May 16, 2010

Happy 30th, Fiat Panda.

1980 left its mark in the history books. Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the US presidential elections, John Lennon died and the first edition of Pac-Man was released. 1980 was also the year Ferrari launched the Mondial and Renault the Fuego; car clubs around the world will likely plan celebrations of some sort for these two cars. But one car that will likely not see its 30th birthday celebrated is the Fiat Panda, built from 1980 to 2003.

While Fiat launched the new 500 in 2007, it only replaced the original 500 in terms of design. The 500’s replacement in spirit was the Panda. A single trip to Italy will convince you of it; Pandas are slowly replacing the old 500. The original 500 was small and economical, and Fiat has these guidelines in mind when it designed the Panda: it had to be small to meander around crowded cities with ease and cheap buy and run to be accessible to the largest possible public. Fiat contracted the boxy design to Giugiaro instead of drawing it in-house. The Panda retained this three-door design until the end of its production.

In 1980 the Panda was available in two versions: Panda 30 and Panda 45. The numbers corresponded to the engine’s horsepower. The Panda 30 was the entry-level model and only sold in Italy. It used the Fiat 126’s 652cc air-cooled two-cylinder, itself a direct descendent of the Fiat 500’s engine. The Panda 45, sold throughout Europe, used the Fiat 127’s 903cc water-cooled inline four. Fiat aficionados will recognize that engine from the Coupe and Spider versions of the 850. A year after its launch, the Panda was available in 34 trim with an 843cc engine, also derived from the 850.

(Above: an early Fiat Panda in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Sicily. Note the metal grille)

No matter what engine you opted for the equipment was minimal, which some journalists criticized. The most criticized aspect of the Panda was its rear suspension design which used leaf springs, a design the press billed as archaic and uncomfortable at best. Nevertheless the Panda quickly won the hearts of European motorists and only narrowly lost title of European Car of The Year in 1981 to the Ford Escort.

In 1986 Fiat refreshed the Panda lineup with a new grille, two new engines and more importantly a new independent rear suspension borrowed from the Lancia Y10. The new, fuel efficient engines were part of Fiat’s FIRE (Fully Integrated Robotized Engine) line and had a displacement ranging from 769cc to 999cc. Both engines were also available with Magneti-Marelli fuel injection, a first in the Panda lineup. Fiat’s FIRE engines are interesting in that they are non-interference engines, meaning the valves stay intact if the timing belt snaps. With the new engines the name of the different models available changed to Panda 750 (available in either L, CL or S trim depending on the equipment), Panda 900 (for the 903cc engine) and Panda 1000 (L, CL or S). 1986 also marked the availability of a diesel in the Panda, a 1301cc four-cylinder borrowed from the Uno line. The diesel version of the Panda was only available on the Italian market but sales were not spectacular as it was judged too slow and too loud; it consequently left showroom floors for good in 1989. The last innovation for 1986 was the introduction of a strictly utility model, the Panda Van. It was a standard Panda with no rear seats, plastic over the rear windows and plastic added to make the rear square in order to increase trunk capacity and widely used by companies in Italy, the only country where the Panda Van was available.

(Above: a post-facelift Fiat Panda 750CL with its plastic grille in Porto, Portugal.)

In an effort to cater to the widest possible public, including the family who lives up in the Alps and still needs cheap transportation, Fiat designed a 4x4 version of the Panda in 1983. The 4x4 system was developed by Steyr-Puch in Austria and kept the transversally mounted engine, a sight that may be common today but was not 27 years ago. Early models used an Autobianchi A112-sourced 965cc four-cylinder but the FIRE engines were available on the 4x4 later in the production run. The Panda 4x4 had two advantages going for it: first off cheap 4x4s were not common in Western Europe at the time. Its most serious competition came from the Lada Niva, introduced in 1976 and still in production today, and the Golf Country. Lada dealers were less common than Fiat dealers so parts and repairs proved tougher to deal with, plus the Fiat arguably presented a better build quality than the Lada. The Golf was slightly offbeat and sales were dreadful. The second advantage of the 4x4 is that it wasn’t just a standard Panda with 4x4 badges and plastic trim, it was a serious offroader that could almost climb up a wall. When the car came out various government agencies in the Alps such as forest services kept entire fleets of Panda 4x4 as work vehicles – some still have them today. It is worth noting that the 4x4 held on to its leaf springs even after the rest of the lineup switched to the independent rear suspension.

(Above: a Panda 4x4 in Ventimiglia, Italy)

After 1986 the Panda carried on with minor changes. Fiat redesigned the 903cc to keep it under 900cc (precisely 899cc) to get around certain European regulations about engine size and how they are taxed. These 899cc Pandas, available until 2001, are notorious for having a weak headgasket which damaged the reliability aspect Fiat boasted with the Panda.

(Above: a decapitated 899cc Panda engine)

The last carbureted Panda was ordered in 1993, with subsequent models exclusively equipped with the Magneti-Marelli fuel injection in order to meet the new, tougher European emissions regulations (the same regulations that lead to the phasing out of the Renault 4). That same year Fiat shoehorned a 54hp 1108cc version of the FIRE engine to offer a more powerful and more expensive variant of the Panda. Cars equipped with this engine were the flagship of the Panda line and often benefitted from extra equipment such as power door locks and power windows. This same 1108cc was available with a problematic Magneti-Marelli CVT gearbox in the Panda Selecta.

An interesting version of the Panda that is seldom seen today is the Elettra, introduced in 1990. It was a fully electric Panda that only had two seats in order to accommodate the batteries. Fully charged in eight hours, it had a fairly limited range of 125 miles at approximately 43mph. Furthermore, the extra batteries pushed the Panda’s weight to 2,535 pounds as opposed to about 1,700 pounds for a standard Panda. Most of them were sold to local city governments in Italy, the only market where Fiat sold the Elettra.

(Above: a diagram of the Panda Elettra with its batteries in the back)

Time and again in the 1990s cover article in numerous auto magazines featured a camouflaged car with a caption that read something along the lines of “Fiat preparing a new Panda?!” but these were just speculations. Truth be told in the 1990s the Panda still sold quite well despite its age due to its affordable price (one of the cheapest cars in Europe) and its reliability. But in the early 2000s the speculations of a replacement had some truth to them and Fiat did have a new Panda (also called Panda) in the works. The original Panda’s light burned out in 2003 after 23 years and over five and a half million cars had been produced in Italy and in Spain. By this time it was an outdated design that had built a loyal following, similar to the way the Citroen 2CV and the Renault 4 went out.

In Europe the Fiat Panda remains a common sight in both cities and countryside. A decent example of this versatile little car commands a check of about €1,500. 4x4 versions can go for up to €3,000 for well-sorted, rust-free models and most Pandas that need substantial work to drive every day will range in price from a six-pack of beer to about €500.

Happy birthday, Panda.


A pair of 1990s Pandas in Rome, Italy:

A Panda Côte Sauvage, a relative rare example reminiscent of the Citroen Mehari and the Renault Rodeo:

A 1990s Panda Selecta in Carro, France:

A Panda 4x4 near Barcelonnette, France:

French Panda 4x4 ad:

Inclinometer from a Panda 4x4:

Panda 4x4 emblem, proudly displaying the collaboration with Steyr-Puch:

A Panda 900 goes in for a headgasket in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Sicily:

A Panda Italia 90, a special edition built for the 1990 soccer world cup in Italy:

Early 1980s Panda interior:

1990s Panda interior:

1990s Panda Van used by a phone company in Ventimiglia, Italy. The car next to it is a current-model Panda Van used by the same company:

Another shot of the Panda Elettra:


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I own and drive a Panda Selecta. It is the third panda I have owned. My first was a 1000s. Second one was a CLX. I love my Panda.
Great article by the way.

There is a small but loyal collection of Panda owners to be found on the Fiat forum.