Big things with little cars

I have already touched on the TLV Fiat Panda this post - and I promised I would write about my personal experience with one such car once I got the beige one, as this one is in the same colour as the car that I got familiar with. So - here it is - and this is my Panda story.


Back in 1985 (yes, I’m that old) I was a student in Germany. I had the necessary Passport, spoke the language, and Uni was free back then. It was a no brainer to go. And when I got there, I needed a set of wheels. No - I didn’t buy a Panda. I bought a second hand 1980 Toyota Corolla. A car that I knew from Australia as dependable, cheap to run, and they were amazingly cheap to buy in Germany at the time. It looked very much like this one:

And how my new German friends laughed. Why oh why would anyone buy a Japanese car? Unlike here, they were still a bit of a novelty in Europe back then. Most of my fellow students had either Golf Diesels, or little hatches of French of Italian origin. And as I moved into an apartment, it turned out my new flatmate was the proud owner of a Fiat Panda. A first generation Panda, the one with the asymmetrical grille and the removable, washable seat covers, door trims and dashboard cover. It must have been a 1979 model, so it was 5 or 6 years old at the time. Which is sort of important in the context.


Occasionally we would swap cars for whatever reason, and initially I didn’t mind. It was summer. But as the weather grew colder and wetter, my flatmate tended to “borrow” my car more often. Which didn’t amuse me very much at all. For as I soon discovered, that Panda was a little beasty from hell. Let’s start with the door handle - or rather, the lack of one. The Panda just had a lock, into which you pushed the key. And then - in theory - the pushing action would unlock the door. Only, that didn’t work on the driver’s door most of the time when it was wet. It would seize. You had to unlock the passenger side, reach in, then unlock the driver’s door. Once inside, I tried to adjust the seat to my size. No go. It was all rusted solid into the my flatmate’s preferred position. And he was a lot smaller than me.

This is exactly what the Panda from Hell looked like

And so I tried to start the car. Of course it is a manual, so you press the clutch before turning the key, right? Well - then I got a gush of ice cold water all over my left show and sock. For if it rained overnight, a good deal of water would accumulate over the clutch and drench you when you pressed the pedal for the first time. Not a good way to start a cold winter morning. And then you finally try to start the engine. “Try” was the right word, because that car didn’t like starting much when it was wet. So open the engine, spray something (I forget what it was called) into the carburetor - and try again. After 3 or 4 attempts, it usually worked, unless it didn’t. Next, you engage the wind screen wiper. There was only one, and it was small, and being tall, my field of vision was higher than the area the wiper reached. And then you noticed that there was water on the inside of the windscreen as well. Nope - it wasn’t waterproof. Which explains all the rust on the inside, the rusted on seats etc.


On the off chance that the car got going, there was the gearbox to deal with. Finding reverse was a matter of pure chance. Second gear would only engage with a massive crunch - the synchro was worn out. Remember, this car was maybe 5 years old with about 50,000km on the clock. The steering was heavy, the brakes shuddered, the speedo may or may not have worked on any given day, and the electrics blew fuses constantly. The heaters and demisters fought a losing battle against all the damp on the inside. In other words, this was the most horrendously awful car I have ever driven. Which explains why my friend liked to borrow my Corolla more and more.

In my four years there, it never broke down once. I had to fix the clutch once and put a new silencer on the exhaust. And I drove that ‘Yota over there for about 60,000km and then sold it.


I met up with the Panda owner about 5 years ago - and honestly, he asked me “What was the Jap car you had back then? Man, that was weird...”

Yeah, they still don’t get it.

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