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Automotive history

Small but perfectly formed: 40 years of the Fiat Panda

by Nik Berg
24 June 2020 3 min read
Small but perfectly formed: 40 years of the Fiat Panda
Photos: Fiat

Britain has the Mini, France has the Citroen 2CV, Germany has the Volkswagen Beetle and Italy has the Fiat Panda. As far as affordable cars for the people go, the Panda is up there with the some of the greatest runarounds to ever squeeze into an impossibly small parking space or ferry a frankly silly number of friends back from a party.

The Panda turns 40 this month. And it’s a car that deserves to be celebrated. Appreciated in equal measure by newly qualified teenage drivers just discovering their freedom, or mature motorists looking for, perhaps, their final set of wheels, it began life as utilitarian transport for the masses. The brief was simple: accommodate four people and luggage in a practical hatchback body, and ensure it is economical to buy and run.

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The result was a car that, like the original Mini, transcended snobbism and social class to gain favour with an entire nation. Actually, not just a nation. Swathes of Europe fell for the Panda, including the UK, where nearly 285,000 have been sold since its introduction in 1981.

It may be 40 but there have only been three generations of Panda, a nod, again, to its economical positioning. During that time, there has been no shortage of competition from Japanese, Korean, German and Spanish-built cars, yet the Panda is still Italy’s best-selling car.

Despite the universal appeal of its name, and association with the bear, the Panda isn’t named after an endangered species, but rather in honour of Empanda, the Roman goddess and patroness of travellers. That’s just one quirk of a car that, over the last 40 years, has taken many quirky twists and turns. Let’s celebrate some of those, shall we?

The original Panda

Small but perfectly formed: 40 years of the Fiat Panda_Hagerty

It may look like it was drawn on the back of a cigarette pack – it may even resemble said pack – but the Panda was penned by no less than Giorgietto Giugiaro of ItalDesign. You know, the man that designed the Lotus Esprit, Maserati Ghibli, Bora, and Merak.

In 1980 the boxy Panda was all about function over form, like the Citroen 2CV and Renault 4 that came before. It was ridiculously compact, but roomy enough inside for four, with flimsy hammock-inspired seats and a rear bench that could be removed in a matter of seconds to turn the Panda into a van. Under the hood was either a 652-cc air-cooled two-cylinder or a 903-cc water-cooled four. Performance was not a word associated with the Panda, with the highest output engine struggling to muster 45 hp.

The adventurer

Fiat Panda contests Dakar 2007

In 1983 the Panda got serious go-anywhere ability thanks to Steyr-Puch (makers of the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen) who added a 4×4 system, including a crawler gear, to the little Fiat – tipped as a future classic by experts. It proved hugely popular with farmers, city-slickers and adventurers. Even police forces across the Alps relied on it. In 2007 Fiat even entered two Pandas in the Dakar Rally (above). A year later the Panda Raid was established in Spain, which sees pre-2003 Pandas battle the Sahara desert every year.

The water baby

These little cars are just unstoppable. Even water won’t get in the way, as proven by the Panda Terramare 4 which crossed 25 nautical miles of the English Channel in 2006, with a little modification from Italian engineer Maurizio Zanisi.

The eco warrior

The 1990 Fiat Panda Elletra


The 500E wasn’t Fiat’s first foray into the EV world. Back in 1990 the Panda Elettra was born with a range of around 60 miles from 12 six-volt lead acid batteries under the hood and in the trunk. Again it was Steyr-Puch who did the re-engineering, which saw the four-speed transmission retained, but the rear seats removed. Top speed was a paltry 45 mph. Believe it or not, with some modifications along the way, the Panda Elettra remained in production until 1998.

The pocket rocket

Pocket rocket_Fiat Panda 100HP_Hagerty

The second generation Panda grew up, when it arrived in 2003. It gained two extra doors and meatier motors, of 1.1 and 1.2 litre capacity. In 2006 Fiat installed a 1.4-litre 16-valve engine to create the 100HP – named, of course, for its engine output. With a lower ride height, sports-tuned suspension, wider track and wearing 15-inch alloys, the Panda 100HP was an absolute hoot to drive as it still weighed little more than Giugiaro’s cigarette pack.

The current Panda launched in 2012 and went back to its roots with an available 0.9-litre two-cylinder TwinAir engine. This time the unit was turbocharged which gave it surprising vim and a soundtrack like no other. Unfortunately, keeping the engine on boost rendered Fiat’s claims for exceptional fuel economy completely redundant.

The Fashion Victim

Fashion parade_Fiat Panda Alessi 2006_Hagerty

We all know the Italians have an eye for fashion and Fiat is no exception. It has collaborated with a wide range of ateliers over the last 40 years to create special edition Pandas including the two-tone Alessi (above) and the luxurious – well, as luxurious as a Panda can be – Trussardi. Sportier Panda tie-ups have also included Dainese, Ducati and Rossignol.

The Panda has certainly evolved over its four decades and, with rumours of an all-electric model coming hot on the heels of the new 500E, we’re pleased to say it looks safe from extinction for a while yet.

Via Hagerty US

Paddy Hopkirk remembers the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally: “We’d no idea we’d won. It made us world-famous overnight.”

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