“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…
Cohort Classic: Fiat Panda 4×4 – Simply Simple, by PN
Curbside Capsule: A Panda is Free in The City! Fiat Panda 4×4 in the Urban Jungle, by Jerome Solberg
Beach Time: Fiat Panda Bianca – Boxy and Foxy, by PN
I’ve always wanted to drive one of these!
Their great little gauge pod and dash-spanning shelf are some of my favorite bits of interior design at any decade or price point!
At the time these were introduced I remember reading that they were designed with lots of straight lines to make them easier to manufacture in emerging markets – eg China. I always thought a used 127 or Punto would be a better buy than a new Panda.
(The pre-facelift 127 was a wonderful piece of design, only let down by Fiat plastics and rust).
There was a county fair going on when these were introduced to my neck of the woods, and the Fiat dealer was running a competition to see who could get the most mpg over a set route. I’m an old dog and know all the tricks ( accelerate fairly hard, then coast as far as possible) but maybe the day wasn’t dry enough and I didn’t scoop the prize, whatever it was.
Several years later I spent a day with a rental “white hen ” Lancia, which was the up-market cousin with better suspension and proper seats, and it was a pleasant car.
I liked the FIAT Panda from when traveling abroad as a kid. It was one of the first, most easily recognizable cars on the streets of Europe that I wasn’t used to. It was awesome to see a few of these on the streets of Rome a few years back.
I recently watched an Italian movie where the protagonist had a Panda. I imagine these were great on the space they took up as well as space utilization on the inside.
I rented one on (in?) Santorini back in 2004, what a hoot of a car to drive! Everything you need, nothing you don’t (at least on Santorini), if I was needing to get from Frankfurt to Munich in a hurry I likely would not have been as pleased…
But as a result it has all the ingredients for a great city car – small, light, great visibility cheap parts if bumped, etc…Not surprising that someone in Tokyo wanted an Italian version of what’s been sold over there for ages.
ah, the 2 door 4×4 hatchback! i’ll take mine with a stick and park it next to my brown turbo diesel manual wagon!
in your dreams, buddy! sadly, these things are not to be in america. i love fiats but that doesn’t mean i would ever buy one.
Ha, I rented a Seat during semester abroad back in ‘89 and drove it up the Côte d’Azur (d’Elegance?) in Spain and France – with 2 other people – and luggage! I remember that bin-style dash pod. I also remember keeping my foot mashed on the gas pedal the entire drive just to keep up with traffic! I got a real kick out of that.
To me, it was a silly little car (I have pictures stored away somewhere and we looked like a bunch of clowns in it) and at the time I regretted not paying a little more to rent an Austin or something with more room and power. Was probably much better suited as a commuter car than for over the road touring.
You know, I bump into these occasionally here too – and most are still in good shape.
It amazes me that they haven’t rusted into nothingness.
They’re still in good shape after you bump into them, or before? And I can’t help but ask, what compels you to engage in this rather anti-social behaviour?
Say, is this Ursa Major any relative of the former British PM, and also, why isn’t she yours exactly, I mean, do you just lack courage or what?
Oh, and btw, I’m most disappointed by “Panda 30”, why, that’s lacking any impudenza for the low-rent model of such a stylishly anti-style car.
I’d always hoped the very basic one was called the Panda Bare.
I still drive my 1995 UK Panda all round Europe. Such a brilliant car, driven over the Stelvio, Grossglockner, Susten and St Bernard passes in 2018/2019 in 40degC without any complaint. Been as far as Slovenia in it.
If you were just looking for a good small car, this was it. If that is all that was expected, then it delivered. 4.5 million produced tells you that it must have made a lot of sense to a lot of buyers.
But then, that’s the issue with a lot of cars. People expect a lot more, so they get discouraged when their expectations aren’t met, even if their expectations are too high. I understand the limitations, and am ready to accept such cars for what they are. I guess that’s why I like a lot of cars that others don’t. I don’t have high expectations that an econobox will have great acceleration, be really roomy, and have superlative dynamics. The funny thing about thinking that way is that if you are wrong, it actually delights you to be proven wrong.
Always loved the absolute honesty and lack of pretension of these, especially the very early ones with the flat panel grille. Like a 2Cv or Renault 4 for our times, but not a Mini with the “chap about town” image it gained.
Hired them a few time son holiday, and always had fun with 40bhp.