► Fiat Panda and the art of small cars
► Stephen Bayley on Italian style
► An archive column served up for CAR+
Fiat has rediscovered its purpose: building basic transport that’s chic enough to be adopted by the beautiful people.
The great travel writer, Norman Lewis, died this summer at an appropriately magisterial 90-something (he kept the precise date out of Who’s Who). Actually, even to call him a travel writer is demeaning. ‘Travel writer’ suggests someone who offers accounts of 18-30 holidays on unscrupulous Greek islands to those parts of the Saturday papers which people throw away. Instead Lewis was simply one of the greatest English prose stylists of the last century. Once, describing a walk in the late ‘30s across bleak Spanish uplands, he spoke of a village whose ‘beauty was under the protection of poverty’.
Well, maybe even Lewis had not been to Pontedera. This is an industrial town whose cringe-making ugliness and barren lack of joy would spontaneously undermine all those sentimental accounts of extra-virgin, sun-dried Tuscany that the travel writers peddle so tiresomely. Yet I used to go to Pontedera quite often because it is the home of Piaggio. It was here in the late ‘40s that Italy’s helicopter pioneer, Corradino d’Ascanio, developed the Vespa scooter for the long-established boat and ‘plane manufacturer. It was here in the early ‘90s that I used to visit Giovanni Alberto Agnelli. Excepting the gruesome fact of his cruelly early death at 32, young Mr Agnelli was during his brief life doubly blessed since he inherited Piaggio from his mother’s side and was poised to inherit Fiat from his father’s. Driving around his estate one day I said: ‘That’s a nice house.’ He said: ‘Ah. Yes. It was designed by Michelangelo.’
At the time Piaggio was on the verge of realising that its signature product had more commercial potential as chic urban jewellery than as the functional transport for the working classes: the step-through frame affording easy access and guaranteeing modesty for women and priests with their billowing costumes while providing space for a stonemason to pack his tools. The strategy worked and now we have Vespas everywhere.
They are even used by people who are not priests, women or given to chipping Carrara marble. Giovannino, as he was affectionately known, certainly had plans to practise the same alchemy on Fiat, but Fate intervened. Between his death and that of his more famous uncle, Gianni, early in 2003, Fiat lost direction. Which is a polite way of saying that it made cars no-one much wanted to buy. This in its way was a reflection of Italy’s uncertain position in the modern world because the relationship of cars to statehood is a unique national characteristic. Like so many thing Italian we admire, Fiat has no real equivalents elsewhere: it is much more than a major industrial and commercial undertaking, it is a part of national life. Old Mr Agnelli was called the uncrowned King of Italy and young Mr Agnelli was going to be his successor.
Readers of the business pages know how very precarious Fiat’s position became while leaderless, but a single new car promises a welcome Rinascimento after a Dark Ages of indifference. This is the Panda,. At last Fiat is getting back to what it does best, making cars which prove that beauty flourishes under the protection of poverty. The design of small cars requires the exercise of more ingenuity than the design of big cars. The constraints of size and budget are an inspiration to genius, not an impediment to it. And the new Panda is a work of genius: there is no small car like it. There are very few cars of any size which offer such a sense of absolute integrity, of being the uncompromised and almost unimprovable expression of what they are intended to be. That’s a working definition of ‘classic’.
Even though Pandas remain familiar sights in rural Italy where they have assumed the role once played by donkeys, its roadworthiness was not in the class of an ass. Old Pandas crashed and lurched and shimmied and squealed uncertainly. The new one rides superbly, has ample space, the right equipment, hilarious handling and an engine whose amazing eagerness tempts the improvisation of smutty, misogynistic metaphors. Resisting those, the 2004 Panda proceeds with the confident style of an Armani catwalk show. It is a wonderful package and will, thank Goodness, save Fiat.
But the weird thing is this: in saving Fiat, the Panda has lost something quintessentially Italian. Hitherto, Italian cars had driving positions of such ergonomic awfulness they could only be explained by the fact that nature, stupidly, did not provide man, or at least Italian man, with enough hands to smoke, steer, change gear and fornicate at the same time. That’s all gone. The new Panda’s driving position, in stark contrast, is mesmerizingly perfect. If these are the benefits of poverty, then we need more of it.