Yesterday, after geeking out about some modified Peruvian Beetles, a reader sent me a picture of a car that I can’t believe I wasn’t aware of. It’s a humble vehicle, a workhorse, but it’s so goddamn clever in design it makes me want to squeeze something. Hard. It’s a Fiat Panda Van.

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Now, the basic concept of taking a little econobox and yanking out the back seats and slapping some sheet metal over the rear windows and calling it a panel van certainly isn’t new. While pretty much unknown here in the U.S., in Europe these are useful and pretty common little urban work vehicles. I know Volkswagen made several versions of these (at least Golfs and Polos), there were Austin Metro vans, Ford Ka vans, and a number more.

They’re very smart little vehicles, when you think about it: a little FWD hatchback with a gutted rear actually has a pretty good volume of cargo room, and they’re easy to park, good on gas, and cheap to buy. Plus, the carmaker doesn’t need to do any major redesign or retooling to break into a whole other market: just block those windows and ditch the seats.

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Fiat, though, they really stepped up the game when it came to their econobox-van. They started with their wildly popular Fiat Panda, the basic design of which remained the same from 1986-2003. It’s a very basic, honest, no-bullshit little car as it is, and looks like its styling buck was made with some old fruit boxes and an X-acto knife.

It’s still a hatchback, though, and as such has a rear that’s angled at 30° or so. For all the other converted hatch-vans, that loss of potential volume isn’t worth the effort. But not to Fiat.

Fiat did one of those things that seems so logical in your head, it’s always baffling why it hardly ever seems to exist in the real world. They removed the tailgate and replaced it with a black metal van-back, angled to fit the shape of the Panda’s rear, and transforming the hatchback into a little double-door van.

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According to this site from a guy who transformed a regular Panda into a van, the van rear just bolts right into the existing hinge bolts for the tailgate. No new drilling required. It even has its own integrated rubber weatherstripping.

Also, where other manufacturers were content to just block off the rear quarter windows with sheet metal, Fiat went above and beyond and turned those usable holes into small side access doors to the cargo area.

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Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. The little cheap family car becomes a cheap, useful little van, all with some clever bolt-on bits. The squared-off rear gives some valuable extra room, and allows for the hauling of objects appreciably longer than in an angled-hatchback design panel van.

Plus, I think they look cool as hell, in a anti-design, utilitarian way.

These aren’t the sorts of vehicles that tend to get a lot of attention or love, unless someone’s poking fun at it, like this guy:

I mean, sure, I get that a 903cc, 45 HP engine isn’t exactly thrilling to a guy like Davide Cironi there, but I don’t know, that video makes it look like the car is actually pretty fun?

There was even a van version based on the Panda 4x4 – think about what a fun one-person off-roader/camper that thing could be.

I’ve never seen one of these in person; I’m not even sure any exist here in North America – but the next time I’m in Europe I really hope I can find one of these, doing some job on some side street. I just want to pay my respects to an overlooked and really clever design.