The cars we loved.
Way before today’s Minis and the Miata stole the hearts and wallets of American drivers, there was the quirky looking Italian Fiat X1/9. A small mid-engine targa top styled sports car built by Fiat and designed by Bertone. Besides being one of the last small convertibles from Europe to be popular in America, the X1/9 was a first in many safety and technical areas.
Among it’s many milestones: it was the first mass produced mid-engined sports car ever, the first to employ a transverse engine designed for front wheel drive in a rear wheel drive application and was an early pioneer in safety, meeting US safety regulations well in advance of most cars (even domestic built ones!).
The X1/9 started life as a concept car in 1969 called the Autobianchi. The distinctive wedge shape was futuristic, very much like the Triumph TR-7, but smaller and more angular. The car’s missile like name stems from a combination of project codes, adding to its allure. Production started in 1972, but it was not until 1974 that a left hand drive version was produced. The X1/9 was a replacement for the popular 850 Spider. Designed as a targa topped convertible, the top could be stowed away easily in a small space in a front storage area.
Over the years there were a few variations of the x1/9 sold in America, mostly distinguished by bumper styles and small upgrades in horsepower resulting from the switch from carburation to Bosh electronic fuel injection. The initial 1.3 L straight 4 cylinder grew to 1.5 L with power output ranging from 63 to 75 hp depending on the model year. All US bound cars came with the 1.5 litre only. Most X1/9’s came with a 4-speed manual transmission. A 5-speed manual was added in 1979 and remained the only transmission for the remaining production life-cycle of the car.
X1/9 was very light at only 2,250 lb, adding in acceleration and overall performance. The well balanced chassis, being a byproduct of the mid-engined design and a fully independent suspension made for great road manners, even if acceleration suffered due to an underpowered engine. With a 0 to 60 time of 11 seconds or so, the X1/9 would have a difficult time getting away from most family sedans. Despite these shortcomings, the X1/9 became a hit with automotive journalist and buyers alike, making the old guard of English roadsters look obsolete overnight.
The X1/9 was not without its problems, mostly stemming from small reliability issues. The biggest complaint however was the lack of power. Unfortunately, Fiat made the decision to pull out of the American market in 1982 as sales began to dive. Bertone took over production and the car was called the Bertone X1/9 in America. Bertone continued making refinements of the car by changing the interior and adding new styled bumpers until the final one was exported officially in 1987.
The market for small roadsters had changed considerably over the course of the X1/9s lifespan. Spoiled by modern convinces and Japanese reliability, the market had made a transition from European roadsters to Japanese ones. For a brief period in the early 80’s the small roadster scene exploded with introduction of the Pontiac Fiero and Toyota MR2, cars with styling vaguely reminiscent of the X1/9. A year after the last X1/9s were imported by Bertone, the Mazda Miata was introduced and changed everything in the roadster market, making virtually everything else seem old and cumbersome. As used cars X1/9 have the reputation for being fussy without constant and proper maintenance, and are more likely to be seen off the road in a well stocked mechanics garage than on it.
Although the X1/9 may have seemed like a natural for modern classic status, it’s not old enough to evoke classic “European pipe smoker roadster charm” and not new enough to offer the modern convinces and reliability of … a Miata. For the hard core fans of Fiat, the X1/9 will be remember for its many technical and safety innovations in a time before America became hooked on the Miata.