Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

| 10 Dec 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

If you absolutely must talk to a car, for the best results it’s important to use a respectful tone: “Come on sweetheart, you know you can do this. Yes, it’s a hill. And yes, it has been raining. Sure, you only have 30bhp, but it isn’t that steep. Just dig deep and keep climbing.”

It’s getting a little loud in here, that’s for sure, but the engine doesn’t sound as if it’s one tick shy of an explosion unlike many other two-bangers we could mention.

The big question now, though, is whether to change up from second to third. Let’s go for third. Damn. Okay, back to second.

Just keep going. That chap in the SUV can tailgate all he likes, he isn’t getting past.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

And we’re at the summit and on a straight again, slaloming around potholes.

The steering is light and communicative, but then we are riding on 145-section rubber. They may as well be bicycle tyres.

Cruising along at around the 50mph mark, it’s almost tranquil in here, despite the engine noise. Yes it’s a bit basic, but this isn’t a car for comfort-shunners.

And the controls are logically laid out – not that there are many, mind. All-round visibility is excellent, too.

The Fiat Panda 30 is… joyous. Not a word that leaps to mind when considering this boxiest of Italian classics, but it should. It is enormous fun to drive.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40
Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

Another word that readily trips off the tongue when describing the Panda is ‘icon’. These days, just about everything made prior to last week is ‘iconic’, but this brilliantly Minimalist Fiat is fully deserving of such status.

While most adjectively endowed vehicles – your supercars and hypercars – garner plenty of purple prose, this made a greater impact in the real world.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the model, the first-generation Panda having broken cover at the March 1980 Geneva Motor Show.

It followed in the illustrious wheeltracks of such legendary small cars as the 500 Topolino and 500 Nuova, plus the 600 and rather less notable 126.

However, distinct from its forebears, the Panda wasn’t designed internally because with Italy in the 1970s riven with political and industrial strife, Fiat ’s sprawling Mirafiori plant in Turin was a hotbed of unrest among the workforce and also starved of investment.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40
Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

It was against this backdrop that the board made the decision to outsource the creation of the new entry-level model to Italdesign.

It was an inspired move. The firm established by Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani in 1968 had form when it came to working with multinationals.

While Il Maestro was lauded for shaping exotica during stints at Bertone and Ghia, on going it alone he penned such mainstream offerings as the Alfa Romeo Alfasud and Volkswagen Golf.

Italdesign also fashioned the Delta for Fiat’s sister brand, Lancia.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

Giugiaro claims the Panda was conceived by the brilliant Rudolf Hruska, with whom he had collaborated on the Alfasud.

However, the Austrian engineer had departed Fiat by the time work commenced on the project, originally codenamed Rustica (later Zero) within Italdesign, in the summer of 1976.

Working quickly, Giugiaro presented a schematic interior mock-up and preliminary body sketches within three months, while two full-size plaster models were delivered in January of the following year.

They looked remarkably close to the finished article, too, the first prototype bodyshell being dispatched in September 1977.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

The most significant alteration to the design between prototyping and manufacture was made at the behest of Fiat CEO Umberto Agnelli: a couple of centimetres were added to the glasshouse.

The really clever part of the Panda’s make-up wasn’t stylistic, though, more something appreciated by engineers.

Autocar reported in period: ‘Less obvious to the eye is Fiat’s efforts to reduce the total number of body components and therefore assembly work. They quote a figure of 18% less parts than usual for their cars, and a consequent 28% reduction in spot welds, which keeps costs down.’

Then there was the choice of name. Fiat had historically used numerical designations, and the Panda could have ended up with the less cuddly moniker ‘141’ after the project number.

However, it had recently changed its policy and begun using actual names, the first being Ritmo (Strada in the UK).

The Panda tag was employed because it was easily recognisable – and pronounceable – in a variety of languages.

There was, however, a slight problem-ette: after the car was unveiled, the World Wildlife Fund objected on the grounds that Fiat had appropriated its symbol. Fiat responded by enrolling customers as members of the WWF for a year.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

At its launch, the Panda was primarily offered with two engine options: the 30 edition employed the air-cooled 652cc two-cylinder unit from the 126 Personal, with power boosted by a giddying 6bhp; the Panda 45, meanwhile, used the 903cc pushrod ‘four’ from the Fiat 127 that, remarkably enough, produced 45bhp.

However, Fiat also marketed a variant in some regions that came equipped with the 843cc unit from the 850, the Panda 34 edition producing – brace yourself – 34bhp.

All variants came with a four-speed manual transmission, the 30 version being lower-geared than its various siblings.

While the Panda finished second in the 1981 Car of the Year awards behind the third-generation Ford Escort, it was garlanded elsewhere with Giugiaro claiming the prestigious Compasso d’Oro for industrial design.

The man himself told La Stampa: ‘[The] Panda is like a pair of jeans; a simple, practical, no-frills piece of clothing.’

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

It was a brilliant analogy. Despite its apparent austerity, the Panda was brimful of clever detailing – not least the two-tone body with polyester resin body mouldings from the waist down, which offered better-than-usual protection from parking dings.

Then there were the multiple seat permutations (they could even be rearranged to form a double bed). Oh, and there was a clip-on ashtray that slid left-to-right along the dash cross-tube.

The Fiat was instantly successful on the home front, too, aided by being priced to undercut its key rivals.

By the time the Panda was launched in the UK in May 1981 it cost £2860 (roughly £11,500 in new money), which rendered it slightly more expensive than a Mini City.

The British market would prove particularly susceptible to the Panda’s charms, even if customers preferred their cars to be more luxuriously equipped.

Over the years there would be countless gussied-up UK-only limited editions with names such as Dance, VIP, Madagascar, Fantasia, Solar, Fizz, Mania and Pink.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

While the same basic outline remained a constant for 23 years, you could never accuse Fiat of resting on its laurels.

The first significant development occurred in October 1982 with the launch of the 45 Super, the main differences being the addition of a five-speed ’box and the adoption of a new five-bar grille.

This was but a mere opening salvo because the following year Fiat unleashed the 4x4 variant (Giugiaro had exhibited a brace of concept off-roaders as early as the 1980 Turin show).

Powered by a 965cc pushrod unit from the Autobianchi A112 Elite, and equipped with an all-wheel-drive system created by Steyr-Puch in Austria, it soon became a strong seller thanks to its prowess off-piste.

Perhaps the most significant development occurred in 1986 with the adoption of the overhead-cam FIRE (Fully Integrated Robotised Engine) in770 and 999cc forms. (The air-cooled twin was axed near concurrently, but pushrod units soldiered on in various guises – and various markets – into the ’90s.)

The rear suspension was also updated, the beam axle and leaf spring set-up making way for a cranked rigid axle with a central mounting and coil springs (as employed on the Autobianchi/Lancia Y10).

A diesel variant was offered that same year, while an automatic version – the Selecta – arrived in 1990, employing CVT technology.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40
Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

Other changes during this period included wheelarch extensions and higher-quality fixtures and fittings, the final facelift in 1990 including a new grille that aped that of the Tipo.

Catalysed and fuel-injected units followed, with the 1108cc ‘four’ employed in the Punto and Cinquecento coming on line, the single-point injection set-up making way for a Weber Marelli multi-point arrangement during the first-generation Panda’s twilight years.

Thanks to constant upgrades and clever marketing, the original model soldiered on until 5 September 2003 when the last car rolled off the production line at Mirafiori.

A remarkable 4,491,000 or so had been made, the first-series edition overlapping with the new strain by four months.

Unlike its forebear, the well-received 169-series model wasn’t made in Italy; it was constructed in Tychy, Poland.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

First-generation Pandas were once virtual street furniture in the UK. That is no longer the case, the 1980 car pictured here being a rare survivor even if the 30 was never officially sold in Blighty.

Save the badging, there is little to tell it apart from a 45model but for the pressed-steel grille: the asymmetrical slats were to the left on two-cylinder cars, and to the right on four-cylinder versions.

There was a practical reason for this: the large axial-flow fan for air-cooling was to the left of the engine bay, whereas the radiator for water cooling was to the right.

Viewed in profile, the Panda’s short overhangs front and rear emphasise its box-like outline. Nevertheless, it is chunkily attractive.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

The doors articulate through 65º for ease of access, and while the interior is spartan it packs some neat touches.

The fascia-cum-tray offers useful storage space and is lined in washable fabric, for example, and the rear seats can also be folded down in various ways.

Wheel and suspension intrusion into the loading bay is kept to a minimum thanks to the leaf-spring location and inclined rear dampers.

It’s comfy up front, too, at least on short trips. By contemporary standards, you do feel a bit perched, but there are no obvious ergonomic quirks.

With the choke extended, the tiny two-cylinder doesn’t exactly erupt into life. As its owner, Andy Heywood, managing director of specialist McGrath Maserati, quips: “If anything, the starter appears to be more powerful.”

Clutch travel is surprisingly long, too, and light with it. Initial take off amounts to a bunnyhop, but the Panda’s raspy character soon encourages what you might euphemistically call ‘enterprising driving’. In essence, that means you don’t lift for anything.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

Given its meagre power output, the Panda is in no way fast. Not even close: 0-60mph takes 36 secs on to a top speed of a heady 71mph.

But nor do you feel as though you’re holding up traffic; there are no burning cheeks of shame here. Four-up and with luggage it would probably be a different story, but it doesn’t feel particularly slow when flying solo.

The gearchange is less rubbery than you might imagine, at least when compared to most other small Fiats from yesteryear, and there’s a surprisingly short throw between planes.

Maintaining momentum is everything, and, once at cruising speeds, it seems perfectly happy chugging along, all the while emitting an agreeable bark from the peashooter exhaust.

The ride quality is better than you might imagine, and it’s only when traversing rutted country lanes that it gets a little bouncy.

Even then, it isn’t to the point that your head makes contact with the headliner. Body roll is kept in check, though the seats aren’t overly supportive.

Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

Autocar summed it up perfectly in the 1980s when it stated: ‘[The Panda is] versatile and, above all, a reminder of what Fiats can be – fun.’

And it is. More than anything, it reminds you that pleasure can be reaped from the ordinary; that you don’t need mega horsepower to enjoy driving.

The Panda is that rarest of things: an icon that lives up to the billing.

Images: Olgun Kordal

Thanks to Andy Heywood


Classic & Sports Car – Square space: the Fiat Panda at 40

Fiat Panda 30

  • Sold/number built 1980-2003/4.5m (all)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv, air-cooled 652cc twin, single Weber 30DGF 1/250
  • Max power 30bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max torque 30Ib ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, FWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts rear beam axle, leaf springs, telescopic dampers
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear
  • Length 11ft 1in (3380mm)
  • Width 4ft 9½in (1460mm)
  • Height 4ft 9in (1440mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 1in (2160mm)
  • Weight 1433Ib (650kg)
  • 0-60mph 36 secs
  • Top speed 71mph
  • Mpg 52
  • Price new £2860 (1981)
  • Price now £3-10,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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