Fiat Panda: run out, special

I read in Top Gear Magazine recently that the most famous Fiat Panda owner in Britain, James May, was talking about the ‘real wrench’ of chopping in his Italian city car and sending it off into the unknown, to be a new used car for someone new to use some more.

His Panda – a 56 model – is roughly a year older than the blue example you see here on PetrolBlog, but both seemed to have been passed on to pastures new at roughly the same sort of time. Mine’s gone too. And it’s a real wrench to see it go.

After my disappointingly long-living turd of a first car – a last-generation Ford Escort hand-me-down with any number of mechanical and electrical issues – the Panda was the first car I bought myself. A Dynamic AirCon edition, with an up-for-anything 1.2-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine, air conditioning, a CD player, baby blue seats and four skinny steel wheels. I purchased the car with just 44,000 miles on the odo, kept in utterly perfect condition by an ageing former owner.

By 50,000 miles, the CD player had packed in. This was an issue, I appreciate, but I looked past it. I can get used to the odd electrical gremlin, and I was having fun. I didn’t need music. Its lack of poke – just 59bhp – and skinny 155-section tyres ensured high-speed driving was never on the agenda, but it felt an absolute hoot being thrown about at just 27mph.

Of course, by 60,000 miles, the cambelt needed replacing and its oil needed changing. Routine maintenance, nothing serious. I parted with some money – a 1.2-litre engine only ever needs a small amount of oil – and the car came back happy.

Fiat Panda Dynamic AirCon side profile

Its usual day involved driving a third of the way round the M25, but I recall the joy of driving it through Central London for the first time. A thin body, a button marked ‘City’ which lightened up the steering, and slightly raised driving position all contributed to making it a surprisingly relaxing experience.

By 80,000 miles, the suspension started needing attention. I can’t remember which bit went wrong first, front or back, left or right, but it wasn’t very expensive to fix. All par for the course – I was putting a lot of miles on the clock, so the occasional coughing-up of cash wasn’t a surprise. I think its oil change might have been late, but the engine was running smoothly.

By this time, it was still growling away happily, doe-eyed and unthreatening, but always willing to indulge in the occasional B-road rollercoaster ride, breaking the monotony of my motorway commute. It turns out the same qualities that made it such fun in the city turned it into something of a beast on some of the thinner country lanes.

A slow beast, granted, but it was nice to know you were never going fast enough to get into real trouble, and that – whatever was coming the other way – the gap between car and hedge was almost always big enough for the Panda to slip through.

Fiat Panda Dynamic AirCon interior

By 100,000 miles, it failed its first MOT. Not a bad effort for a car entering its seventh year. Whatever you think of the reputation of Italian cars, I was chuffed that it had got this far. Less appealing was the £650 repair bill, far eclipsing all the money I’d spend on it up until this point.

Two months later, the engine started grumbling – the cambelt needed replacing quick-sharp, and the air conditioning drive belt with it (both connected). That cost a wedge, too.

Despite all the problems, and the money it was costing me, I was still amazed at its low running costs, with one of the lowest insurance groups going and average fuel consumption of 51mpg (depending on how it was driven and the direction of the prevailing wind, this varied from 42 to 58mpg). Whichever way you looked at it, it was a cheap car to run.

At somewhere around 120,000 miles, it suffered total and catastrophic brake failure, dumping all of its precious brake fluid somewhere along the M20, 15 miles from home. After the most exciting, slow drive of my life, the garage men sucked their teeth for a while then charged me a few hundred pounds to fix it. Its MOT, two months later, was almost a blessing, only costing me £100 to put right. I think the oil change may have been late again, but it felt just the same before and after the process.

Fiat Panda Dynamic AirCon seat wear

By this time, the driver’s seat had a small tear in it, the trip computer refused to change screens unless the windscreen wipers were on, and the oil light would flicker on and off, regardless of the amount sloshing around the cylinders. Also, the electric pad controlling the boot catch release sometimes refused to work, meaning folding the rear bench down to get at my things. The front passenger door handle needed to be pushed in before it would open the door.

Still, the car was easy to park, with big windows, thin pillars, and a tiny footprint. Each of its four doors were so short that you could open them almost completely full in any parking space, and not have to worry about hitting the neighbouring car. It’s a practical car, the Fiat Panda. When the boot opens.

Love is a curious thing. I put up with all these faults and problems for a long time, but still carried on loving my car. I wrote here once before about the perfect honesty of the Panda, and I maintain that to this day. It does away with all the fripperies, the fashions and the fussiness that other cars using the same platform enjoy (Ford’s Ka, the Fiat 500 and Lancia Ypsilon) – it was never pretending to be anything other than a slightly crap Italian city car, and I loved it for that.

Love almost died at 130,000 miles, however, roughly two days after I’d started working out what newer car I might replace the Panda with. A front shock absorber had exploded, and the other front shock needed replacing too, causing a frankly alarming amount of noise whenever I turned the wheel. A sizeable repair bill later, it had to go.

Fiat Panda Dynamic AirCon mileage

I can think of sorrier ways for a car to go than part-exchanging it for a new car, but a pang of guilt hit me as the salesman hammered it into first gear and howled off to the service ramps, having handed me the keys to my new car.

WN05 AAE is gone now, replaced by a Ford Fiesta, but I don’t really miss it. Guilty as I was to see it accelerating towards a new life faster than I’d floored it in years, my new car is just too…new. More substantial, more fun to drive, cheaper to tax, cheaper to run. It doesn’t need hundreds of pounds worth of repairs.

The Panda was great, but it was showing its age. There is no forgetting the march of time and progress when you realise the latest SUVs from Porsche produce the same amount of CO2 as my slightly crap Italian city car.

A couple of weeks on, I do wonder if the sales oik ever made it to the workshop, to repair and remarket it and sell it on to an unsuspecting new owner. The clutch had started to slip at 131,000 miles, after all, and this time the oil change was definitely late. Still, it’s someone else’s problem now.

It’s a real wrench, but goodbye, little Panda. You were ace. While you lasted.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Tom Richards
Tom's day job is working as a motor industry PR for a ‘leading agency’. which obviously means he drinks a lot of skinny lattes and enjoys very long lunches. His main interests in life are cars, motorsport, food and scotch, but thankfully he doesn’t mix the four very often. As PetrolBlog’s youngest blogger, he’s often sent out for some multi-coloured paint and Dodo eggs.

8 comments

  1. June 13, 2014
    Ben

    Read that with a smile on my face. My first car was a 1 litre 4-speed Uno – and it was a fun little car with only 45 horses and a K&N filter!

    All the same issues – the electrics, the ripped seats – it is all just part of the FIAT experience!

    The main problem with the Uno, even with that engine was lack of grip – on a couple of occasions I thought it was going to kill me as it would wobble about.

    I’d love a Panda myself, but its just too small now for my day to day needs…

    Great write up anyway.

    Reply
    • June 13, 2014
      Tom Richards

      Thanks Ben. I never found lack of grip to be a huge issue – it was a bit loose in the wet, but possible to work around it easily enough by using the full width of the road (every road is wide in a Panda) and taking a wider entry into a corner. Huge fun, and also negated the need to use the brakes so much.

      Reply
      • June 13, 2014
        Peter Counsell

        Lovely write up. I also remember Unos with great fondness. Much of your appreciation for your Panda sounds so familiar, but 25 years ago.

        Reply
  2. June 15, 2014
    Ben

    Here is a straight looking Uno for £145!

    http://www.autotrader.co.uk/classified/advert/201406114931380

    Reply
  3. June 17, 2014
    Ant

    Great write-up. I often wonder how my old 100HP is doing these days – I sold it with around 60k on the clock I recall and it was fit as a fiddle at that point.

    To be honest, it’s quite impressive yours made 130k – I imagine getting a classic Panda or an old Uno would have involved considerably greater maladies, yet even a car as basic as the Panda is a great deal more complicated than those. And more liveable. Dare I say it, one of Fiat’s greatest-ever small cars, from a manufacturer known for its great small cars…

    Reply
  4. June 17, 2014
    rotation

    Aah Fiats. I had one once. My electrical problem was the rear lights. The connectors had worn a bit, meaning that every time I used brake and indicator, the rear end lit up like a disco at a wedding.

    Reply
  5. June 23, 2014
    Skylo

    This was my first car.Fond memories of squeezing the gang in for a night out.

    Reply
  6. December 18, 2014
    Antonio

    The new Panda isn’t a patch on this one, which was awesome. I’ve spent many happy hours in an 05 Panda, and unlike my passengers, even managed to avoid becoming seasick. The current Panda is square. And I don’t mean nerdish or anything like this: there’s an obsession with squares not seen since the days of the Austin Allegro quartic steering wheel. The speedometer is square. The air vents are square. Even the handbrake is square. Just one question – why?

    Reply

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