Friday July 13, 2018
The Panda is now well into its third generation but when did you last see one of the original versions? Once experienced, this was yet another Fiat could never be forgotten – the boxy yet attractive styling by Giugiaro, the flat windshield with its single wiper, the rear bench that could be arranged to form a hammock and the front ashtray that could be slid across the fascia.
It was also one of the very few cars to be simultaneously available with transverse and north-south engine layouts and when the first examples arrived in the UK in May 1981, Citroën 2CV and Renault 4 owners almost immediately took note.
37 years ago, a new Panda was instantly recognisable, not least because it bore no resemblance to any existing Fiat or virtually any other small car on the road at that time. It was comparatively narrow, tall (it towered over the 126) and almost defiantly utilitarian.
The Panda 30 with the sideways-mounted two-cylinder 652cc engine was not imported to this country and the Panda 45 came with the 903cc plant from the 127. As for luxuries, there was an intermittent facility for the wiper, manual windscreen washers (a device that would have been instantly familiar to any Mini owner), and front seats that could be removed for easy cleaning.
The first British-market Pandas cost £2,860.43 - more expensive than a Mini 1000 City and the Citroen 2CV but cheaper than a Fiesta Popular. Its customer-base was probably positioned half-way between the Deux Chevaux and the Ford, with its buyers seeking the practicality and the versatility of the former with the space efficiency and slightly more contemporary appearance of the latter.
‘We shall watch it with interest’ mused Autocar in 1981. What did happen was that the Panda developed a strong – indeed devoted – following amongst motorists who were of the belief that low-budget motoring did not mean having to sacrifice style. The range was expanded with the Super and even the 4x4, but the basic formula remained unaltered. In 1985 Car evaluated the Fiat with the 2CV Charleston and the Mini 25 and concluded that ‘it is quite simply a better value for money car than the other two’
Equally importantly the Panda was a small car that transcended its low cost. As compared with a bottom of the range small hatchback, with the shame-faced blanks that were occupied by the clock and the cigarette lighter on the more expensive models, the Fiat revelled in its lack of extraneous fittings.
For even less money you could have owned a Lada Riva 1200, a Skoda Estelle 105S and a Yugo 45 but while the last-named harked back to the 1970s, the designs of the first two were rooted in an age of pre-decimal money and black and white television. The Panda, meanwhile, was wholly contemporary in its appeal.
The first series Panda received a major facelift in early 1986 and today their numbers have been severely decimated by the effects of tin-worm. My own favourite version has to be the Bianca, that brilliantly devised special edition version with the dual sunroof – a car with the power to instantly take me back to an era when ABC were guest starring on The Lenny Henry Show with 15 Storey Halo…