Essays Italy

Forza the Fiat Panda

By Finlay Renwick

Jun 19, 2023

Forza the Fiat Panda

On a narrow road littered with pot holes snaking up Mount Etna, flanked by wildflowers and overgrown vegetation turned deep emerald by the volcano’s fertile soil, a small red car that looks like a child’s drawing come to life is being commandeered by a man who seems to be about as ancient as the peak we’re driving on. It’s a perfect example of the Fiat Panda, faded to a dusty pink by the weather and the years. I give the man a little wave; he stares straight ahead, two wrinkled hands clinging to the steering wheel as he rattles around a narrow bend in the mountain.

In Sicily, and the rest of Italy for that matter, the Fiat Panda is still a regular sighting — a national treasure affectionately referred to by its inventor, the world’s most renowned car designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, as “the fridge.”

Tucked down narrow streets flanked by peeling ochre walls, jumping and beeping through afternoon traffic, and wedged behind cafes, in sun-battered shades of green, yellow, blue and red, the Panda is still a sharp-angled symbol of Italian ingenuity, function and, in its own boxy, brutalist way… beauty. 

Back in the summer of 1976, Fiat had a problem: they were being beaten by the French. Across the border, rivals like Renault and Citroën were churning out affordable and practical four-seater ‘peasant’ cars that could run and run. Fiat’s then-CEO, Carlo De Benedetti, needed to take action, so he turned to Giugiaro, a design prodigy born into a family of artists (his father, grandfather and great grandfather painted churches and frescoes), who dreamed of being an oil painter, before a pragmatic tutor steered him in a different direction.

“One day a professor said to me: being an artist is hard, you starve, use your talent for drawing in other disciplines,” he said in a 2001 interview. “I decided to take the job at Fiat to have a steady salary. There I discovered the world of creativity, but I still dreamed about becoming a painter.”

Joining Fiat at just 17, Guigiaro would, along with Aldo Mantovani, go on to co-found the design house Italdesign in 1968. He created the Lotus Esprit (the one that goes under the sea in The Spy Who Loved Me), the Maserati Bora, the DMC DelOrean, the BMW M1 and, with enormous commercial success, the VW Golf. “We could say that I try to remove the superfluous and be harmonious,” he has said of his design philosophy. “I strive for harmony in complexity.” 

After being briefed to create a straightforward ‘container' that weighed and cost no more than the Fiat 126 that it was replacing, Guigiaro and Mantovani retreated to Sardinia and designed the Panda in just 15 days, making an August 1976 deadline. Guigiaro was inspired by beach furniture for the car’s simple and spacious fabric-covered seating, that could be folded completely flat if required, and helicopters and denim for its utilitarian exterior. 

In 1980 he told La Stampa newspaper that, “the Panda is like a pair of jeans: a simple, practical article of clothing without pretense. I tried to give it the essential quality of a military design — in particular a helicopter: something light, rational, and optimised for a specific purpose.”

Oh, the Panda bit. The car was originally due to be named the Fiat Rustica, before being changed to Panda in honour of Empanda, the Roman goddess of travellers… so there you go. Unveiled in 1980, it was an immediate success, a four-cylinder, 903cc petrol engine with just one standard trim level, which eventually morphed into iterations as varied as a 4x4 Trekking model (objectively the best one), a van, a special edition Italia 90 model with football hubcaps, and the ‘Elettra’, an early electric design from 1990 with batteries that could be recharged at home and lasted for up to 100km.

The original Panda design was produced for more than two decades, selling 4.5 million vehicles, before being discontinued in 2003. 

With Italdesign, which he left in 2015, Guigiaro went on to create more than 200 cars, conjuring up cameras (the Nikon F5), football stadiums (Juventus), and space furniture (the interior of the ISS). He even did pasta (Barilla’s Marille), which was seen as a rare failure, due to its overly complex  shape that prevented it from ever being cooked properly al dente… the horror! 

In 1999, a jury of more than 120 car journalists from around the world named Giugiaro “Designer of the Century.” Despite all of the Maseratis and Ferraris on his CV… and the pasta shape, it’s said that the Panda was his favourite creation of all.

A piece of Italy, built for the people, that looks a bit like a fridge.

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