If there is such a thing as a forgotten classic, then the Targa-topped Fiat X1/9 sports car surely qualifies. For any lover of distinctive, invigorating designs, this beautifully-proportioned car is a sure-fire winner and yet, sadly, there are so few around.
The X1/9 is a sort of mini Ferrari on a budget, boasting a handsome Bertone body that stacks up well today, even though the design is 42 years old. It’s also a practical sports car with oodles of driver appeal and truly great handling. Yet the two-seater had no chance of even appearing on our radar during the first four years of production, since the car was only built in left-hand drive, with well over half of the volume going to the United States.
Fiat perhaps never saw the X1/9 as a high-volume model, and built 140,500 in a 10-year period from 1972. But the car was too good to die and, unsurprisingly, Bertone took over production and built a further 19,500 between 1982 and 1989. And the sign of a good design? The fact that very few styling changes were made during this 17-year production cycle.
Breaking new ground
While in mainstream-model terms those production numbers are modest, the X1/9 broke new ground as the first affordable mid-engined design. Expensive exotic road cars from Ferrari, Maserati, Lotus and Lamborghini had, of course, come before it, but the X1/9 was the first mid-engined car to be produced at the rate of 100 a day.
Limited numbers were imported into New Zealand, supplemented from the mid ’80s by a handful of used imports. The car was never in plentiful supply, even in Britain when there was invariably a waiting list.
Designed by Marcello Gandini at Bertone, the car’s body was made at the Bertone factory in Turin, and transported to Fiat’s nearby Lingotto factory for final assembly. At that time the Fiat plants in Turin were plagued with as many strikes as their British Leyland opposition, and this often led to supply problems.
While working in England in 1978 I was highly impressed after spending time with one of the last of the X1/9 1300s, and then fell in love following the announcement of a limited edition version called the Lido. This was mechanically identical to the standard model, but boasted metallic black body paint, chrome bumpers (as opposed to stainless steel) and tinted glass. The Lido’s crowning feature was seats trimmed with white Alcantara fabric, with its suede-like look. Only a lengthy wait list prevented me from buying one. In effect, the Lido was a run-out special, because from 1979 the X1/9 would have a larger engine and a five-speed gearbox.
A total of 700 right-hand-drive Lidos were driven, but it is unlikely any new examples were sold into our market.
The first X1/9s were imported into New Zealand in 1978 at a highly attractive price of $13,000. This has risen to $19,436 by the time I was able to road test an example in Auckland during 1980, but the specification had improved, with a more powerful motor and boldly-styled Cromodora alloy wheels.
Inflation played a heavy hand over the next few years, with the X1/9 rising to $28,000 in 1982, $36,500 in 1984 and $41,500 in 1985. The car disappeared from local price lists for more than two years, but made a reappearance early in 1988 when Fiat managed to ease the retail back to around $40,000. This meant the car was highly competitive against its nearest rival, the Toyota MR2, which proved too expensive at $52,000 when it initially arrived in the mid ’80s.
At introduction, X1/9 rivals included the MG Midget, MGB, Triumph Spitfire and TR7 but, with the exception of the TR7, these British challengers were all old designs, and all came with front engines and rear-wheel drive.
Measuring 3969mm, the X1/9 was longer than the Midget and slightly shorter than the MGB, and sports car enthusiasts lamented that the stylish Fiat was what the Midget or Austin-Healey Sprite should have been had British Leyland maintained new model investment.
The Italians knew how well British sports-car makers had done in North America, and Fiat designed the X1/9 to meet anticipated US 50kph barrier crash requirements. The little Fiat had a sturdy floorpan, strengthened by sills and a central stressed tunnel to allow the roof panel to be detachable. Nose and tail sections of the body were designed to deform progressively in a crash, and the reinforced doors and built-in roll hoop provided rollover protection.
Made from a tough, synthetic material, the Targa top was easily removed and stowed under the bonnet, where it takes up little space. In initial 1.3-litre form, the car tipped the scales at 850kg, and with more equipment and other changes, unladen weight rose to 912kg by the time the 1.5-litre version was introduced. When the bigger-engined X1/9 arrived Fiat continued to offer the model in 1.3-litre specification, but only in left-hand drive for European markets. The X1/9 1500 from late 1978 is slightly longer than the earlier model, due to somewhat ungainly US-regulation bumpers, and the engine cover was raised to accommodate the taller engine.
Original X1/9s employed Fiat 128 front-drive coupé mechanicals, while the newer 1.5-litre version took advantage of the Fiat Ritmo/Strada engine and five-speed gearbox. There was never an automatic transmission option. The 1290cc single overhead cam engine comprised a cast-iron block and alloy head fed by a Weber 32 twin-choke carburettor to produce a hardly shattering 54kW (73bhp). The longer-stroke 1498cc version boasted a Weber 34 carburettor, and turned out 63kW (85bhp) at the same 6000rpm.
However, the larger engine also boasts 21 per cent more torque and is more responsive and flexible, as well as being quicker. Top speed of the 1500 is 180kph, a sizeable 19kph improvement on the smaller motor, and the more powerful X1/9 accelerates to 100kph in 11 seconds, almost two seconds faster. Understandably, in mid-range acceleration the newer car has more urge, and the fifth gear means easier, quieter cruising, even if the newly-found ratio was not exactly an overdrive. The 1500 version is the preferable runner, although there’s a certain appealing raw edge about the 1300.
Critics cried out for more power even though there was never any possibility the twin-cam 132 engine would fit. Mounted transversely behind the seats and ahead of the rear wheel line, the 128 power unit is harsh and noisy, and often fussy starting from cold. A manual choke is fitted to the 1300, while the 1500 has an auto choke that makes little improvement to the iffy warm-up period. The motor is canted forward, has lightened pistons and connecting rods, and special inlet and exhaust manifolds.
Accessing the power unit is far from easy with a narrow engine bay, but getting at normal service points is reasonable enough. Like the Fiat 128, engine and transmission are in line, and on the X1/9 the drive passes back and down to the differential and via unequal-length driveshafts to the wheels. On the two cars I drove the transmission could occasionally be obstructive, but was generally positive and reasonably light.
I used an X1/9 1300 for commuting from Surrey up to London and it was ideal, economical transport in city and rural driving, with the added advantage of a detachable roof that was lifted off at every opportunity to make most journeys memorable. The Targa top behind the occupants reduces draughts, and the car seems quieter with the roof section removed.
Two years later, in 1980 and back in New Zealand, came renewal time with the Fiat, now with the 1500 engine. Economy may have dropped to around 8.4 litres/100km (33.6mpg) compared to the remarkable 6.8 litres/100km (41.5mpg) I averaged in England, but the newer version had more gutsy performance which befitted the flamboyant character of the car.
The Fiat’s 41:59 front-to-rear weight distribution is not particularly good, yet this is a car with great feel and neutral handling up to quite high speeds. Like any mid-engined vehicle, the X1/9 is difficult to drive right on the limit, but this is at speeds one wouldn’t normally attempt on public roads — and, for the most part, this Fiat is a delight to drive, the unassisted steering, geared to three turns lock to lock, is light without any of the rubbery feel found in many mid-engined cars.
While the X1/9 slips easily through the air and has a large front spoiler, straight-line stability in a stiff Wellington southerly would have the Fiat bobbing about somewhat alarmingly. Despite low seating, this is an easy car to place in calmer conditions, aided by slim pillars and good visibility, even towards the rear.
MacPherson struts are used front and rear, and track control arms pull in the back of the outer wheel under full roll, so counteracting understeer. Even in the wet the Fiat handles tidily, and when understeer sets in this is usually at higher speeds than a comparable front-engined car. The suspension is firm and compliant, although it can be crashy over bumps. On 1500 models, Fiat saw no reason to alter the 165/70 section tyres fitted to 5Jx13-inch alloys on the original X1/9, or the non-power-assisted four-wheel disc brake system.
Build quality was never great, and some of the interior fittings and trim were modest, prompting a need for careful attention to prevent things looking shabby. There were, however, improvements in cabin appointments with the arrival of the 1500 model. More sombre trim became available with the 1500 after Fiat had offered bold striped-cloth seat trim in orange, green and blue in the 1300 version. While these colourful, extrovert patterns didn’t appeal to everyone, they somehow suited the car.
A more substantial fascia layout with the uprated version includes a 140mph speedo (no kph gauge even for our market) with matching tacho, water temperature and oil pressure gauges. Unusual roller-type switches operate most functions, and later models have better ventilation and heating controls.
Close the doors and check the shut lines and there is never any impression this is a quality car. However, the pop-up headlights work efficiently, and the neatly recessed releases on the passenger door sill for accessing the engine and rear compartment are a nice touch. Apart from the lack of a clock, right-hand-drive X1/9s are usually well equipped too, with many features that were optional on left-hand-drive examples. These include fog lights, a heated rear window and tinted glass. It is unlikely any example today will still have the handy Bertone-designed fitted suitcases for the rear compartment that were standard.
Boot space front and rear is surprisingly good, but this car is strictly a two-seater with no room behind the seats, and minimal interior storage space. Interior space is tight and pedal room is minimal, with the clutch too close to the universal joint of the steering wheel. The seat squabs are short and legroom is less than its older-design rivals, a handicap for anyone who claims to be tall.
The good thing about this machine is while the design looked forward, it was still a noisy, fun sports car made chiefly from proprietary parts. Of course, the 1300 is short on gears and power, but the brilliant steering and road manners make up for any shortcomings. The model’s design may be more than four decades old, yet the little Fiat still turns heads.
With its aerodynamic body style and low-cost mechanicals, the X1/9 is loaded with character. This is a pleasing and reasonably practical classic that is still inexpensive in places like Britain, where supplies are plentiful. Pristine examples are usually no more than the equivalent of $12,000.
Rust can be an issue, especially around the top of the front guards and in the area of the wheel arches. The water pipes running from the front-mounted radiator to the mid engine can suffer from stone or debris damage, and are worth checking. But there is nothing too complicated about this two-seater, and you could be forgiven for becoming attached to what was the only significant new small sports car design from the ’70s.