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If there is any justice left in the automotive world, the Fiat X1/9 really ought to be the next to achieve recognition as Fiats most ingenious road car. Read on for ViaRETRO’s contribution to that discussion:

Some may ask, what precisely is so ingenious about the Fiat X1/9? While the answer could be found simply by looking at the car (just have a glance through the pictures in the article), I’m more than happy to share my own views too. Arguably it’s a fair question seeing as the X1/9 in reality is merely a severe technical rearranging of the simple Fiat 128. However, it’s a severely clever technical rearranging, resulting in a car which genuinely looks like a pocket-supercar. And perhaps of even greater importance – it also drives like a pocket-supercar. Actually, even better.

It was of course Bertone who sketched the crisp lines of the X1/9, perhaps at the very height of his career and design studio. The little wedge utilizes the same effects and achieves the same drama as proper warm-blooded supercars worth ten times the price and more.

Better? That’s a big claim! But think about it – most classic supercars are of course famously rapid, but they’re usually also infamously nerve-wrecking to drive anywhere near the limit, where they become twitchy, more than a handful, or even outright awful compared to the amount of power on tap. In stark contrast, the little Fiat X1/9 was widely acclaimed right from its launch in 1973 for its neutral, well-balanced and easily controlled handling characteristics, which were always on the driver’s side rather than battling against him. The X1/9 was one of the few sportscars of the seventies which truly did anything good for the reputation of the mid-engined sportscars handling dynamics.

X1/9 on the very limit: Perfect apex, light oversteer, ultimate driver experience.

Perhaps the keywords here are “compared to the amount of power”. The year after the presentation of the X1/9, Ferrari launched its first mid-engined V12 road car: the 365 BB. It delivered four times the power of the Fiat, and would also outrun it with a topspeed exceeding the X1/9’s by more than 100 km/h. However, the 365 BB also quickly gained a reputation for handling four times worse/more challenging (estimated numbers of course) than the Fiat. It naturally distracted somewhat from the pleasure found behind the steering wheel of the big Ferrari, to know that only the most talented of drivers would ever stand a chance of catching the rear end when it would suddenly let go without much warning.

The early X1/9’s like this one have the purest design, while the later ones gained a bit more power – your choice.

The X1/9 was nothing like this – it inspired confidence and encouraged the driver to have some fun. At reasonable speeds of course, because with 75hp pushing 900kg. the X1/9 obviously wasn’t a supercar – some might even argue that it wasn’t a sportscar. But performance figures of 170 km/h and the 0-100 sprint taking up 13 seconds obviously need to be viewed in light of that period, and as such were quite respectable. The pessimists might point out that the same engine in the donor 128 would have resulted in better performance figures as it was 100kg. lighter. True, the curb weight was hardly the X1/9’s strongest selling point, but with good reason: It was simply constructed strong and sturdy as live up to those ever-more-stringent safety requirements of the US market.

This was after all its main market during the cars conception. A bit of a paradox then, that it was perhaps in the US that the little X1/9 would be perceived as something thoroughly foreign. Remember that an American sportscar in the early seventies was a thoroughly conventional front-engined rear-wheel drive coupé kitted out with the biggest engine available to the manufacturer. Compared with these dinosaurs, the little Fiat would have no doubt seemed rather alien.

All those big-league supercar manufacturers could have learnt a lot from Fiat: For example, how to achieve decent sized baggage compartments both front and rear.

But then again, the X1/9 was never really about outright performance, but rather about pure driver involvement. As such, the little mid-engined Fiat did indeed handle like a sportscar. The steering was direct and full of feedback, the suspension set-up sublime, and the little 4-cylinder exuded a fabulous rasp when spinning at 6000 rpm. And the best part was that it was accessible all the time, as the lack of supernatural performance meant the driver didn’t need wide open curves with plenty of room for mistakes, corrections and spins, nor did he need long straight autostrada’s devoid of other traffic. The X1/9 could put a smile on your face just clipping apex after apex at sensible speeds on narrow backroads or even through town on your way down to the shops.

Amazingly, all of this was wrapped in a design which to my eyes is just about on par with the Lamborghini Countach, which of course came from the same design house. The spectacular wedge form can only be so pronounced when the engine is placed behind the seats, the many small but clever design details, the overall proportions which only reach a mere 117cm off the tarmac, its almost cheeky expression, and then its trumf card – the targa roof which none of the real supercars had. Wind-in-hair motoring only enhances all those already enticing attributes and adds another dimension to them – just like in a traditional sportscar similar to the already then endangered British roadsters, which truth be told were probably the Fiat’s real competition.

There was even made space for the targa roof panel in the front baggage compartment: The X1/9 excelled with ingenious packaging.

Yet Fiat had not forgotten their roots producing practical family cars, so they also managed to find space for decent baggage compartments both front and rear. And naturally, if you could refrain from driving it at 6000 rpm, the fuel economy was very reasonable too: There are after all limits to just how much fuel a 1300 engine can guzzle. Last but not least, as a long-term commitment, servicing and maintenance was never going to be a financial challenge either, as most parts were common Fiat parts used on regular family cars as well and thus mass-produced.

Which all sums up why the 117cm low pocket supercar is nothing short of ingenious and deserves due recognition. When that eventually and inevitably happens, the values will rise on those that have survived from the production run of approximately 200,000 X1/9’s. The market tendency has just begun, but even so, the X1/9 still delivers buckets of charm and driver involvement for a very modest price. Personally I would opt for as early a car as I could find, in order to enjoy the purest and most undiluted form of the X1/9 experience.

In fact, it’s so clever that Fiat ought to consider building a successor. If that happens, the X1/9’s image and future would finally be secured.

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7 Responses

  1. Tony Wawryk
    A super little car, or a little supercar – one in a line of delightful small sporty cars that Fiat used to make; I’m thinking of the 850 Coupe and it’s neat Bertone Spider version, the 124 Coupe and Spider, even the 128 Coupe (though this last one was less inspiring than the others and certainly compared to the X19).

    I remember driving an X19 for a few hours back when I was working for BL/Austin Rover – we used to be able to test other manufacturer’s cars in order to help make comparisons with what we were selling, in this case with the MG Midget and B, both of which looked and felt dated, tired and lumbering relative to the Fiat.

    Like you, Claus, it’s the earlier model that appeals most to me – the bigger bumpers added later (particularly for the US), while better integrated than some eg the MGs again, spoil the original delicate lines.

    The only small sports car I’ve driven that comes close to the experience of the X19 is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Toyota MR2 Mk 1, which had more performance than the X19, but is of course similarly mid-engined and wedge-shaped. Four-wheeled go-karts, both of them, with lots of style, for very reasonable money.

    Reply
  2. Anders Bilidt
    I love the lithe X1/9 as much as anyone. I even came very close to buying one while living in Hong Kong!
    But @tony-wawryk you present an interesting question – which is the better choice, the X1/9 or the MR-2? Recently I’ve found myself looking at MR-2 adverts more and more often. Such a great little package, and the 4A-GE engine is just fabulous.
    Reply
  3. Peter
    The April issue of the German AutoBild Klassik has a comparative test of seven targa cars from the seventies and eighties “Die tollesten Bügel-Cabrios im test”. Cars tested are among others Triumph Stag, VW-Porsche 914 and 911 Targa. The test is very thorough and all cars are judged at 28 properties. The article covers 20 pages. The verdict is that the Fiat X1/9 scores a fifth place and the one that is said to be the best choice is the Toyota MR2. The worst one: 911 Targa and 914 at the second last place.

    Of course it is up to each individual entusiast the choose and I would prefer the Fiat – or maybe the BMW Baur cabriolet.

    Reply
  4. Anders Bilidt
    @peter
    That’s interesting. Surely quite a controversial result – especially for a German magazine.
    Peter, I’m curious, which BMW Baur did they test? 02, E21 or E30? And which Targas took second, third and fourth in the comparison?
    Hmmm… and the MR-2 taking first certainly isn’t doing anything to subdue my desire for the little mid-ship Jap…
    Reply
  5. Peter
    @anders-bilidt: The Baur BMW was the E21 type. Maybe not very beautiful but surely very competent on the road (I had the sedan version myself many many years ago).

    The cars tested were (in descending order of points scored):

    Toyota MR2
    BMW 320 Baure
    Triumph Stag
    Chevrolet Corvette
    Fiat/Bertone X1/9
    Porsche 914
    Porsche 911 Targa

    The two Porsches lost quite some points in the discipline: “Marktpreis”

    Reply
  6. Claus Ebberfeld
    Indeed some call the MR2 the car the X1/9 should have been – but I think they forget there is two generations and around 13 years between them.

    I’ve driven both and it can come as no surprise that the Toyota is the much better car. And it is actually great value for money.

    But I think the X1/9 still beats it in the looks and feel department, even with some margin. And the MR2 never came in any spectacular colours either!

    Reply
  7. Anders Bilidt
    @peter
    Quite interesting. Personally, I would have probably listed those seven targas in a slightly different sequence, but as we know, there is of course no right or wrong when it comes to these things – just differing opinions.


    Regarding the colours available on the MR-2, I beg to differ…
    I’ve always felt the distinctive dark green metallic over champagne metallic looked excellent on the little Toyota. It’s very different! But for the first year or two of production, there was also a bright turquoise metallic which looked brilliant.

    Reply

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