Dos Marbelleros

Well, what is one supposed to do on vacation anyway?

How much is that Panda in the window in amongst the muebles? All images (c) Driven to Write

As regular readers may have appreciated, I have of late been on holiday. I don’t do this sort of thing as often as I ought, but when I do, I like to set myself a little intellectual challenge, and given that my predilections tend towards the automotive, it is here these exercises more than usually rest.

The last time I ventured to this part of Southern Spain, the task I placed before myself was that of Green Car Bingo, which was an enjoyable (for me at least) divertion, but not really replicable. So given that the Andalucían city of Marbella would form my base for the duration, the quest I set myself was to was to find and photograph the car with which it is perhaps best associated.

The Seat Marbella began life in 1980 as the Seat Panda, a very mildly facelifted version of Giugiaro’s minimalist masterpiece. Seat was closely affiliated with Turin at the time, but following the severance of that alliance, the Spanish Panda was discontinued. Its replacement arrived in 1986, the same year Fiat heavily revised their own Panda-car.

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Seat’s revisions were both more apparent to the eye, yet at the same time, less comprehensive than that of Fiat, whose ’86 Panda (while visually similar) was heavily reworked. By contrast the Marbella received an alternate nose treatment, featuring a new bonnet pressing, a rearward sloping grille and revised headlamp/ indicator lenses. At the rear, the tail-lamps were altered, as was the tailgate pressing itself. Plastic side cladding was added (early Pandas’ lower cladding appeared to have been painted on), which added a ‘lip’ over the rear wheelarch. However, the old fashioned separate door quarter glass was retained.

Also, unlike its Italian cousin, which adopted Fiat’s advanced FIRE power units, the Marbella kept the proven pushrod engine designs, in 903cc and (for a short time) 843 cc capacities. Furthermore, the original beam axle rear suspension was retained, whereas Fiat’s 1986 equivalent adopted the Autobianchi/ Lancia Y10’s Omega-axle independent set up.

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Sold on price, utter simplicity and mechanical robustness, the Marbella was widely derided by the UK press as being out of date upon introduction, but proved a durable and successful model line over 12 years in its home country. Not just Spain either, it would appear that the Portuguese, Italian, German and Dutch markets also took the baby Seat to their hearts.

Despite the favourable Andalucían climate however, finding a Marbella in Marbella proved a good deal more challenging than expected. Although a brief sighting was achieved upon my first day in town, photographic evidence proved more a more elusive quality. My second sighting was if anything, even more frustrating – I was driving at the time. A third, equally frustrating Marbella sighting took place while I was out walking, but it scuttled away before I could summon my camera into action.

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However, this last weekend, I hit the jackpot – not just one, but two Marbellas about half a kilometre apart. (Question: are all surviving Seat Marbella’s white?) The first example was a Jeans edition, dating it somewhere between 1988 and 1996. The second (parked closer to Marbella Centro) was a Kiss special edition, allegedly from 1992.

What can one say about the Marbella that does not apply to that of its Panda source? Well, while it clearly maintains all of the attributes of space efficiency, simplicity, mechanical robustness and fitness for the purpose of the original, the visual changes that were effected; said to have been forced upon Seat at Turin’s behest, do little to further one’s impression. Certainly a good deal of the early Fiat Panda’s distinctive product-design charm was lost – something of course one might be tempted to level at centro stile when Fiat revised their own version that same year.

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But while the second generation Panda was sufficiently its own creature to stand apart from its forebear, the Marbella was somehow diminished by the changes wrought out of expediency. Both cars however proved sound, basic transportation, and if the Panda not only appears to have survived in its native land in significantly greater numbers than its Spanish cousin, it appears to have better maintained its hold within the social fabric.

So having achieved this task, what now? After all, surely there are Seats and there are Seats? A Malaga in Málaga perhaps? Or an Alhambra in the Alhambra? Or perhaps that holy grail of Seat rarities – a Ronda in Ronda. Well, there’s always next time.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

12 thoughts on “Dos Marbelleros”

  1. The Marbella… A car that tends to be forgotten, as it’s overshadowed in our perception by the Panda. That makes it a perfect subject for DTW, doesn’t it? There are in fact other survivors than white ones; one guy in the German Citroën forum has saved, bought and restored one in a bluish green. I think it’s quite a deed, I always admire people who spend time and money to go for the cars no one wants. It makes for much fresher sightings than the 100’000th 911er.

    It’s a fun idea to hunt down place-named cars in their eponymous surroundings. You could have ventured a trip to Granada to look out for old Fords, for example. Ibiza would probably be a bit too unchallenging – or, on the other hand, very hard, if you want to capture ALL of them. I wonder how many Asconas are left in Ascona. Cortinas in Cortina? Probably zero. They might not even have been sold there.

  2. It’s a shame that the Mk1 Panda, in both Fiat and Seat guises, gradually lost its charming utilitarian simplicity in misbegotten attempts to make it more “attractive”. The original had removable and washable seat covers and a deckchair style rear seat that could easily be turned into a hammock for carrying fragile items, laid flat or removed entirely.

    Eóin, you’re right that the “cladding” on the original was a tough, textured grey paint simply sprayed onto the ribbed lower bodysides. It seemed perverse to replace this with plastic panels, which added cost, complexity (and water traps for rust) for no meaningful benefit.

    Here’s a photo of the original and best, in a suitably utilitarian colour:

    Given their propensity for rusting, I wonder how many originals are still in service?

  3. While I was in Grenoble I set myself the task of photo every generation of Clio. I could not find any Mk1s and gave up. But the predecessor is common enough.
    If I won the lottery I´d spend a little of it setting up an Ascona in Ascona and Cortina in Cortina d´Ampezzo. I was lucky enough to visit Cortina and saw no evidence of Cortinas. I think the chances of seeing an Ascona in Ascona are not high but better than zero. The other week I saw a VelSatis 2.0 TDCi in Velsatis 2.0 TDCi, north of Mondeo. It´s a charming village, really.

    1. Car-named places for a change… thanks for that big smile I had when reading this!

  4. If the question is where (and when) to find Fiat Panda and Seat Marbella, the answer in in Morocco every spring. Have you heard about Panda Raid (www.pandaraid.com)?
    It’s a one week race, only for first generation Panda and Marbella, starting in Madrid and then crossing Morocco both on- and off-road.
    I had the chance to take part in the 2014 edition, with a wonderful red Seat Marbella Special: 843 cc engine with an small carburator, and only four speeds. We paid around 700 € for a standard unit, turned it into a “racing” versión, and sold after the race for 1,000€. The ratio cost/enjoyment was great!

    1. Luis Carlos: Thanks for stopping by. The Pandaraid event sounds like marvellous fun.

  5. On the subject of the original related Panda while much could have been done to improve it, in terms of exterior Fiat IMO missed a trick in carrying over the larger Uno’s more balanced styling cues to the first/second Panda facelifts, making for a car resembling more like a down sized Uno that retains the original 1980-1985 Panda’s charm and less like a shoe box on stilts on post-85 models.

  6. I don’t recall seeing these ‘Jeans’ and ‘Kiss’ special editions in France, maybe a local delicacy. It aged pretty badly I think. I was looking at some of them on Google Image upon reading the piece and it didn’t look as cute as I remembered, the Panda aged better in my opinion. It had a really catchy song in the adverts though.

  7. Growing up my Mother had a 750L Fire Panda, followed a few years later by a Marbella, which was weird as the later car was more basic than the older but more advanced Panda. In my opinion, the badge engineering on the Marbella was fooling no-one and added nothing to the original proposition which really couldn’t be stripped back to anything less. The interior on the Marbella seemed to have been fashioned from Eggshells, with button plastic routinely breaking in normal use, and both, of course rusted terribly in the UK climate. Interestingly with the mk1 painted side treatments (missing on the mk 2) the problems of water traps with plastic trim would never really be as big of a problem as the actual water traps inside the doors wherein our Mk2 Panda’s door skins were rusting through literally within 1 year of delivery from the garage (due to a design fault where the rain exit holes blocked easily and turned both doors into small narrow aquariums.
    Of note -the mk2 Panda – at least our Pov-spec 750 did still have the removable seat covers and ‘hammock’ rear seat – we used to call them ‘shredded wheat’ seats due to their crimped shape and wheaty colouring.
    Amazing cars all in though. Terrible in the durability but so lovely in the minimalst and clever packaging.

    Imagine if VW AG / Seat made a car as nice as the Panda /Marbella now with all the good stuff and none of the bad (galvanised, decent plastics, a bit more safety, alternators that work in the rain etc ).

    I’d be queuing up for one.

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