The Fiat Panda as described by one Russell Bulgin.
Not so very, very long ago I presented an excellent gallery of Fiat Pandas as seen on location somewhere in sunny Italy – (thanks to Sean for helping out with the technicalities on that). Since then, I found the article Russell Bulgin wrote about the Panda in 1989. I had been thinking of this article in June.
For Autocar, Russell Bulgin wrote a series called the Bulgin Files (why the Bulgin Files?). The sub-header explained “Our angry young man is into his fourth week of driving bargain-basement superminis and now he auditions a Starlet and two Italian sisters, Fiat’s Uno and Panda.”
Bulgin’s florid text focuses on the Panda 750L and not the 4×4 (launched 1983). Bulgin pointed out that Fiat produced two supermini ranges, the Uno and the Panda. According to his analysis, the Uno had the character of “an urban sophisticate” and the Panda is “simpler and more rural, a car for country living and moseying sockless along the Mediterranean coast.”
He got the second one right apart from the socklessness, I think, to judge by the prevalence of the Panda in the area I visited. What I need to do sometime is to find an equivalent area in France to see if anyone, anyone at all, is hanging on to 2CV’s or even Renault 5’s in similar numbers.
On reflection, I don’t think Bulgin got it right when he called both cars superminis. There might only be a few centimetres (one to five centrimetres) difference between the cars; that isn’t quite enough to define the cars. The Panda has an entirely different character, definitely a small car character. It never had five doors and its engines never reached the dizzying outputs the Uno sustained.
1989 is a very long time ago now and if some Pandas are by chance parked by the beach, a huge number are buzzing about the hills of Campania, south of Salerno. I see the Panda as having found a niche for elderly farmers rather than the young Duran Duran dude shown in David Downton’s drawing which accompanied Bulgin’s article.
The photo above shows the Panda in the kind of environment which will be its home until the last ones rust or break. And that may very well be a very long time in the future to judge by the numbers still running. It has become the 2CV of rural Italy when I imagine the 2CV is not so much seen in France or anywhere else.
What else did Bulgin say? “I enjoyed the Panda 750L. Over the cheapest Panda 1000 you lose tilt/tip front seats, rear screen wash wipe, opening rear side windows, rear screen wash-wipe and carpets, 11 bhp and about 500 quid. If you can also live without a clock, cigar lighter [who smokes cigars in a Panda – he means a roll-up surely?], tinted glass, protective side strips, metallic paint and a four spoke steering wheel then you’re well on your way to saving a grand on the most decadent Panda money can buy.”
Bulgin likened the car to a pair of Doc Martens – “simple and straight forward rather than straitlaced.” I’d rather liken the Panda to pair of espadrilles or even those rubber spongy clogs people sometimes wear around pools. The Doc Marten is simply too heavy a shoe to be like a Panda (or vice versa). If he was talking about the 4×4 version I might have agreed with him more readily.
Is this sudden fascination with Panda 4×4 a merely a slightly delayed nostalgia for a nice trip to a nice part of the world? Or is the Panda 4×4 actually a late entrant into the 20th century small-car Hall of Giants?
And I have to ask if Dacia are missing a trick by not making a car even smaller than their Logan? Renault’s smallest is the Twingo with its rather complex rear-mounted engine. The C1/Aygo/1006 cars are small yet not very stripped out. Fiat’s own Panda is also distinctly not unluxurious. Who really is selling a space-efficient sandal of a car now?
I would contend that Dacia is now well-positioned to create a stripped-down car one or two rungs below their smallest, probably better positioned than Fiat. The key things are that crash performance needs to be up to modern standards while as much else of the interior of the car should be removed: back to metal doors and minimal dashboards.
There’s a gap in the market, if not in northern Europe but certainly south of the red-tile roof line: southern France, Spain, the Balkans and Italy.