Written by Aaron McKenzie, Photography by Hagop Kalaidjian
Jan 27, 2023
Carlo De Benedetti was the CEO of Fiat for a mere 113 days. In that brief period between May and August 1976, however, he had the foresight to ring up Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani over at Italdesign with an assignment: design a small, “French-style” car that would bring the ethos of the Citroen 2CV into the 1970s.
Some four years later, at the 1980 Geneva Auto Show, Fiat unveiled its new “people’s car:” the Fiat Panda. By this time, De Benedetti was long gone from his perch at Fiat, having been ousted for (depending on which story you believe) trying to lay off 65,000 workers in a move that angered Gianni Agnelli or, alternately, because De Benedetti bungled a larger power grab within the company. Whatever the true story, De Benedetti’s Panda endures to the present day and, indeed, has sold approximately 8 million units since its inception more than forty years ago, earning its place alongside the 2CV, the Ford Model T, and the Volkswagen Beetle as one of the most simple, adaptable, and affordable – and, as a result, most transformative – cars of all time.
Speaking of the Beetle: By the time Giugiaro and Mantovani sat down to pen the Panda, Giugiaro had already drawn up the Beetle’s successor, the Volkswagen Golf Mk1, which had hit the market in 1974. Giugiaro, Volkswagen, and Fiat only ever intended the Golf and the Panda as economical “city cars,” but as is so often the case, once creations are set loose in the world they no longer belong to their creator. And so, a couple years after its debut, someone at Fiat took a notion to beef up the Panda with 4x4 capability. A few years later, the volks over at Volkswagen did the same. The result: the 1993 Panda 4x4 and the 1992 Golf Country that you see here in the muddy hills of Malibu, California.
The Panda 4x4 came about when Fiat shipped a few Pandas off to Steyr-Daimler-Puch (perhaps best known for giving the world the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen and the Pinzgauer military vehicles), where the little cars were fitted with an entirely new drivetrain, becoming in the process the first small, transverse-engined production car to have a 4WD system. The Steyr-Daimler-Puch engineers did away with the need for a 2-speed transfer case that would allow for high and low-range gearing, instead using a 5-speed gearbox with a low 1st gear and a 5th gear that mimicked a regular Panda’s 4th gear. Drivers could then select 2-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive using a gear lever in the cockpit. In keeping with the Panda’s original DNA, costs and complexity were kept to a minimum in a 4x4 that was intended or farmers and workers who needed a rugged, affordable 4x4 that could withstand the abuse it would take in the course of a workday – all in an 1,800-pound package. Not that the occasional wealthy weekend skier didn’t also take a liking to these little champs…
“This is the car I always drive to Cortina d`Ampezzo for skiing,” Luca de Montezemolo, head of Ferrari throughout the 1990s, once told writer Lennart Klein. “You can’t have more fun on snow-covered roads – and you can overtake so many cars with more power.”
In 1990, Volkswagen decided to get in on the fun, too, ultimately shipping some 7,735 units of their Golf Mk2 cars – descendents of the Giugiaro-penned Golf Mk1 – off to the same Steyr-Daimler-Puch team for adventure conversions. When the cars emerged from the surgical room, they bore a “Golf Country” name and sported a 4.7-inch suspension lift, a tubular subframe, and skid plates, all paired with VW’s Syncro 4WD system, which sends approximately half of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels when it detects slippage at the front wheels. Like the Panda 4x4, the Golf Country was never intended for hardcore rock-crawling but rather as a means of getting to the nearest ski slope or beach shore…or, in our case, up a wet dirt road in Malibu.
According to Jato Dynamics, approximately 50% of all new vehicles sold in the United States now come equipped with either all-wheel-drive (AWD) or four-wheel-drive (4WD), but in the 1980s the list of available cars with power to all four wheels was a short one indeed: Subarus, sure, and a few All-Trac Toyotas and AMC Eagles, but none of them came with the sort of beefed up suspension and lift kits that characterize the Golf Country and the Panda 4x4. These little econoboxes were oddballs even amidst a small group of oddballs.
Which is not to say that these oddballs don’t also differ from one another. The Golf never got the 2.0-liter, 16-valve powerplant that went into its GTI brother, retaining instead the standard naturally-aspirated 1.8-liter Golf engine. Even so, the Golf packs a higher horsepower punch and more vertical clearance relative to the Panda, allowing for more aggressive off-road assaults. The Panda and its 49-horsepower, 0.9-liter engine, meanwhile, require a bit more…patience. In the end, though, both cars are a window into how two marques pursued a similar goal and in muddy terrain, they are equally fun to throw around, playfully losing grip and sending the steering wheel and debris flying everywhere.
"These utilitarian vehicles have a pleasure all of their own and stand as proof that, so often, the greatest pleasures and purest technical genius can be found in the simple. Vive La simplicité!" shares Phillip Sarofim, owner of the Golf Country and Chairman of Meyers Manx.
Here at Marqued, we’re less concerned with quantitative rarity (i.e. how many of a specific car were ever made) than we are with experiential rarity. Sure, you’re not likely to encounter many Golf Countrys or Panda 4x4s on American roads so, yes, they are rare in number, and maybe that earns you a few extra questions at Cars & Coffee, but we don’t own cars like these just to attract the attention of other people. Ostentation, after all, is antithetical to these sorts of cars. Rather, we love these little cars for the way in which they transform an ordinary experience into an adventure.
“Rarity not only applies to cars, but to moments,” says Marqued’s Shayan Bokaie, owner of the Panda 4x4 shown here. “These are just a couple mass-market cars and yet they share the same design godfather, similar 4x4 underpinnings, and even a color combination. I’d like to think that if these cars were people, they’d be best buds.”
Aaron McKenzie is a Los Angeles based writer, photographer, and producer with an eye for all things automotive. You can see more from him by checking out his Instagram (@aaronwmckenzie).
Hagop Kalaidjian is a photographer, filmmaker, and creative director, and you can find more of his work on Instagram (@hagop).
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