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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

Why The Original Fiat Panda Is A Design Masterpiece

Giorgetto Giugiaro's back catalog includes the likes of the Lotus Esprit and the De Lorean DMC-12. Yet, the great man has often cited the humble Fiat Panda as his favorite project of all.

The Panda story began in August 1976, when then-Fiat CEO Carlo De Benedetti tasked Giugiaro to design a new small car, "Alla Francese," in his words, or "French Style." The idea was to offer the rugged versatility typical of vehicles like the Renault 4 while keeping the production costs and bodyweight down to Fiat 126 levels.

It was no mean feat, given the substantially larger interior volume of the "Rustica," as the Panda was often called during development.

The need to reduce costs and weight drove the entire project, from the inside to the outside. The structure becomes an aesthetic element on the Panda, as all the frills and unessential furnishing disappeared.

The bodyside's ribbing is repeated inside, and much of the passenger compartment is simply painted in body color. All the glass panes are flat, including the windscreen, and the traditionally-sprung rear seat was replaced by a deckchair-style bench that's only made of two transverse tubes that support an elastic canvas in tension.

Although this ingenious solution didn't make for the most comfortable seats ever, it made up for that by allowing the Panda's cabin to be transformed into a small camper you can sleep in, only to become a delivery van in minutes, according to the needs of the moment.

The Panda 30 is perhaps the most Panda of all Pandas.

The need to save weight and cost meant that the same solution was used for the dashboard, where the controls are clustered in a small plastic pod placed in front of the driver, while the elastic fabric provides ample storage space in front of the passenger.

The Panda's exterior borrowed from industrial vehicles the concept of a protective band against corrosion and minor impacts. But the thick gray paint on the sides of the car also has an important aesthetic function, as it visually lightens the height of the sheet metal side panel in relation to the glass area.

Production of the Panda started in late 1979 at the Autobianchi factory in Desio, near Milan, and at Termini Imerese, in Sicily. The model was launched in March 1980 in two versions, the Panda 30 and Panda 45, the number representing the engines' power ratings. The Panda 30 is perhaps the most Panda of all Pandas.

Equipped with a 650cc air-cooled two-cylinder engine derived from the unit used on the Fiat 126, it's the Panda at its most basic and pure specification. The 45 was instead equipped with the 903cc water-cooled inline-four from the 127.

Given the two engines' different cooling requirements, the Panda's steel grille was designed to be mounted on one side or the other, depending on which engine was fitted to the car.

That charming design detail will only last until 1984, though, when the rather bland black grille introduced with the more luxurious Panda Super in '83 was extended to the whole range. The Panda Super was a top-of-the-line model made for those who found the standard car too spartan for their tastes: equipped with more comfortable traditional seats and larger door cards. Fifth gear could be had as an option, but only with the 900cc engine. For the ultimate decadent luxury, even a few metallic paint colors were available to the discerning Panda Super customer.

the charm of the original Panda stems from its pure, single-minded design approach.

Not all markets received the two cylinders Panda, with the inline-four Panda 34, powered by an 843cc variant of the inline-four engine, being the base model in Germany and the Netherlands. The early 80s were also the last years of Fiat's long-standing relationship with Spain's national automaker Seat, which manufactured and sold the Panda in its home country until 1986.

That same year saw the launch in Italy of the comprehensively revised Panda "Supernova," which actually is the model that stayed in production all the way up to September of 2003... But that's a story I'll keep for another time!

Around 1.5 Million first-gen Pandas were made between 1980 and 1986, but relatively few have survived to this day. Thankfully, collectors and enthusiasts have finally started restoring and preserving these design icons for posterity, with the 4x4 models being especially sought after.

The Panda 4x4 was launched in 1983, and it differed enough from the base model to receive its own specific project code, 153.

The engine was a 965cc inline-four lifted from the Autobianchi A112; the gearbox had five speeds rather than four. The first gear (called "primino") was designed for climbing steep inclines off the road, but it's so low it's practically useless on the tarmac, where the Panda 4x4 is, by the way, a regular front-wheel-drive car, due to the lack of a center differential.

Traction on all four wheels can be manually engaged by the driver up to 60 Km/h by pulling a lever behind the gear stick. A shaft then moves jointly with a conical gear that sends power to the three-piece driveshaft and the rear axle, equipped with a ZF 175 differential.

Technical details aside, the charm of the original Panda stems from its pure, single-minded design approach. One of those rare industrial design objects possessing a unique beauty that originates from their fitness for purpose.


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