“I captured a Panda in the wild!” is not a sentence I thought I would ever truthfully write, but here we are. CC hunting is full of (small) surprises. This particular catch was only a matter of time: I had already seen a couple of these buzzing about, so there are some folks here who have a Panda fetish.
Personally, this little cub is not my Ursa Major, but this being a 2nd series car with some arresting stickers all over it, it is definitely worth a quick post. Fiat made millions of these for what seemed like eons and sold them throughout Europe, so finding one (in superb condition, naturally) in Tokyo was pretty much like running into a long lost school friend. The kind of undersized, low-energy, square school friend you didn’t necessarily want to run into, but still, a familiar shape on foreign soil is always cause for some sort of celebration.
The Fiat Panda arrived in early 1980 to take over from the 126 as Turin’s most basic small car, thereby signifying that the rear engine era was, at long last, coming to a close for the Italian carmaker. Sure, there were still a few die-hards out there – and the 126 was still in the range, but it was now imported from Poland. The Panda was an immediate hit, thanks to its low price, fashionably rectangular looks (by Giugiaro, of course) and competent dynamics.
The first couple of model years were spent establishing the car’s basic versions: the Panda 30, powered by the 126’s air-cooled 650cc twin, and the Panda 45, which had a transverse-mounted water-cooled 4-cyl. displacing 900cc. In 1982, the 34 was added, with an 845cc 4-cyl., as well as the Super 45, which had a number of refinements (such as a rear wiper and a 5-speed gearbox) and a distinctive grille featuring the Fiat five-slash logo.
There were a number of other improvements and additions to the range – the most famous being the 4×4 version – before the Panda got its first facelift in 1986, consisting in the Super / 4×4’s grille being spread to all models, plus new bumpers. Said facelift was accompanied by a few significant technical changes: the leaf-sprung rear beam axle being replaced by a more sophisticated coil-sprung setup and the introduction of new 4-cyl. OHC engines, a 770cc (34hp) and a 1-litre (45hp) to replace the previous 2- and 4-cyl. options, as well as a 37hp 1.3 litre Diesel.
I’m not sure what our feature car has under the hood, as there were none of the usual badges on the rear hatch to help identify it. Most probably, this one packs something a bit more spiced up than the usual fare – Fiat engines are notoriously amenable to a bit of tinkering. I do wonder whether this might be a 4×4, given the stance, or if it’s had a bit of a suspension upgrade.
Either way, this “Support car” is festooned with an impressive collection of stickers from recent classic rally events and seems to be sponsored by the Honda Technical College of Kanto and the University of Tokyo. I’m guessing these institutions are participating in classic European rallies with old Italian cars “to further the knowledge of students and faculty”? Sounds like these eggheads know how to have expensive fun (with cheap cars).
Fiat went ahead with a second facelift in 1991 and plowed on with their little econobox right through the ‘90s and into the new millennium. Cheap Fiats were always in high demand, but the cheapest of the lot, in mid-‘90s France anyway, were the Spanish SEAT Marbella versions. Those were Pandas with a nose job, created in 1986 when SEAT jumped ship from Fiat to VW. I remember these being the cheapest new car one could buy back then, undercutting even Ladas.
The Italian original was a (tiny) cut above its Spanish cousin, and so irreplaceable that Fiat made them last until 2003. With twenty-four model years on the odometer – besting the 500 – and 4.5 million made, the original Panda was ubiquitous in Europe. That was still the case when I left about 10 years ago; I imagine numbers have thinned out since then. Looks like a few managed to migrate all the way to the Far East. Bit of a return homewards, for a Panda…