A week ago, this 1992 Fiat Panda 4×4 sat on a boat. Twenty minutes ago, it was covered in dust in a freight warehouse. Now, after a rudimentary pre-drive check and a fresh tank of gas, it’s buzzing along on a sprawling, ten-lane Texas freeway. I don’t think Turin saw that coming when it built the car almost three decades ago.
And the little lifted hatchback is actually one of two matching Pandas that came over together earlier this summer in a shipping container from Genoa, Italy. In short order, one would become known as “The Good Panda” and the other “The Bad Panda,” although they would swap titles a couple of times as we uncovered more of their quirks. For now, they were simply, “The Pandas.” They arrived to help prove a point. Conventional wisdom will tell you that Fiat Panda 4x4s aren’t worth importing here—too cheap, too niche, too strange in this large land. But we had a hunch that was wrong. That’s why we set out to ship a pair of Panda 4x4s over from Italy, register them, fix them, drive them, and sell one on Bring a Trailer to hopefully cover the cost of everything for both vehicles, which would leave its lucky importer/owner driving away in a “free” car.
Back on the freeway, the needle on the speedometer crawls past 80 kph with a metronomic jitter. At 100 kph—or about 62 mph—it still feels surprisingly stable. I’ve got five gears, 50 horsepower, and plenty of time to think.
Each person in our three-man retrieval crew is grinning from ear to ear. There’s Tom, who arranged and paid for all of this, following close behind in his Land Rover Defender, and Chris, somewhere back there driving the other Fiat Panda. Chris and I jumped at the chance to help pick up the two Pandas and drive them on the initial shakedown run. It felt like we were getting to do the fun part. And it is fun—though all of us know that gleeful first drive is going to be followed by a lot of work.
Meet the Panda 4×4
The Giorgetto Giugiaro-penned Fiat Panda debuted in 1980, and quickly became a cultural phenomenon in Europe. Anecdotes from its development and design process have become iconic pieces of automotive trivia. Giugiaro designed it to have completely flat glass for all windows in order to cut manufacturing costs and make the left and right sides completely interchangeable. Legend has it the flat glass was actually more costly, at least initially, because Fiat’s suppliers only had tooling to produce curved glass.
Innovations proliferate the Panda’s cabin, where Giugiaro had an unparalleled approach to maximizing practicality and functionality through clever design. The floor is almost completely flat and the dashboard is shaped like a big, open storage shelf, covered in a washable, canvas-like fabric. All of the seats can fold flat to create a makeshift bed, or the rear bench can fold into a V shape to carry odd payloads.
The 4×4 model arrived in 1983, and built upon the Panda legend by adding real off-road capability. It was the first transverse-engined production car to have a four-wheel-drive system—cutting edge for the time. The full drivetrain was supplied by Steyr-Daimler-Puch, the Austrian firm better known for producing the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, and the gearbox has an ultra-low first gear for rough terrain, similar to the Porsche 959’s Gelande gear. The rugged attributes that made the Panda 4×4 popular with Italian farmers and Alpine skiers for decades have fostered a cult-classic reputation today.
The original Panda was so popular that it stuck around in production until May 2003, making it one of Europe’s longest-lasting automotive designs: a certified icon and the ultimate utilitarian, form-follows-function, tough-as-nails, European hatchback.
The Import Plan
Lots of people talk endlessly about the cars they plan to someday buy or what undiscovered classic they would import if only they had the garage space or connections. Tom, an acquaintance who prefers me to use only his first name here, actually does it. He has a constantly evolving collection of vehicles, seemingly bound by only one common thread: They must be interesting. That’s how you end up with a Testarossa and a GMC Typhoon parked side by side. He also drives them all regularly, so when he said he wanted to acquire a Fiat Panda 4×4 from Europe, I listened.
Tom casually laid out his idea over coffee one morning: He hoped to find two Fiat Panda 4x4s, ship them in a 40-foot container, fix them up a bit, and sell one—all in hopes of covering the cost of the other.
Importing sought-after, 25-year-old cars to America is a common practice these days. There are dozens of businesses devoted to bringing over low-mile and obscure cars from Japan. A Nissan Skyline has value anywhere in the world, especially in places where Skylines were never sold originally. But European oddities like the Fiat Panda 4×4 often don’t often make sense to import. The biggest obstacle—and the reason you never see a Fiat Panda in the States—is you end up spending upwards of $4,000 to import a car that’s valued at only slightly more than that. Only a fool would import a Fiat Panda 4×4 to the US. The genius move—perhaps—is to import two of them.
Fiat Panda awareness in America is at an all-time high, thanks in part
media, where, within some corners of the car world, interesting and obscure carries as much currency as exotic and high-performance. At the same time, Panda availability in America is still at basically zero: as of June 2021, only two Fiat Panda 4x4s had ever been listed in the United States on Bring a Trailer, and only one actually met its reserve price. With a better listing, and with the collector car market surging this year, it could be Tom’s moment to strike.
Theory brushed up with reality in January, when, without fanfare, Tom notified Chris and me that he’d bought two Pandas in Italy and they were being prepared for shipping. They were basically identical 1993 Fiat Panda 4x4s in Country Club trim, both dark blue with teal graphics. One came from a well-known classics dealer known as Luzzago in Brescia. The other hailed from a roadside car lot in Fossano. We couldn’t wait to meet them.
Even if you’ve been through the importation process from Italy a few times, as Tom has, I get the sense it’s always a bit chaotic. The communication is cryptic, the timetable is spotty, and the odds of a mixup or a grave mistake seem high. When April came around and we received word that both Pandas made it to the correct country, it seemed like cause for celebration.
Tom paid €6,000 per Panda in January 2021, or about $14,000 USD total for the pair. The smallest container size is 40 feet, which fits two cars, so it always makes sense to bring over two, or find someone to split the container with you. Shipping it from Genoa, Italy, to the Port of Houston costs about $3,500 in sea freight, and that number increases based on the value of the contents. Then there’s roughly another $1,000 in customs and import duties at the receiving U.S. port.
So before any of us had even set eyes on them, each Panda had cost about $9,250.
On the morning of Monday, April 12, Tom brought Chris and me along to help take delivery of the Pandas. The cars were held at the facility of a freight forwarding agent, which is a company that oversees the process of unloading the container contents, getting them inspected, and cleared at the actual customs house. They also submit the EPA and DOT applications required for vehicle import.
Tom showed some paperwork, and two employees disappeared into the warehouse behind rows of cars and equipment. Without much coaxing, two 1108cc motors fired up to life and then grumbled around the building. Finally, two navy blue Fiat Pandas came into view for the first time.
The Pandas looked great, though I’m not sure any of us knew what to expect. In person, the Panda almost resembles a 50-percent-scale Land Rover Discovery, with its two-box proportions and upright greenhouse. Both Pandas were dusty and one of them had incurred a dent in the middle of the Panda-stamped tailgate during transit, earning it The Bad Panda moniker (for the time being).
We marveled at the eccentric little hatches for 20 minutes, taking in all the details: Italian service stickers, the teal and blue upholstery, the diminutive 13-inch wheels. They were simultaneously sparser and nicer than I expected. They felt like tin cans with virtually no comforts, but everything that was there was designed and purposeful—someone had thought it through.
Driving the Panda 4×4
Eventually, we filled them with fuel, washed the windows, and took them onto Houston’s 610 loop for a 20-mile trek across town. We had no issues, but briefly touching 125 kph (78 mph) on the freeway on unknown 145-width tires felt sketchy. Once we were back on surface streets, that high-speed jaunt had given me newfound confidence to wring out the little Panda.
Around town, the Panda is a blast. It leans, it revs, it responds to everything so eagerly. The car weighs under 1,800 pounds and just feels alive underneath you. The modest stopping power and nominal grip always seem to be enough. Visibility from the tall, greenhouse-like cabin is phenomenal.
Tom says the Panda has the reputation of being the best-made Fiat, the one it just got right, and I can see it. You can beat up on it but it never feels like it’s going to break. In fact, it almost seems to enjoy the abuse.
That’s good, because beating up on it is a must. The gears are ultra short and there’s no tach, so you just rev until the noise tells you it’s time to shift and repeat the process until you have to slow down. You’ll likely run out of roadway before you actually exceed the speed limit, so just go for it. The engine note isn’t what I’d call soulful, but it’s certainly not a bad sound, providing a coarse, mechanical growl that gets louder as the revs climb. With the windows down, it provides a pleasant soundtrack and driving aid.
I was driving The Bad Panda, but back-to-back testing confirmed that it actually had better gearbox synchros. In reality, it was The Good Panda.
Objectively, the Panda 4×4 is probably not a very good car; however, it’s an utterly charming collection of flaws. Lots of cars are slow, but very few of those come with a teal interior, or a rough-terrain first gear, or a gauge that shows you the incline angle of the car when going downhill (people call it the Pandometer). This car is fun, and fun cars make mundane trips a joy. Better still, it’s a car that can be fun at extremely legal speed limits, where every stop light makes you feel like you’re on a rally stage just from keeping up with the oblivious crossover in the next lane.
But, of course, part of this whole exercise was to sell one of the Pandas.
Before putting it up for auction, Tom stuck about $1,500 in parts and labor into some upgrades. New fluids, knobby tires, and accessories like fog lights and little brush guards for the headlights and taillights—all just to give it a subtly rally-focused appearance.
I couldn’t give a full drive impression of the Panda 4×4 if I only kept it on the pavement, especially since power only gets delivered to the front wheels during normal driving. So in the days leading up to the auction, we gathered both Pandas for some urban off-roading. It wasn’t a trail and there were no rocks to crawl, but we at least found some mud to explore the traction limits.
Pull a lever between the seats to engage the four-wheel drive, and you’ll hear a mechanical thunk: Steyr-Daimler-Puch mode, engaged. I wasted no time driving straight into the saturated Texas clay, and immediately got stuck. With some fairly tedious rocking back-and-forth using reverse and first, I was able to get unstuck relatively quickly. My novice mistake was being overly cautious and slowing down too much—keep the lightweight Panda moving and it’s unlikely to dig in. Feeling the chassis squirm and flick mud from all four tiny tires was hilarious, unforgettable fun.
I did a few more passes before handing the car over to Chris so that I could capture action photos of him and Tom driving. I shoot a lot of photos of cars—road tests, motorsports, events, you name it—but I’ve never seen two people having more fun in cars than Tom and Chris were having in every photo I shot that day.
Through the viewfinder, the Pandas looked right at home slinging mud and navigating through ruts. I have no doubt they would do just as well on rougher terrain still.
I don’t think anyone will be taking their imported Pandas on any actual off-roading because the highway performance will make it a challenge to get to the place to go off-road. But if there’s one thing Americans love, it’s the untapped ability to go off-road, and I think that always shines through, even if you’re just heading to cars and coffee.
What Is a Fiat Panda 4×4 Worth, Anyway?
A title issue delayed the submission to Bring a Trailer, but in early July, the auction finally ran. With no attachment to a particular Panda, Tom listed one that was in better cosmetic shape so it would present better in the auction. In the end, it sold for $13,175.
The car cost Tom $9,250, plus the additional $1,500 in upgrades, so the net from the sale comes to just under $2,500. Panda No. 1 didn’t completely cover the cost of Panda No. 2, but the sale did cover all of the importation costs and fees for both cars. Put it this way: Tom spent $20,000 on the whole endeavor: Two Fiat Pandas, the importation costs and fees, and minor upgrades to one car in preparation for the sale. After the auction, his out-of-pocket cost is $6,825. That’s less than he paid for just one Panda when it was still in Italy.
I always like to see a sale where the buyer and the seller both feel like they got a good price, and I think that’s the case here. Tom gets to enjoy a Fiat Panda 4×4 for a bargain price on an appreciating collectable car, and the winning buyer gets to own one without having to wait three months, without having to deal with the headaches of Italian car importation, and without the mechanical unease that might come with a less-sorted example. For something that is otherwise unobtainable in America, it seems like a fair price.
“It’s neat, but it’s not a $14,000 driving experience,” Chris contended after the auction had wrapped. I’m less sure. What this car offers isn’t measured in its zero-to-60 time, its materials cost, or even its unquantifiable cool factor. It offers an experience, one that’s increasingly hard to come by. Modern cars have become increasingly quirk-free and homogenized, while the values of most classic Italian cars have climbed skyward. The Panda 4×4 delivers a visceral feel and a sense of occasion that punches above its price and the off-road capabilities are unmatched by any compact city car.
Ultimately, Tom’s Panda adventure could pave the way for more Panda 4x4s in the U.S. Importing a car worth $7,000 generally isn’t sensible, but it becomes a lot more viable if the market decides it’s worth nearly twice that. The trouble could be finding good examples in Europe: Fiat isn’t making any more of them and there’s no reason prices in Italy couldn’t rise in reaction to recent sales in export markets.
I spent enough time living with the Panda 4×4 to feel confident saying it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face every time you drive it. I can name a lot of cars that don’t offer that. Certainly, that’s worth something.
Kevin McCauley is a photographer and graphic designer based in Houston, Texas.
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