The Island of Pandas (Fiat Pandas, That Is)


The Italian island of Pantelleria covers just over 32 square miles. It sits in the sea like a pebble knocked off the soccer ball of Sicily after being hit by Italy’s boot. It is a place of great natural beauty, all hot springs and views of the Mediterranean Sea, with a population of just over 7500 people.

But humans don’t make up most of the inhabitants here, as the volcanic island is also home to the largest number of Fiat Pandas per square mile. It is an unusual phenomenon that led Fiat to release a documentary about the people and the Pandas of Pantelleria.

old fiat pandas in pandelleria


The documentary is called Pandelleriaand if you want to broaden your horizons with a foreign language film, then skip the Oscar-winning documentaries and watch this 30-minute short.

“What’s up with all the Pandas, you ask?” says one of the documentary’s subjects, a winemaker and mechanic. “We dismantle them every day, we have a million pandas [on] the island. We only have pandas here.”

white fiat panda in pandelleria


Maybe not a whole million, but Pantelleria is truly infested with Pandas. All three generations. Watching a boxy 1980s Panda 4×4 being hurled down a country dirt road in true Italian fashion (with a boot full of grapes for the wine press) helps the viewer begin to understand why. Pandas are small, economical, easy to repair and surprisingly tough. Just the thing for life on an isolated island where self-reliance is key.

The documentary was directed by award-winning Italian filmmaker Giovanni Troilo, who previously won acclaim for his portrayal of the people of Rome and those living in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The film includes a series of vignettes of farmers, stock feeders, mechanics, a restaurateur, a beekeeper, and even a spiritual guide to show how the Panda is simply part of everyday life on the island.

Italy, Sicily, Pantelleria island Gadir, the port

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Tourists to Pantelleria are guaranteed anything but a Panda-centric experience. That’s because the only model of car that local rental agencies stock is – you guessed it – the Panda.

Launched in 1979, the Panda sported bodywork penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro. It was one of his most loved designs.

landscape cala cinque denti, pantelleria island, trapani, sicily, italy

Paul Negri|Getty Images

Simple, square and powered by a pint-sized engine, the original Panda – like those that followed – was unpretentious and practical. More than four million Pandas were sold during the first-generation car’s 23-year production run. Three generations in and more than 40 years later, the Fiat Panda remains one of the best sellers in Italy.

The message of Pandelleria is less about the Pandas of Pantelleria and more about the life of the local islanders. Rather than taking center stage, the Panda serves as a constant background. On Pantelleria, Panda ownership is like the sun, like the salt water, like the wine and music at the end of a day’s work. It’s not just a car, it’s part of life on Pantelleria.

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Contributing Editor

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and photographer based in North Vancouver, BC, Canada. He grew up with his knuckles on British cars, came of age in the golden age of Japanese sport-compact performance, and started writing about cars and people in 2008. His particular interest is the intersection between humanity and machinery, be it the races. career of Walter Cronkite or the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s half-century obsession with the Citroën 2CV. He taught both of his young daughters how to shift a manual transmission and is grateful for the excuse they provide to constantly buy Hot Wheels.