Cohort Classic: Fiat Panda 4×4 – Simply Simple

Most Americans wouldn’t recognize this little shitbox for the brilliant and pioneering car it is. A Yugo? A Lada? Fair enough; we just don’t have a tradition in this country of elemental cars; at least not since the flashier late-twenties Chevy put the kibosh to the Model T. In 1980, as Brougham Fever was reaching epidemic proportions in the US, Fiat introduced the Panda, the latest European “peasant-mobile”, in the tradition of the Citroen 2CV. Its glass was all flat, and its rear seat could be folded into everything from a hammock to carry odd loads, into a bed, or removed altogether. And  it had a leaf-spring cart axle in the rear, which opened up the easy possibility of turning it into a 4×4; the first small, transverse-engine 4×4 car. A legend was born, and thanks to splateagle finding this one in Scotland, we can finally give it its due props.

Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Panda arrived in 1980 in the quest to redefine basic motoring, once again. This time, Fiat took a rather conventional approach, unlike the 2CV. The Panda recycled bits and pieces of other Fiats, including the engine and transaxle from the 127, as well as the two-cylinder from the 126 for the really elemental version (Panda 30).

Its interior was truly multi-purpose. How many Italians lost their virginity in a Panda? No wonder it became such a cult classic.

But its versatility reached new heights when the Austrian 4×4 specialist firm Steyr-Puch got a hold of it. This was an extension of the long-established relationship between the two firms, which had SP license-building versions of the Fiat 500 with its own engines.

But the lifespan of that hairy little toad was coming to an end in the seventies, and the thrifty Alpine-region drivers on both sides of the Austro-Italian border needed something new with which to climb the snowy slopes, and deliver the mail.

My son Edward’s and my memories of the Panda 4×4 were formed most vividly thanks to a crazed Tirolian mailman whose rally-imitating antics we watched daily from the upper balcony of our rented digs in a mountain hamlet in the Alps in 1999. We could hear him coming, before we saw him, the little Fiat four screaming at redline; then the little yellow box came flying (literally) down the rough farm lane towards the Pension Vogelhutte. The elderly Postal-yellow Panda looked worse for wear, but every day, the same routine. Someone loved their job.

These yellow Pandas could be seen all over the Alpine regions of Austria, Switzerland and Italy, as well as in other colors in the hands of Alpinistas. Their climbing and off-road ability was unparalleled for a cheap economy car. SP engineered a clever and economical solution: the five-speed gearbox ratios were re-jiggered so first was an ultra-low ratio, and the rest were more typical of a fours-speed box. Who needs an overdrive fifth in the mountains anyway?

Steyr-Puch built the whole drive-train, from the clutch back, and shipped it to the Fiat plant where it was installed in reinforced Pandas. The rear axle was a solid affair. I suspect Honda bought one or two before they built their first 4×4 wagon a few years later.

Both the regular Panda and the 4×4 were big hits, and Fiat kept making them longer than anyone might have expected. The last one was built in 2003, when tightening safety and emission regs pretty much forced its retirement.

The gen2 Panda appeared in 2003, and was also available in AWD. It was quite popular, but the era of the simple and crude rolling tin cans was finally over.