Readers might have noticed that this columnist indulges in a little nostalgia every now and then. A kind of meander down memory lane to a time when motoring, like flying, could be a sublime activity: more simplistic, a bit more hands-on and, as a consequence, much more enjoyable.
In looking back like this, we have mentioned such stalwarts as the Morris Minor, the Ford Anglia (the 105E version particularly) and the VW Beetle etc. We have also examined more recent models like the ubiquitous Ford Fiesta.
This time, we’re going to turn to the animal kingdom for a car that graced Motormouth’s driveway for almost ten years – the Fiat Panda. Yes, it was a Fiat, but don’t close the newspaper just yet.
The Panda was first designed in 1980 by Italian Giorgetto Giugiaro, who is actually credited with the design of vehicles for a host of other manufacturers throughout Europe: Alfa Romeo, ASA, Audi, BMW, Daewoo, Daihatsu, DeLorean’s DMC-12, Fiat itself, FSO (who remembers them?), Iveco, Isuzu, Lancia, Lotus, Maserati, Renault, Seat, etc.
The Spanish car manufacturer SEAT also produced versions of Fiat Panda, which was sold under the name SEAT Panda, with production only ceasing in 1998.
The first Fiat Panda – which lasted until 2003 – was christened a ‘super utility vehicle’ by Fiat and was very much a matter of function over form. It provided cheap, dependable (yes, I know, ‘Fit It Again Tomorrow’), rugged transport that was easy to run and if it did break down occasionally, it was easy to fix. It came in a four-wheel drive version that proved very popular with the Carabinieri and forestry workers in the mountainous regions of northern Italy.
The second generation was designed in 2003 by another Italian, Giuliano Biasio from the design firm of Bertone. It was this model that your columnist owned and drove for nearly ten years.
At the end of the second generation, the car had sold more than six and a half million specimens. This model of the Panda won the European Car of the Year award in 2004. The third and present model that we see today was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2011 and went on sale in early 2012.
In February 2013, Philip Young and Paul Brace broke the world record drive, in either direction, from Cape Town in South Africa to London in Great Britain with a Fiat Panda two-cylinder 0.9 TwinAir. The drive started on 1 February and ended 10 days, 13 hours and 28 minutes later, shaving over a day off the previous record, achieved in 1983 by the much more expensive and powerful Land Rover Defender.
Incidentally, the previous record was set 30 years earlier when Brigadier John Hemsley completed the journey in a factory-prepared Range Rover Defender in 14 days.
In 2005 the television programme Fifth Gear pitted a £10,000 Fiat Panda 4 x 4 against a £60,000 Range Rover in a race to the top of a huge quarry. The far more powerful car won, of course, but the little Panda was only 10 seconds slower.
The programme-makers ran a similar experiment against a Land Rover Defender in 2016. The result? A definite win for the much smaller, much cheaper Panda.
In December 2006, the Fiat Panda was paid a slightly dubious compliment: it ‘inspired’ the Chinese automaker Great Wall Motor, who produced the uncannily similar Peri. This lead to legal action by Fiat.
The Motormouth Panda was purchased in 2005 as a demonstrator from a franchise dealer in Cork city. It had just 4,000 kms on the clock, a five-year warranty and a 1,248cc diesel engine producing a mighty 70 B.H.P. It surprised many a bigger car with its torque in sling-shot mode.
It taught three of the four sprogs to drive, being used occasionally by the fourth. It drove all over Ireland on business. It had a tow bar and pulled a full trailer the length of France. It even hauled a load of turf from a bog (thankfully no constabulary were about to question the weight of the fully-loaded trailer). It even transported eight of us along a private road on a remote island and didn’t turn a hair.
I work out my miles per gallon by a brim-to-brim fill. In doing this I found on one occasion that my Fiat Panda diesel returned almost 77 M.P.G. on a trip to Enniskillen along the lakes. Belting up the M7 and into Dublin, it never dropped lower than 54 M.P.G. In short, it was a very economical car.
It’s no surprise that the Panda clocked up great mileage over its ten years serving our family. I used to drive about 23,000 miles a year for my work. When I sold it, the clock showed over 165,000 miles or just north of 265,000 Kms.
In the almost ten years with our family, it never stopped once. That’s right – a Fiat that didn’t break down. It did have small issues, like an ERG valve sticking. The franchise dealer offered to fix it for about €450. I bought the part for €50, my mechanic fitted it for €45 – job done. It did snap an auxiliary belt when it was approaching its tenth birthday, but it didn’t stop driving, just flashed a couple of warning lights. A €17 replacement belt – which I fitted – had everything back to tip-top condition.
This second-generation Panda was made in Tychy, Poland and proved to be very well put together. Despite three learner drivers, big mileage and heavy towing duties, it was still on the original clutch. It was a gutsy little car.
Fiat’s reputation in the 1960s and 1970s might not have been stellar, but the second-generation Panda was proof that the Italian auto manufacturing giant had stepped up and could produce world-beaters in the small car market.