The small front-drive Fiat Panda was so named, we assume, because of its stripey look. Most people were no doubt thankful that the Fiat Group decided to abandon type-numbering for their cars with the introduction of the Panda, and more would fall in love with the cars practical and clever design, which due to the use of many already-in-production components, minimised its manufaccturing problems.
Panda was a chunky 11.08 ft (3.38 metres) mini-hatchback with two large doors and a vast lift-up rear door. Loading the Panda was a joy due to the absence of a rear body sill, and body designer Giugiaro did a pretty good job all things considered.
The use of non-curved glass minimised production costs, and the various seat permutations went on to start a new vogue in hatchback models. If the Panda's mechanical simplicity branded it as a 'minimum car', its ingenious interior certainly lifted it into a higher category.
Due to the cloth (washable) deckchair-style seats the interior could be set up as a four-seater (with a luggage compartment of 9.53 cu. ft/270 liters), or a two-seater estate car (with a rear seat folded or removed) boasting a load area of 33.31 cu. ft (1 cu. metre). More changes could be rung by detaching the steel framework and laying out the rear cushions as a double bed, or by using the framework and erecting the rear seat as a 'hammock' for safely holding a baby.
The ingenious little Panda, which used much of the 127's running gear, came with the option of the familiar 652 cc air-cooled twin-cylinder engine from the 126 (30 bhp DIN./22 kW) when the model was known as Panda 30 (we were soon back to numbers!), or the Panda 45 with the equally familiar 903 cc ohv water-cooled four-cylinder unit from the big selling 127.
The well proven three-bearing pushrod ohv motor developed 44.25 bhp (33 kW) on a compression ratio of 9: 1, and endows the 45 with a very lively performance and a top speed of about 87 mph (140 km/h). The 1981 Panda 35 was powered by the 843 cc 35 bhp (26 kW) four-cylinder engine from the defunct 133.
The engines were coupled to a four-speed manual gearbox, final drive ratio being determined by the engine characteristics, or by domestic legislation, as in France. Rack and pinion steering was fitted (3.4 turns from lock to lock), turning circle being 30.18 ft (9.2 metres) between kerbs, and the non-servo braking system on both models featured front discs and rear drums.
The front suspension was by MacPherson coil spring struts, the uprights being of pressed steel rather than the more usual castings (or forgings). Kingpin offset had a small amount of negative angle to promote easy steering control when braking, and the unsprung weight was minimised by the use of RIV-SKF double-row (non-adjustable) ball bearings, the inner races of which form four-bolt flanges to which were clamped brake and wheel. Outer races were mounted direct onto the suspension upright. The assembly was very easy to strip and service, and special tools were not required.
Obviously with minimum production costs in mind, Fiat utilised a simple tubular dead axle at the rear, mounted on a pair of two-leaved semi-elliptic springs. The system was self-damping to a certain degree but two diagonally mounted hydraulic dampers were also employed, and besides being highly effective, the layout had the added virtue of intruding but little into the rear of the (valuable) body space.
A dead rear axle on a front-drive car was not an overworked component, and the layout suited the useful little front-driver very well. Rear space was also assisted by the under-bonnet spare wheel installation. The incredibly roomy Panda was only 10 in (25.40 cm) longer than the 126 (a two-seater in everything but name), weighed 1433 Ib (650 kg) to 1500 Ib (680 kg) dry, and was good for 71.54 mph (115 km/h) or 87 mph (140 km/h), according to manufacturer specifications, for the model 30 and 45 respectively.
The original Panda met with great success across Europe, polling 2nd in the European Car of the Year awards in its first full year of production (pipped to first place by the Mark 3 Ford Escort
) and staying in production in some regions until May 2003.