Fiat Panda, As Seen in 1989

The Fiat Panda as described by one Russell Bulgin.

1983-2003 Fiat Panda 4x4
1983-2003 Fiat Panda 4×4. I can’t be more precise about the date. Anyone?

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 Fiat Panda drawing by David Downton: Autocar
1989 Fiat Panda drawing by David Downton: Autocar

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

14 thoughts on “Fiat Panda, As Seen in 1989”

  1. Of course you would see a lot of Renault Clios, Peugeot 205s and Citroen AXs in rural France. 2CVs and Dianes also, although not as many, for obvious reasons. The Panda 4×4 is quite a different proposition altogether though, and I can see why people there would hang on to them for as long as they can, since they must be cheap to run and maintain for a car of its ability and practicality.

  2. As for some of the things you picked on…

    Regarding superminis: that’s a relatively new category in Europe. Or rather a resurgent one, if you consider that the original Mini, the Fiat 500 and its immediate successors, with Fiat or Autobianchi badges, and even bubble cars once thrived in that space before being supplanted by larger, more practical vehicles.

    As for the Doc Martin reference, I think you’re reading a bit too much in a slightly clumsy analogy to a basic, all-purpose accessory…

  3. Though unlikely would have loved to have seen an updated post-1990s original Fiat Panda that resembles a downsized 2nd generation Fiat Uno, with optional 5-door bodystyle as shown on the Seat Panda-based Emelba Elba 5-door and a 60-70 hp 1.2 8v FIRE unit (particularly useful for 4X4 models).

    Essentially a proper update of the original Fiat Panda for the 1990s without being fast or overly-sophisticated and removed from its no-fills roots, until it disappears from Western European markets in the mid/late-1990s and is subsequently pensioned off elsewhere.

  4. Russell Bulgin was a wonderfully talented observer of the motoring scene who departed far too young; he frequently wrote from a point of view which now might be regarded as “metropolitan elite” so that might account for the illustration to the article.

    Fiat did produce an updated 1990 Panda, it was the 2003 – 2011 model which I had the great pleasure to use as my daily transport for a year. No electric windows, no electric door mirrors, no aircon and very basic radio/CD. It would be difficult to strip more out of a car and still meet current safety standards. The car regularly did 400 miles in a day, was reasonably frugal, surprisingly comfortable and always fun.

    I greatly admire the original Panda and there is an excellent analysis of its design in the book Design Giugiaro; this also shows its close relationship to the Megagamma. However I think that the Panda 2 is a worthy successor to the original and in remote parts of Andalucia they seemed to have taken on the role of the original

    1. I agree with Barry that the Mark 2 Panda was one of the nicest small cars around. However, even deprived of what are becoming the standard accessories, it still doesn’t quite fill the gap left by Panda 1 for a really logical and basic car in the Renault 4 mould. I really can’t see Panda 1 as a ‘supermini’ unless, being tall, Bulgin used that to describe any small car he could fit into.

    2. Bob: sorry for the delayed response. Is your idea a car based on the Punto 1 (thefe was only one Uno). That might have been a goer. They could have dodged upgrading the structure for crash regulations by selling it as a Punto 4×4. Subaru make a good living selling the Justy which at present is a Swift with 4×4 mods. Basic enough?

  5. Sean you are absolutely correct about the practicality of the Renault 4; Mrs M. had one for six years and it was comfortable, logical and extremely useful. I think that Gordon Murray had designs for a replacement, not surprising as he listed the R4 as on of his favourite cars. I still feel that such a basic car would have problems meeting current safety legislation and market demands for toys and electronic aids. Having said that I would certainly be interested if such a car became available.

    1. A lot of people say that, but is there really a market for such cars nowadays? Personally I doubt it. Plus what does a ‘a basic car’ mean? Expectations have changed and the likes of Dacia are filling that gap more than adequately in my view.

    2. You are probably right Laurent. I think that people like me, and probably Barry and Gordon Murray, like the idea of simplicity for its own sake, as much as because it’s cheap. Back in the day of the Renault 4, to make something that looked like a ‘proper’ car, with wind down windows, complex curves on the bodywork, wrap around dashboard, complex lamp clusters, etc, was prohibitively expensive. Now it isn’t. So most of the people in the market for a cheap car are (understandably) happier if it looks more like a more expensive car.

  6. Yes, simplicity is the essential quality for me rather than cheapness. Cheap cars are not necessarily simple and of course vice versa. I have always liked Colin Chapman’s design philosophy of “simplify and add lightness”. Laurent is undoubtedly correct when he sees a very limited market for such a car; indeed it is probably nostalgia on my part to hark back to such a vehicle.

  7. As discussed at length on these pages, some of us here take the view that the closest one can get to the simple, unadulterated experience of a Renault 4 nowadays is through a compact van. Kangoo and Berlingo have their fans, and I’m personally quite partial to VW Caddy or Ford Transit Connect. Which got me thinking about an alternative which combines the practicality of a van with the simplicity of a no-frills hatchback, and that’s the Fiesta Fusion:

    I got to drive one around the twisty roads of north-west Mallorca a few years back and enjoyed it greatly. It was light, nimble, spacious and comfortable, and offered great visibility all around. I was sad to give it back at the end of our stay and considered buying one the next time I changed car, but there was none in my price range then.

    1. Laurent. I know the Fusion is another of those cars that appeals to ‘hommes d’un certain age’, so I would say this, but every time I see a Fusion I feel it’s unjustly underrated. Of course the lads at TWBCM and their like just labelled it ‘boring’, but it’s compact outside, spacious inside, has lots of glass and, presumably, Parry-Jones vetted road behaviour. What’s not to like.

    2. Laurent: did we drive the same car? I love the Fusion’s appearance, it being Bird’s purest design. Alas, nothing else appealed. While professionally detailed, the interior lacked one ounce of joy and the drive disappointed. Here was a car asking for the kind of zany colours and fabrics Fiat and Citroen do or even a Ghia version but all it got were deadly dull options. Is it Panda-like? If it actually ever had 4×4 drive it might have been. But it didn’t. Ford wasted a fine shape and package here.

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