The original Panda was everything a small Fiat should be: fun, functional and simple. It was also the next in a line of legendary and exceptionally long lived small Fiats. It started with the Topolino in 1935, which would last 20 years before being replaced by Danté Giacosa’s seminal ‘Nuova Cinquecento’, better known to you and me as the 500 and powered by an Aurelio Lampredi air-cooled two cylinder motor. That lasted another 20 years, although there was some production overlap at the end with its intended successor, the 126. In fact the 125 was just a heavily facelifted and far less appealing rethink of the original 500, which is why it was only around for comparatively trifling eight years before the Panda came along.
It is perhaps not as appreciated as it should be that the first Panda was the longest lived of the lot, surviving fully 23 years in the marketplace before being deemed in need of replacement. Even the Cinquecento, introduced after the Panda had been on sale for over a decade as a more direct albeit somewhat belated replacement for the 126, couldn’t kill it. Designed by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro at Ital Design, the Panda represented Fiat small car design at its superb best, a shape apparently born entirely out of function that somehow also managed to package considerable charm within its compact dimensions. It became instantly cool, and bought not just because it was small and cheap, but because it said good things about the values and taste of those who owned them.
That said, the very early Pandas weren’t that great. The engines – either the now very old twin or the pushrod 903cc four from the 127, were extremely long in the tooth but the real problem was its leaf spring rear suspension that provided ride quality that varied between mediocre and appalling depending on the road surface. But the first facelift in 1986 brought not only Fiat’s new FIRE (Fully Integrated Robotised Engine) overhead cam engine, but also a U-shaped rear beam axle known as Omega. Together they transformed the car.