The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : Meet the Owner - Freddy Harris and His Fiat Pandas The 2019 Insurance Classic Motor Show : Meet the Owner - Freddy Harris and His Fiat Pandas
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Meet the Owner - Freddy Harris and His Fiat Pandas

‘You get a mixture of reactions – some people really love it and some people who don’t really get it’, remarks Freddy Harris of his 1982 Panda 45 – and this reflected the response to the first RHD examples in May 1981.

Panda 30

For one, it was so different from Fiat’s existing small cars, as it was neither an urban 2+2 runabout a la the rear-engine 126 or a conventional supermini along the lines of the second-generation 127.

This was, the brochure proclaimed, ‘a product of its age’.

It comes as quite a shock to realise that the Panda was shown to the press as long ago as December 1979, meaning that it pre-dates the Austin Mini Metro, let alone the VW Polo Mk. II and the Peugeot 205.

The formal launch took place at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show and the designer Giorgetto Giugiaro would liken the latest Fiat to a pair of jeans – ‘that simple, practical, no frills piece of clothing.

I tried to bring into this car the spirit of military machinery, especially helicopters, that means light, rational, built-for-purpose vehicle’.

It was a philosophy that was reflected in the exposed hinges, the corrugated panels, the massive plastic bumpers, and the flat glass - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfJmMCWYyv8.

The car that ‘knocks spots off its rivals’ was initially available in two forms – the 30 version was powered by a “North-South” two-cylinder 602cc engine and the slightly better appointed 45 by a transverse 903cc unit.

Freddy came by his example ‘in 2012. It was an MOT failure, and I had to replace a still and carry out other work’. The former was never officially sold in the UK, but Mr. Harris ‘privately imported a 1980 model last year; it is a joint project car with my father. Compared with the 45, there are no head restraints or rear wiper, and the side windows are fixed’.

Asides from the dearth of fittings, the principal method of distinguishing the 30 from its up-market stablemate is the position of the front air intake – ‘this is because of the different location of the radiator’.

In 1981 a Panda 45 cost £2,860, some £670 more than a 126 and £180 more than the bottom of the range two-door 127.

In October of that year, Car evaluated the Fiat opposite a Metro and a Fiesta, where it seemed a considerable bargain as compared with the Ford at £3,145 and the Austin at £3,333.

The writer concluded that ‘If you care about driving, the choice still has to be the Metro.

If you don’t, and your budget is squeezed to the utmost, the Panda wouldn’t be too difficult to justify to your bank manager’.

However, Freddy argues that the Fiat was never intended to be a rival to the likes of the Metro or the Fiesta.

Autocar magazine of June 1981 perceptively noted the Panda ‘was not a competitor’ to either and mused on its prospects of attracting those motorists who would have otherwise considered a Renault 4 or the Deux Chevaux.

Both were, of course, most splendid vehicles and they also offered the versatility of four side doors, but the Panda was a more contemporary interpretation of their formula.

Another potential rival was the Citroën Visa, but that was a hatchback with an arguably more sophisticated image than the deliberately utilitarian Fiat.  

A later Car report from January 1985 evaluated a 45 opposite a 2CV Charleston and a Mini 25 and concluded the Panda was ‘a far more complete car than either’ and ‘quite simply, a better value-for-money car than the other two’.

By that time, the Fiat was a favourite of Sloane Rangers and proto-Yuppies; an early UK market brochure featured a Panda parked outside an up-market antiques’ dealer.

Perhaps fortunately, their customer-base was not restricted to people clad in tasteless blazers who were prone saying ‘ok yar’ very loudly in pretentious wine bars, for discerning motorists across the UK appreciated its many virtues.

The hammock-like back seat could be adjusted into seven different positions, including a double bed, the entertainingly named ‘bag and bottle carrier’ set-up and complete removal.

The Panda’s top speed of 86 mph was also a tad better suited to motorway driving than a 2CV6, which ran out of steam at 69 mph.

Of course, your average XR2i owner was unlikely to be impressed by the Fiat’s performance or its minimalist approach to interior décor, but Panda aficionados revelled in a fascia that was ‘simplicity itself’.

There were no ashtrays in the rear, but the one in the front could be slid across the dashboard rail.

One detail that harked back to the 1960s was the opening front quarter lights, and Freddy points out another was ‘the hand pump windscreen washers fitted to the early models’.

The Panda received a facelift in 1986, and the early examples soon became as much a lost relic of the early 1980s as “Alternative Comedy” on Channel Four.

Many Britons fondly remember how sighting a sand-coloured 45 in provincial high street seemed like a harbinger of a new world compared with the Sherpa delivery vans and Wimpy Bars populated by slightly moth-eaten punk rockers.

It would be fair to say that Mr. Harris is an enthusiast of this ground-breaking small car, for he is also the proud owner of ‘a 1988 Mk. II, a 1987 4x4 Mk. II and a 2008 4x4. And my Dad had a 1972 Fiat 500L and an Alfa Romeo 2000 Spider!’.

As to the appeal of his Panda 45 – ‘it’s the original version, the way Fiat and Giugiaro intended’.

In terms of condition, Freddy remarks that his 45 is not perfect – but ‘if it were perfect, I'd be too paranoid to use it!’.

WITH THANKS TO –

Freddy Harris and Gavin Bushby

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