Fiat X1/9 at 50

Fiat X1/9 at 50

As the world’s most affordable mid-engined car, the Fiat X1/9 was a true revelation 50 years ago. Karl Ludvigsen – who went on the 1972 launch – tells the golden story of an ingenious icon.


Story by Karl Ludvigsen

Midship for the Masses


Fiat X1/9 at 50

Golden celebration of Fiat’s mid-engined hero


The arrival of cars with front-wheel drive and transverse engines opened up the possibility of mounting such a drivetrain behind the cockpit to create an inexpensive mid-engined sports car.

Putting the engine/gearbox/differential package in the back to drive the rear wheels should have been easy. Lamborghini’s Miura and Ferrari’s Dino had blazed the trail for money-no-object mid-engined cars, but no car maker of any size had managed to build a mid-engined car that most folks could afford to buy – until the Fiat X1/9 arrived in 1972.


Fiat X1/9 at 50

The X1/9 was the happy result of a joint effort by Fiat and Bertone to create a successor to the ovaleyed 850 Spider that had been such a big seller in the important US market. Bertone was building these at the rate of 120 a day but their rear-engined powertrains were on the brink of being phased out in favour of Fiat’s new front-drive ranges. Something new had to be created, thought Nuccio Bertone, who in his younger days had done some racing and was a good judge of sporting cars.

Bertone and his chief designer Marcello Gandini already had form with mid-engined cars, creating the Lamborghini Miura in 1965 with its transverse V12 engine. Fiat had also taken an interest in mid-engined drivetrains, one early prototype using the powertrain of the 1964 Autobianchi Primula. For the 1969 auto shows, Bertone and Gandini decided to build their own mid-engined concept car with an Autobianchi drivetrain. They pushed the boat out with an open-cockpit speedster topped by a prominent rectangular rollover bar to the sides, to which powerful lamps were fixed. A sharp thrusting front end and doorless body completed the Autobianchi A112 Runabout.

At the 1969 Paris Salon, Gianni Agnelli’s younger brother Umberto asked Nuccio Bertone’s opinions of the current Fiat sports car range. When Bertone hesitated, Umberto pressed him for a candid reply. The stylist answered that he thought Fiat’s offerings were excellent cars but not sports cars as he understood the term. “We could do better,” he added.

“Then do so,” came Umberto’s reply. He backed up his assignment by mustering the talents of Fiat’s advanced design department under Giuseppe Puleo, reporting to engineering chief, Dante Giacosa. True to their mission, the amiable Puleo and his team had been developing a number of concepts. The X1/1 was the Fiat 128, the 130 saloon was X1/3 and a larger midengined sports car was X1/20 (which eventually became the Lancia Montecarlo). In the middle was X1/9, conceived as a low-cost sports car that would make maximum use of Fiat 128 components.

Work went ahead with impressive speed. At the 1971 Turin Show the first rumours about a new Fiat sports car swept the scene, prompted by Alessandro De Tomaso’s display of a Ford-powered car that was so close in shape and style to the forthcoming Fiat that it was almost actionable.

Late in 1972, the Fiat X1/9 was introduced to the press in Sicily, where journalists (including myself) drove it over the demanding Targa Florio circuit. This was a sign of tremendous confidence in the little car’s handling and stability. So comfortable had Fiat’s people become with its codename that ‘X1/9’ was used in showrooms.

In its dimensions, the X1/9 resembled a much lower version of the well-liked Fiat 128 Coupe. It was just 1170mm tall, with a short wheelbase (2202mm) and overall length (3830mm). At 880kg, its official kerb weight was slightly higher than the 128 Coupe’s, accounted for by the two-seater’s very stiff chassis. The X1/9 borrowed some of its ideas from Fiat’s ESV (Experimental Safety Vehicle) which used a Fiat 500 rear-mounted powertrain and had robust boxed side rails running front to rear through the sills. Puleo used a similar design for the X1/9 to meet US safety standards (the American market was expected to take 75% of sales). In early prototypes the structure did its job but the monocoque was too weak in bending and torsion, impairing handling consistency. The solution was to install a central backbone, even though this increased weight.

The original idea was to use the 128’s front struts on all four corners. Test mules, however, were undriveable, according to one well-informed source: “There wasn’t a living human in Fiat who could reconcile its unpredictable road manners with production requirements.” This was of course intolerable. Bertone was also concerned that the front struts were too tall to achieve the plunging bonnet line it wanted. The solution was to lower the front struts in relation to the hubs, while struts at the rear were given much stronger, wide-based wishbones to give better control. The final design, said Giuseppe Puleo, was aimed at neutral steering with a full fuel tank, and gentle oversteer at the limit that could be easily corrected by the driver. “The aim was to make the driver king of the car,” he said, “and not the car king of the driver.” A natural feature of the X1/9 was a low polar moment of inertia, with the main masses concentrated toward the centre of the chassis. This gave the car enhanced agility that counted on the driver to master and exploit its quick responses.

The fuel tank was near the centre of the car, right behind the driver, so weight distribution remained much the same, no matter how the car was loaded. Inside the X1/9’s 13-inch steel wheels were 8.9-inch brake discs gripped by floating single-piston callipers. Steering was rack-and-pinion with three turns lock-to-lock. No anti-roll bars were fitted, the car’s low centre of gravity keeping cornering roll to a minimum. Under the slotted matt black engine cover was Fiat’s 128 engine, as introduced almost four years earlier. It felt right at home in this sports car with its belt-driven overhead cam, aluminium head, five-bearing crankshaft and oversquare dimensions of 86mm x 55.5mm, making 1290cc. With a twin-choke downdraft Weber and 8.9:1 compression ratio, the X1/9 commanded 75hp at 6000rpm and 72lb ft of torque at 3400rpm.

New castings for the oil pan and inlet manifold were required because the engine was installed at an angle of 11 degrees, as requested by Bertone to improve packaging. Moved to the end of the camshaft, the distributor was more accessible. Thanks to the revised positioning and ingenious stowage of the spare wheel behind the passenger, the X1/9 had useful boots both front and rear. The removable targa roof panel stowed in the front compartment.

The gearbox had to be modified to move the shift linkage to the front. The shift quality suffered, the lower gears being hard to engage, so the synchro was changed to a faster-acting Borg-Warner cone system with molybdenum-treated teeth. Clutch actuation was hydraulic to reduce pedal effort.

Respectable rather than blistering, the X1/9’s performance was around 100mph top speed and a 0-60mph in 12.2 seconds. That was in Europe; the emissions-controlled US version had a pathetic 66hp and a top speed of 93mph.

When I drove the X1/9 at its 1972 launch on the Targa Florio circuit in Sicily, its many corners usually demanded second gear, in which I let the engine rev as high as I needed to go fast. Glancing down, I found the tach needle around 7500rpm and climbing, more than 1000rpm above the limit. The short-stroke four revelled in it, though, even touching 8000rpm a few times with no signs of stress or shortness of breath. Noise came from various directions: wind hissing around the window frames; a resonant booming in the body at 85mph; a gentle but persistent whir emerging from the engine bay.

Tossing a rooster tail of spray down the autostrada on the way to the Targa circuit, the X1/9 felt light yet stable and well damped. The feel of the little 1290cc four was crisp and smooth, like a BMW four. Turning off the autostrada, I cranked on more lock than I thought the Michelin X tyres could handle to see what would happen. The rear end popped out of line with a sudden swerve. As I got to know the Fiat, I found that the rear would slide out at low speed under full power on wet tarmac, but was easily caught by a quick counter-turn of the wheel.

It was great fun, thanks to its negative-camber rear suspension at the limit. But on switchbacks on the Targa circuit I had to leave an extra margin because the X1/9 didn’t always telegraph its moves. It would drift with all four wheels together, or plough on a bit, or slide its tail. Braking was beautiful: smooth, progressive, powerful and fade-free, with a slight tendency towards rear-wheel lock-up in the wet. Steering that felt heavy at first was progressive and predictable when pushed hard.

High up on the circuit, I travelled three miles of dry road three times to push the X1/9 as hard as possible through turns on public roads. She behaved impeccably. I could steer with absolute accuracy, like a little race car, through the meanest corners: neutral, predictable and amazingly agile, without being skittish. A price was paid in the ride: firm and lively on shorttravel springs. It pitched a lot, as mid-engined cars tend to do, but didn’t trouble the occupants because they were at the centre of gravity where motion is least. The bucket seats weren’t adjustable for angle but legroom was generous, if narrow. Returning to Palermo’s grand Hotel Igeia at dusk, a reassuring glow from the handsome dials projected information. Lifted into position by electric motors, the headlamps fanned a steady beam.

I managed to find some faults. The sun visors didn’t completely fold out of the way; the seat adjuster buttons were fingernail-busters; fresh-air ventilation wasn’t powerful; the dash wasn’t very legible in daylight; and the front spoiler didn’t look great (wind-tunnel tests found it essential for high-speed stability).

At the time I wrote: “There’s nothing on the market near its price that’s as enjoyable and as able as the X1/9. It is an engineering, styling and marketing coup of the first magnitude.” Buyers thought so, too, happily snapping it up at up to 20,000 annually.

The package became even more appealing in 1979 with the introduction of the longer-stroke 1498cc four, covered by a bulkier lid, and a five-speed transmission. This model, the X1/9 1500, also had an upgraded interior and gauge package.

This gave it the performance that its chassis deserved. With 85hp at 6000rpm, acceleration to 62mph was 11.7 seconds and top speed was up slightly to 112mph. However, it was so noisy that you may as well have switched off the radio when going fast. In 1978-1979, I was executive vice president at Fiat Motors of North America, during which time I had an X1/9 as a company car as often as possible. The roads on my commute were unchallenging except for the right-hand bend where the Cross County Parkway met the Hutchinson River Parkway going south. I attacked that like Ascari in his Ferrari at Monza’s Lesmo complex.

The second energy crisis of 1979 foreshadowed the end of Fiat’s road for the X1/9, as sales of sports cars were hard hit. Fiat relinquished responsibility for the model in 1982, by which time it had made 140,519 of these wonderful cars. Bertone took over, putting on its own badge and doing final assembly at its own plant. Finally in 1989, the plucky career of this unique model came to an end. That it had solved a difficult engineering problem with great style was shown by the paucity of competition from other manufacturers. Toyota accepted the challenge with its MR2, while MG Rover finally produced a modern MG in the F model that was closer to an X1/9 equivalent.

The X1/9 was certainly not without its faults: it was as prone to rust as other Bertone-built cars and its belt-driven cam could produce unpleasant surprises. But on a twisty road on a summer’s day, the X1/9 delivered the sensation of a racing car on the road, charming and responsive. And it looked like you were driving an exotic Italian concept car— which, in a way, you were.

TOP LEFT: X1/9 cutaway bears witness to the shrewd allocation of space engineered in by Puleo’s team. There was ample room for luggage

MIDDLE LEFT: Bedecked with US-market bumpers, an X1/9 poses with the model it succeeded, the Fiat 850 Spider – also designed and manufactured by Bertone

BOTTOM LEFT: External suppliers sent panels to Bertone’s Grugliasco factory to be assembled into bodies, then painted and equipped with running gear

ABOVE: Images from the X1/9 launch on the Targa Florio course in 1972 and at Palermo’s Hotel Igeia.

RIGHT: Bertone badges replaced Fiat ones on later X1/9s. Cornering is agile but requires acquaintance

TOP: Pictured next to the Autobianchi Runabout, the Fiat X1/9 could not bely its inspiration. Bertone and Gandini succeeded with a superb design

ABOVE & BELOW: The Runabout concept used the transverse engine/gearbox introduced in the Autobianchi Primula in 1964, placed behind the seats

“ The engineers’ aim was to make the driver king of the car and not the car king of the driver ”

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS X1/9 1300 X1/9 1500

  • ENGINE: 1290cc OHC 4-cyl / 1498cc OHC 4-cyl
  • MAX POWER: 75hp at 6000rpm / 86hp at 6000rpm
  • MAX TORQUE: 72lb ft at 3400rpm / 87lb ft at 3200rpm
  • TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual / 5-speed manual
  • WEIGHT: 913kg 920kg
  • 0-62MPH: 12.2sec 11.7sec
  • MAX SPEED: 99mph 112mph
  • LIVING WITH THE X1/9

X1/9 ownership isn’t as difficult as you may be led to believe but there are a few things you need to bear in mind. Firstly, don’t own one if you’re an introvert. Passersby will always notice it, especially when the roof comes off, even if they sometimes confuse it with a Triumph TR7.

Once you get over that hurdle, the following won’t surprise anyone. The X1/9 has an ability to rust just about everywhere. But even though they remain cheap in the classic Fiat line-up, the chances of finding a car packed with filler are now slim: the remaining examples are mostly cherished or in need of only a little TLC.

I’ve found no problems with mechanical parts. There is a good network of parts in the UK, with Eurosport UK (www.eurosportuk. net) being my first port of call when I need something. When it comes to working on the X1/9, get yourself into the mindset that this is an exotic car: that will help you overcome its strange layout that certainly wasn’t designed for ease of maintenance.

Living with the X1/9 as a casual runner is surprisingly easy. At 6ft 1in tall, I find no difficulty in getting in and out, or getting comfortable behind the wheel. The cabin is snug but there is plenty of space to move around, more so with the roof off. I can never understand owners who keep the top on, even on short drives.

And driving is what the X1/9 is all about. Despite its sports car credentials, the suspension has quite a long travel and most road surfaces are absorbed well. My 1500 with its five-speed gearbox also helps make it a far more relaxed cruiser than road testers of the day had you believe. And don’t be fooled by that ‘mere’ 86hp engine output. It’s quite enough for the car, and certainly enough to make you concentrate when driving. That’s because the 165-section tyres can catch out the unwary very quickly. The biggest hurdle I’ve had with the X1/9 is tyre pressures. Once you feel at one with the X1/9 and you’ve learnt its ways, you’ll need no tyre sensors to be able to feel whether they’re right or not. The car communicates fluidly to you as a driver – a true reward for sheer motoring joy.

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