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Driving the monster Panda 4x4
You know the names. Bigfoot. Grave Digger. Maximum Destruction. You might be less familiar with Awesome Kong or Raminator. But the fact remains that for the past 40 or so years, monster trucks have been icons of redneck recreation: throaty beasts built for crushing cars and thrashing around dirt-filled stadiums. We’ve had destruction derbies and monster jams and leaping and smashing seven shades of steel out of whatever gets in the way. And so it’s with some excitement that we find ourselves aboard our very own monster - nearly two tonnes of machine towering three metres above the ground. Its name? Panda. Perhaps not as terrifying as some of its American counterparts, but still something of an animal.
Built to advertise the fact that you can buy Fiat’s runabout in off-road flavour, this is a one-off creation, in our custody for one day before retiring to a museum. The top half seems familiar enough: a whole Panda 4x4 body with a functioning interior. The only visible change on the inside is the extra-long gearstick poking out from a leathery nest. But all of this sits upon an adopted base. The springs you see under the green arches are actually pseudo-suspension. The cab is solid-mounted, on poles the size of table legs, onto the mechanicals of a late-Eighties Jeep CJ with a 4.2-litre straight-six petrol engine. The tyres come from a New Holland tractor: each stands 1.5 metres tall and weighs 200kg. For some reason, I expect very little from this vehicle dynamically.
With the body hoisted so high, it’s easy to slip between the tyres and examine the mechanicals. It’s a web of poles, struts, rails and exhaust pipes in here - the steering wheel alone is connected to the wheels by a metre and a half of linkage, with three ball joints along its length. The chassis is about three metres long and one-and-a-bit wide. The slightly rusty leaf-spring suspension is layered like a steel lasagne. And the two differentials - one front, one back - are encased in metal orbs the size of beach balls. You could quite easily get tangled up among this lot, like a chubby kid on a climbing frame. So I extract myself and prepare to go upstairs.
Climbing aboard involves an ambitious routine. Wedge one foot between the grooves of a giant tyre while doing airborne splits to reach with your other foot for another lump of rubber about a metre in the other direction. With trousers successfully unsplit, I reach up for the doorhandle, the door swings open and I’m angled backwards - 45 degrees to the ground - with boots slipping off the shiny tyres. A helpful gentleman places two palms on my buttocks and pushes firmly. I claw at the driver’s seat cushion, haul myself up and crawl through the doorway, bashing my head on the glovebox.
Once installed, it’s like operating a normal car - albeit one piggybacking another. Turn the key, and the carb-fed engine stirs into action way down in the bowels, sounding like a ferry engine does from the top deck. Pump the heavy clutch. Find first gear with the long stick. Feels like waggling a brolly in a wellington boot. The steering wheel is a bit sloppy, too - there’s a good quarter-turn before the wheels respond - but once on the move, the whole thing feels stiff, though not necessarily in a good way. The transmission is locked in its low-range ratios to avoid blowing the ‘box. Both diffs are locked too. If they spun freely, they’d get mangled from the effort of moving those huge wheels. I am beginning to suspect the enormo-Panda’s ‘Ring time might be somewhat compromised.
Off we creep, the Panda moving with a sort of mechanical arthritis, out of the car park and into the middle of Sestrière - a little ski town to the west of Turin. We pass a big yellow bus depositing passengers dressed helmet-to-boot in fluorescent skiwear. The Panda crumples past, crushing the brown slush as it goes. It’s breakfast time, and this is probably the last thing the snow-seekers expect to see. A piste-basher coming down from the slopes, perhaps. But a Fiat Panda perched way up on four-foot-tall tyres? Maybe that cheesy fondue was more potent than they thought…
The bus doors hiss shut, and it squeezes past. The driver peers up. A policewoman’s whistle blows. A little brown dog comes from nowhere and disappears beneath us, thankfully without a yelp. And then we approach a roundabout, and I apply generous armfuls of steering, nerfing the kerbs as we round the little circle. Forward… bump. Back… bump. Forward… yelp. The last time this place saw such commotion was when the Winter Olympics visited in 2006. Before long, we’re leading a long jam, parading through town with the subtlety of carnival queens atop a green elephant. Our reflection slides along first-floor windows as pyjama’d locals drop spoons into cereal bowls. Forget a Lamborghini if you want to attract attention here.
Perhaps inevitably, we also attract the Law. The police lady stops whistling and decides to lead us away in her own, much smaller Panda 4x4: one in possession of blue lights and a siren. Of course, locals know these Fiats well - they’ve been the workhorses of resorts like this for decades - but, even by Alpine standards, ours is somewhat unusual. Not many will have the clutch cylinder from a racing car (the larger volume helps handle the hydraulic stress of engaging the agricultural wheels, spaced 15cm further away from the hubs than usual). Nor will they struggle to keep up with traffic. The constabulary seems oblivious to this. She wants us to get going.
The lorry drivers among you may not be impressed with the Panda’s height or weight. But at least your tyres live within the width of your cab. Not only do the Panda’s stick out a good metre beyond the flanks, but they’re way down below your bottom, so even with elbow and head poked out of the window, it’s hard to see where your edges are. Pulling into a petrol station, I nearly flatten the pumps. And then I have to stand on tiptoe to get the fuel into the tank, which is located about seven feet in the air. Police Lady watches with hands on not-inconsiderable hips.
Eventually, she escorts us down a steep track to the edge of a nursery slope. I park on a shelf of untouched snow and kill the engine. Nothing to hear now except the hum of the cooling fan and the swish of rapidly approaching skis. Some locals whoosh past, surfing over the deep chevrons our tyres have left in the powder. “Grande Panda, si?” they say. “Bella. Ciao!” And they’re off, over a ledge and down the piste. Many more follow, all stopping for a photo before disappearing like a stream of gaily coloured lemmings.
Unfortunately, we can’t follow, as we’re lacking the unbreakable suspension of the Bigfoots and Grave Diggers of this world. They have springs designed to reunite truck with earth after a 30ft drop, and methanol-fuelled V8s with thousands of horsepower. Ultimately, though, they are merely silhouettes of their road-going donors. This particular Panda feels more like its cute old self. It might be unrecognisable from the waist down, a kind of weird automotive centaur, but it’s more or less the same cheeky Panda 4x4 that earned our SUV of the Year award in 2012, just a bit more… butch.
It might only have 200bhp, and you could probably crawl quicker. But after a day of light troublemaking, we’re somewhat attached to our Giant Panda. Like its wild namesake, it’s a bit lazy. You won’t see many about. And if one happened to roll on top of you, you would die. But still, you can’t help but fall in love with something that seems so incredibly, gloriously pointless. Unless, of course, you’re an Alpine copper. Or a tiny dog*.
*Neither of which were actually harmed during the making of this story
Pictures: Rowan Horncastle
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine