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An unusually high proportion of cuteness combined with a very basic construction gave the Giugiaro designed car two parallel lives. One as a very sober, down-to-earth and practical means of transportation, and another being much more intellectual, chic and full of dreams and adventures.

When it comes to the little Fiat Panda, there are two distinct camps among us enthusiasts. It is either viewed as genuinely ingenious or thoroughly forgettable. Personally, I am quite a fan of these tiny Italian cars – not least because the company dared take a different approach with this model. These types of people’s cars often end up being milestones for the following automotive trends, while they also portray a clear story about the market they were originally intended for. But unlike several other people’s cars, the Fiat Panda isn’t particularly insistent on a legacy as a game changer. It’s really way too humble for that, but there’s certainly a stroke of genius about the Panda nonetheless.

During my research, I didn’t succeed in finding the slightest of links between the little Fiat and the black and white Panda bear. It’s rare to see a model name quite that underplayed. The Panda bear is hardly associated with cheap transportation or urban coolness for that matter, so how they decided on Fiat Panda is a bit of a mystery. But it worked, and it still does. Apparently, it appeals to the buying public’s need to “protect” and “care for”, and just about symbolises all that is pure and innocent. I’m not quite sure whether Fiat’s car manages to call on images of the cute black and white bear, but they have stuck to the name ever since.

More than once, Fiat have managed sublimely in converting small and cheap cars with a distinctly practical functionalism into hip lifestyle objects. Others have looked to Fiat for inspiration and some have managed to copy their approach with equal success. The British Mini also managed this discipline perfectly, but also the 2CV and the Beetle are obvious candidates.

Just imagine if Fiat’s marketing department had been let loose with the Austin Allegro. Would they have given the shamed model a different fate?

Right from the word go, Fiat put aside the straight forward approach of marketing the Panda purely on its frugal qualities. They were done with being cheap merely for the sake of being cheap. The bar was raised and they started speaking to the public’s dreams and sense of adventure:

The time has come for realizing your dreams, for letting your fantasy loose behind the steering wheel, for freedom, for travel and for sharing.
It is time for Panda.

Those were the inspirational lines for one Fiat’s slogans in their Panda advertising. It clearly worked because the model sold like fresh pasta for lunch, and while the current Panda is of course an altogether new car, it’s arguably still true to the original concept. I doubt many people knew – or even cared – which engine was in the Panda? Whether it had a brake servo? Steering rack? All of this was of no concern simply because the Panda spoke to the other half of the brain. It wasn’t a thing of beauty either. And of course, there are those who immediately discard the Panda as cheap junk.

Technically the Fiat Panda is about as uninspirational as physically possible. In fact, it’s barely worth talking about at all. They stuck to well tried and tested mechanicals from previous models. And therein lies the Panda’s brilliance. Cheap and well tested mechanical components wrapped in functional and modern packaging designed by Giugiaro. Yet again Giugiaro displayed his masterly abilities by moving the aesthetical borders of an ordinary mainstream product, which could have otherwise easily been doomed with a soulless and boring design.

In typical Fiat spirit, the Panda was offered in a multitude of variations with all sorts of equipment and accessories right from a folding roof to four-wheel-drive and funky colour combinations to name but a few. The terrain-conquering four-wheel-drive wasn’t introduced until 1983 – three years after the model launch – but it certainly broadened the models appeal even further and contributed in cementing the Panda’s success. The powerplant on this model came from the Autobianchi A112, an effective 965 cc 4-cylinder producing an unstressed 49 horsepower.

In 1983 the Panda 4×4 with four-wheel-drive was introduced.

Panda with maximum cool factor.

As always, please contribute with your own opinions and perhaps even experiences with the little Panda. Is it simply another cheap and nasty means of transport which is best forgotten? Or is it charming, brilliant and deserving of much more recognition than it currently receives?

4 Responses

  1. Jonathan Williams

    The reason it was cheap and easy to construct was that FIAT origionally were going to make it as a “people’s car” in China. The Chinese connection also explains the name – Panda. Somehow the deal with the Chinese government fell through late in the day and the group ended up with yet another small car platform in an already crowded space.

  2. Peter

    I can confirm that the Panda is a charming and easy-driven car. We have a Panda 4X4 model “Val d’Isere” in our family and it is perfect a city-trip: Clear overview of all corners, easy to park and on top of that plenty of street credit! Especially generation X and millennials are giving the thumbs-up. On top of that it is easy to repair and cheap in parts: A full set for changing the timing belt is 40€, including water pump and tensioner wheel.

    Next year we will use it when going to the Alps for skiing. Plenty of smiles per mile!

  3. Dave Leadbetter

    It’s incredible to think these were still being produced as late as 2003. The 4×4 still fulfils a niche market segment but even the 2 wheel drive variants are immensely capable in winter. I approve of Pandas.


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