole city to free roam.
    Heavily modified game (new real cars and parts added)
    Hilariously bad, yet surprisingly advanced for its time destruction model


    This is perfect. One of my favorite Polish car Youtubers just released a video review of Polish Fiat 125p. His shtick is playing bland and awkward Soviet bloc version of Doug DeMuro. He is even wearing contemporary nylon jacket, latest fashion chic in the eighties Poland 🙂
    This will give you an idea of how underdeveloped and archaic local auto industry was at the time of Street Rod development, not to mention the lack of any care for quality. The closest anyone back then in Poland could ever get to American V8 Muscle experience would be foreign dignitaries or secret political Police driving by in a ZIS-110 (Russian copy of Packard Super Eight), ZIL-111 (Russian limo stylized on 1961 Cadillac Fleetwood Seventy-Five) or GAZ-13 (Russian limo stylized on Packards from the fifties)

    I would even go as far as draw parallels between making games about iconic American culture symbols (Street Rod, Vegas Gambler) from behind iron curtain to extra terrestrial beings producing movies about Humans doing Human things. Very ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’, Google image search ‘animals doing Human things’ vibe. The poses match, but something still seems fishy about this Bear reading a newspaper. To pull such a feat off convincingly was really impressive.


    Do you know what happened to Lucjan Daniel Wencel? I am working on a project for Steet Rod and trying to locate people who worked on the game.


    According to he created a refilled printer toner/cartridge franchise business in 2000

    Piotr MaÅ„kowski “Cyfrowe marzenia: historia gier komputerowych i wideo” contains an interview, afaik the only one ever given? He seems to highly value his own privacy.

    All the other interviews I read were with Karen directors, like the one in 1988 with Bogdan Wiśniewski – Director General/Chairman in . Apparently Karen managed to sell 200K Atari computers/printers up to 1988 and provided authorized service and support.


    Thanks for all the amazing info, @rasz_pl. I really appreciate it!

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Home Forums Previous Months 50 – November 2020: Street Rod California Dreams origins.