Fiat Panda 4×4 & Co. – The birth of the cult SUVs

1968 Fiat Panda SUV

No question: SUVs are IN – from the Suzuki Jimny to the now ubiquitous G-Class, the roads are full of SUVs. Every manufacturer is betting on this market segment – and even luxury brands are occupying this market. Aston Martin builds the DBX, Maserati the Levante, Lamborghini the Urus and soon Ferrari will also delight mankind with an SUV.In the past, off-road vehicles were rustic little helpers that served the army and the farmer in preserving freedom and tilling the soil. In this respect, the indestructible Unimog could also be accorded the status of an off-road vehicle – but actually the honour of early birth belongs to the US off-road vehicles and the British Land Rover, which conquered the jungles, savannahs, deserts and the Scottish Highlands from 1948 onwards.


For many years, this market segment was occupied by military vehicles – rough but hard-wearing fellows, of which there were also somewhat more civilian variants for customers who liked to set off on adventure trips to Africa or the North Cape.

The idea of building such vehicles for the normal family, who could use them to acquire space and safety, first came to the British with the Range Rover – I still remember the often-used slogan: “From the Sheep to the Opera”. And the G-Model, which has since mutated into a cult object, only came into being because the Shah of Persia – who owned shares in Mercedes-Benz at the time – wanted an off-road vehicle, the development of which first began in neutral Austria.

Mercedes-Benz still wanted nothing to do with a military vehicle – and to be honest, the first G-models for private customers offered no luxury and only few comfort attributes. That was all to change much later.

But then off-road vehicles slowly came into fashion – albeit in niches at first, but the SUV wave spread from the small Fiat Panda 4×4 to exotics like the Monteverdi Safari and the martial Lamborghini LM 002. Suddenly everything was possible – even if the numbers were still modest.


Let’s start with the Swiss Peter Monteverdi, who in the 50s and 60s was a racing driver and the youngest Ferrari dealer in the world, based in Basel, and also imported Jensen to Switzerland. Enzo Ferrari didn’t like that – so Monteverdi built his own cars, today highly traded exotics with Italian bodies and 7.2-litre Chrysler eight-cylinder engines.

Monteverdi also drove one of the first Range Rovers, but he missed a comfortable access to the back row of seats and built a Range Rover four-door, which the factory in the UK liked so much that they bought the rights to develop it – so the four-door Range Rover saw the light of day thanks to Monteverdi.


After the oil crisis, which drove several manufacturers into bankruptcy, Peter Monteverdi remembered his four-door Range Rover, but did not find the shape and the engine adequate – he was used to big US eight-cylinder engines. And so the Monteverdi Safari was born in 1975 – the man from Basel had realised: “The time of extremely fast coupés was over with the oil crisis – who is still willing to spend 140,000 Swiss francs on a 250 km/h car with speed limits? The Safari SUV, on the other hand, spreads an air of adventure around it and is much more exclusive.”

Monteverdi was also annoyed that the Range Rover was not available with automatic transmission – grabbed the International Scout II as a base and drew an elegant European body over it, built at Fissore. Before that, he had tried to get subsidies from the Swiss government to build his own factory – but the latter had nothing to do with Monteverdi, who already wanted to provide the Swiss president with a four-door 375/4 as a state coach: so the Safari was built in Italy.

In order not to let the base price – which was already lavish enough in 1977 with 48,840 Marks (5.7 litre V8) and 58,719 Marks (7.2 litre V8) – explode further, the glazing was purchased from Range Rover, the front headlights from Fiat, the rear lights from Peugeot and the bumpers from BMW. The engines first came from Chrysler and delivered between 160 and 305 hp – mutating the extremely luxurious Safari into the fastest SUV of its time.

How many were actually built cannot be traced – connoisseurs estimate that a low four-digit number emerged from the Safari, making this the Basler’s most successful model. Nobody knows how many survived – the rarest variant is the one with the 7.2-litre V8 engine, only seven were made here, all of which were delivered to the Middle East. Which was to be expected given the expected fuel consumption.

In 1978, Peter Monteverdi then tried to launch a lower-priced entry-level model, the Sahara, which was also based on the International Scout – but had no new bodywork, only a few new add-on parts such as a new radiator grille and narrower bumpers. After about 30 units had been built, production was discontinued in 1980.


The Lamborghini LM002 was much more brutal. It was actually the result of an order from a US company that wanted to participate in a tender for the US Army for a Jeep successor. Here, too, the military was the father of the SUV idea – the prototype with the name Cheetah lost the tender and was destroyed during a comparison test in Nevada.

When Patrick Mimran took over Lamborghini in 1980, he had a new prototype built to sell to the army of Saudi Arabia. The result was an angular off-roader that was initially supposed to run with a 5.7-litre V8 from AMC – but when the deal fell through, Mimran said to himself: THINK BIG. And installed the 4.8-litre V12 from the Countach LP 500S with 375 hp. And for the series production, 5.2 litres of displacement and 455 hp were used.

The result was a sensation: an SUV with a rattling twelve-cylinder engine that accelerated the 2.7-ton LM002 to 100 km/h in 8.2 seconds and to a top speed of 223 km/h – with the Cw value of the north face of the Eiger.

Rüdiger Czakert, Lamborghini importer in Germany at the time, remembers not only the frequent fuel stops “If you drove fast, 35 to 40 litres per 100 kilometres were perfectly normal. When we transferred an LM from Sant`Agata to Munich, we filled up at the Brenner for the first time,” but also of the cramped seating conditions and the non-existent boot, “the LM was actually a pickup with an open load floor.”

And of course the high-revving twelve-cylinder engine, which only delivered its power at a deafening 6,000 to 7,000 rpm, was only conditionally suitable for an SUV – in city traffic it was always underpowered. At higher speeds, the wide tyres and the considerable sensitivity to crosswinds then ensured that the LM002 driver could constantly train his reflexes.

And the clutch forces challenged the left calf. But apart from that, a ride in an LM002 was and still is a great adventure, the maintenance costs of which one should be able to afford. Between 1986 and 1993, only 301 vehicles were sold – many of which are now in California.

Lamborghini LM002


Adventures of a completely different kind can be offered by the Fiat Panda 4×4, of which Luca de Montezemolo – then head of Ferrari – confided in me: “This is the car I always drive to Cortina d`Ampezzo for skiing. You can’t have more fun on snow-covered roads – and you can overtake so many cars with more power.”

An assessment I can only confirm – on a drive in the winter of 1983 in heavy snow drifting over the Swabian Alb, I saw out of the corner of my eye two red tail lights in a snowbank beside the road, backed up and stopped. And discovered a stranded Opel Manta, from which a man in a tracksuit and Adidas slippers got out.

He only wanted to go to the neighbouring village for cigarettes, but had never arrived there, perhaps it would have been more sensible to put on winter tyres after all – whether I could give him a lift. I pointed to the Panda and offered to pull it out of the ditch. He had a laughing fit – but then accepted the offer. The Panda pulled the Manta out of the ditch and dragged it the four kilometres to his home village – I refused any tip, but made him swear that he would never laugh at a Fiat Panda again.

These are the experiences that an LM002 can never give you – probably also because you rarely drive a Lambo across the Swabian Alb in heavy snow. But the small Panda designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro was – especially in its first purist form (Mk. 1) built from 1980 to 1986 – the perfect “household appliance on four wheels” – according to Giugiaro about his creation. An ingenious vehicle that was offered as a 4×4 from June 1983 with a switchable all-wheel drive developed by Steyr Puch in Graz and an initially 948 cm³ four-cylinder engine and 48 hp output.

Of course, the 48 Cavalli were not madness – but according to the factory documents, the car weighed only 740 kilograms (in real terms it was probably 100 kilograms more) and reached 130 km/h, which made for amazing average speeds with a heavy foot on the gas.

A realisation that also ensured that a suitably prepared 4×4 took part in the 1984 Paris-Dakar Rally. Later, the FIRE engines with 1.0 and 1.1 litre displacements with 45, 50 and 54 hp were used – but to this day, the original is the dream car of an enthusiastic fan scene that appreciates the Panda 4×4 as the perfect melange of practicality, cool design and perfect suitability for everyday use all year round. And equipped with a trailer hitch, it can even rescue Opel Manta stranded in the snow. I should have bought one back then…

Text Jürgen Lewandowski Photos Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A., Dino Eisele / Koch Klassik, FCA Germany GmbH

Author: Lennart Klein

Lennart Klein ist Redakteur beim Classic Trader Magazin. Seine Begeisterung gilt zwei- und vierrädrigen Klassikern gleichermaßen. Traum-Klassiker: Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior & Mercedes-Benz 600.

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