Giugiaro’s favourite. Popular too with over 4.5 Million owners, the Panda was as good as it was clever – but was it great?
The most significant designs carry within them an essential seam of honesty – call it a fitness for purpose, if you will. This was especially apparent at the more humble end of the automotive spectrum; cars like the Citroën 2CV and BMC Mini bear eloquent witness to a single-minded approach to a highly specific brief. And while some of the more notable utilitarian cars appear to have taken an almost anti-styling approach, they were for the most part, sweated over as much as anyone’s carrozzeria-honed exotic.
Fiat’s original Panda is a case in point – appearing to some eyes as being almost wilfully unfinessed upon its Geneva show debut in 1980, it was in fact not only the brainchild of some of the finest creative minds of its era, but probably the final product from a mainstream European carmaker to be conceived according to such a simple, humanistic brief.
Given their reputation in the realm of small cars, by the mid-’70s, Fiat Auto’s product planners had been caught napping. While the landmark 127 model of 1972 would prove to be one of the cornerstones of the European supermini sector, Lingotto’s offering to those with less sophisticated tastes, or budgets that same year was not entirely what the broader market had hoped for.
The Fiat 126 was to all intents and purposes a refinement of the Nouva 500 in a more modern, slightly more commodious, better protected bodyshell, which despite its neat appearance, not only seemed like yesterday’s concept, but lacked the timeless appeal of the outgoing car – one which in broader socio-cultural terms at least, had become something far more potent than simply a transportation tool.
Like its illustrious forebear, the 126 was ideally suited to Italy’s choked city streets, and medieval town centres, but both outside the urban milieu, and elsewhere across Europe the bambino struggled to make headway. While no sales flop (certainly not in Poland, where it was built in huge numbers by FSO under licence), it was not the pan-European entry level offering the Italian car giant believed it required.
It’s clear that there was a good deal of soul-searching at Lingotto over what form such a model ought to take during the mid-70s, and most likely, quite a number of conceptual studies – a process which was likely to have been interrupted (as much within Fiat was) by the uncertainty and panic which had taken hold in the confused aftermath of the 1973 oil embargo.
A consensus was reached in 1976 however, with Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Ital Design consultancy tasked to consider an entry level car, to be built at the same price point as that of the smaller 126. But unlike the bambino, which was more of a 2+2 in cabin layout, this was to be a full four-seater of a more practical bent – a latterday take on Renault’s evergreen Quatrelle, if you wish.
It’s clear that for Giugiaro, and his engineering chief Aldo Mantovani, the Panda programme was creative catnip – the designer having already formulated similar ideas around packaging which took shape in Ital Design’s New York taxi concept of 1976 and would reach its apex two years later with the influential Megagamma MPV study.
Hence the Panda was short in length, tall in canopy, employing entirely flat glazing to reduce cost and complexity. Panels too were simple pressings, with seams (and some hinges) exposed. Every aspect of the car was optimised to adhere to the brief of economy – of construction, of style and of usability.
Yet despite its utilitarian intent, and in a manner similar to that of the original Range Rover, Giugiaro imbued the design with a subtle sophistication that meant that while the Panda would be entirely at home in the countryside, it wouldn’t necessarily make its owner appear mortifyingly rustic while double-parked outside La Scala.
The Panda’s cabin design was where Giugiaro’s skills came into their own. Because the car was designed from the outset to offer a spacious and versatile interior, the pared back appearance came not only with an element of Issigonis-inspired austerity, but with a modernist Italian sense of style and function. The dashboard was largely non-existent; the bulkhead simply being trimmed in the same soft-touch hessian-style material as the rest of the cabin. Below it curved a deep pouch pocket shelf for oddment stowage.
A clever feature was the design of the ashtray, which was press-fitted to the lower dash pocket and could slide left or right, as required. The instrument binnacle was simply a pod, which was bulkhead-mounted above the steering column. The Panda’s rear bench, was of a hammock design, which could be folded to become a cradle, laid flat to make a rudimentary bed, or dismantled entirely within 15 seconds. Elegant, simple and above all, inexpensive.
Technically, off the shelf componentry was employed where possible. Designed from the outset to accommodate both the 126’s longitudinal 652 cc two-cylinder and the 127’s transverse 903 cc in line four, front suspension aped that of the 127/128, employing McPherson struts, while at the rear, a simple beam axle suspended by leaf springs allowed for large variations in payload, if a somewhat bouncy ride quality.
Known initially within Ital Design as Zero, and internally as progetto 141, Fiat initially it seems chose Rustica – a model name already employed for a home-market, austerity version of the Brazilian-built, 147 model (itself a derivation of the 127). However this nameplate was rejected following customer clinics in 1978, with Panda being eventually chosen.
A masterpiece in minimalism, the Panda’s product design approach dovetailed neatly with that of centro stile’s own concurrent Ritmo model. Accolades swiftly followed; Ital Design being honoured with the 1981 Compasso d’Oro design award while Fiat narrowly missed out on that year’s ECOTY honours.
Sadly however, the Panda was built to customary Fiat standards of material quality, finish and especially rustproofing, so early cars, while mechanically hardwearing, quickly lost the battle against hard use and climate induced entropy. Few early examples have survived.
Fiat too it seems soon lost the appetite to preserve the original Panda’s purity of purpose. Within two years, a Fiat charter facelift come into play with a bland corporate grille replacing the clever, simple and distinctive original. More upmarket models were also introduced, as was a part time four wheel drive version, engineered by Steyr-Puch, who supplied the entire drivetrain, which was mated to a reinforced bodyshell with uprated suspension and additional ground clearance, making for the cheapest off-roader one could buy.
1986 saw the car receive its first major facelift, with sheet metal changes, a revised chassis, in common with the Autobianchi/Lancia Y10, including two versions of Fiat’s FIRE power units in 769 and 999 cc form. Little by little, as the years passed, the Panda ceased to be clever – merely cheap. Its popularity remained unshakable however, especially the home market, where it was sold until 2003. Large numbers of the later cars (whose bodies were galvanised at the factory, remain in daily use across Italy.
Never a dynamic paragon, the Panda was initially at least, more design statement than engineering masterpiece. In the latter sense, it was a typically pragmatic Fiat product, but its real mastery lay in Giugiaro’s honest and user-focussed design vision, both externally and within. Having largely curated the entire programme, the Panda also proved to be Giorgetto’s calling card with Fiat, one he would later exploit fully. Small wonder maestro Giugiaro still rates it so highly.
Not quite an all time great, the Panda was perhaps the last unfettered exercise in intelligent minimalism – a concept largely alien to today’s carmakers. Because the Panda was in essence, a simple soul. More cars should be like that.