Radbourne's Fiat X1-9: A Thoroughly Modern Sports Car

Sports cars were never really intended for the masses, but the bigger manufacturers have to think in terms of attracting the maximum number of customers if they are to hold the price of their two-seater to a reasonable level. This attitude means that you may find components from other, more mundane, motor cars on the sleek marvel which is your current passion. At least you should be compensated by the extra performance and handling abilities proferred in the same package. Cheap and cheerful sports cars are increasingly rare today, and those that fit into the genre are often aged asthmatics, wheezing along on their emission exhausts. They do little for those who want a two-seater that will genuinely cover the ground, preferably twisty, bumpy, and narrow terrain, much faster than those saloon car cousins. Over 50,000 people think they have found the answer to this blueprint for a modern sports two-seater, and so they have purchased a 1.3-litre, mid-engined Fiat X1-9.

"The tragedy,", says British Fiat X1-9 expert John Anstead of Radbourne Racing, "is that this car should have been an MG. There is nothing magical about it, the X1-9 is merely a sensibly designed assembly of parts from the Fiat range, housed in a very appealing body: an exercise Leyland could have duplicated within their massive range."

Perhaps Leyland make more money from selling the 1500 Midget and Spitfire to Americans? However, Radbourne Racing have meantime found a niche within the UK to assess the market for Fiat in the X1-9, which the British arm of Fiat have said they may well enter next year.

The Ansteads, John and Geoffrey, have dealt with all kinds of high performance Fiat derivatives since they retired from enlivening the British club racing scene with the exciting handling of the rear-engined baby Fiats. The trouble is that Mr. Fiat keeps coming along and marketing right in the specialist area, and the X1-9 is no exception. However, Radbourne's answer is under preparation now: a 1.6-litre X1-9. Such a version of the X1-9 may even interest some of those who intend to buy the Lancia Monte Carlo, the latter always intended to be the X1-9's bigger brother anyway.

At present Radbourne offer the normal X1-9 in the I.h.d. form at £3,350. A careful r.h.d. conversion (inspected and approved by the DOE people) adds £350 and the Cromodora wheels are £120 for four. The car we tried had that r.h.d. conversion, though you should allow a little more money to cover the Dunlop 1770s which so effectively adorned the 5 1/2 in. by 13 in. Cromodoras on our car.

We have described the X1-9 in l.h.d. form, so suffice it to say here that the transverse mid-engine is the 75 b.h.p.., 1,290 c.c. s.o.h.c. four-cylinder, in the same trim as used in the 128 Coupe/3P. Compression ratio is 8.9 to 1 and the oversquare (86 by 55.5 mm.) unit lives on vigorous use within the orange band from 6,500-6,900 r.p.m.; or the alloy-headed engine will provide saloon car docility with little evidence of torque.

The gearbox is only a four-speed unit at present, top acting as an overdrive on the latest models. The ratios are just begging for some closer ratio intermediates to be inserted to complete a good five-speed layout. Independent strut-type suspension, four-wheel disc braking, and rack and pinion steering are expected and provided, ensuring that this baby Fiat can be used hard in considerable comfort and safety. There are a number of neat features to the Bertone body that we appreciated in our week with the car and these are worth recalling front a potential owner's viewpoint.

The spare wheel is cleverly hidden behind the right-hand seat, while the windscreen washer bottle and fuses are beneath a little lift-out panel under the "bonnet". Most important of all is the neat glassfibre removable roof panel, and a useful quota of luggage spaces, including a rear boot and the shallow under-bonnet area at the front.

Radbourne's labours are only visible by the glassfibre, matt black cowl over the I.h.d. portion of the dash that normally houses the steering, and a neat battery cover in the front luggage bay/front bulkhead area. The instrumentation, which is standard and badly affected by reflection on the single viewing pane, is transplanted from left to right with no bother at all. To cater for Geoff Anstead's whims the electrics had been doctored so that sidelights could be used without raising the electric motor-activated headlamps. Aside from these small signs there is little to indicate that the drive has changed sides. In fact the Ansteads arc having a change of supplier for the dashboard masking cowls to ensure a neater fit within the car, and we are assured that they will be able to easily match the high standard of the similarly constructed battery cover.

Lef tor right-hand drive, all that really matters about the X1-9 is that it is a genuine enthusiast's car, which happens to appeal to a very broad section of the population. This is because of its practical capabilities, operating costs (not first cost, which is likely to be above £3,000 even when Fiat bring it in) and Bertone styling.

The handling is astonishing. Even when we had a puncture and a narrow Pirelli had to be fitted to one steel wheel at the front, the X1-9 would still hustle around our test curves as well as better-known sporting saloons or coupes. With all four tyres inflated there hardly ever seems to be a reason to slow, and when you do have to brake the system copes so well that you wonder each time why you braked so hard. In emergency situations this must be a car with one of the highest primary safety factors in the world, for its modest dimensions can be jinked between solid objects at a speed that is genuinely astonishing. The brakes are well balanced to prevent lock-up in all hut the severest applications on mixed surfaces.

Using such performance as there is, and we would estimate the 105 m.p.h. top speed claim and 0-60 m.p.h. in 12 seconds or less to be very close to the truth, the noise level of the engine is considerable. Compared to a smaller British sports car it is reasonable (though the TR7 is quieter) but some of the saloon-car-orientated customers may flinch a little. Our car was spoiled by wind noise from the passenger door sealing rubber, and a door lock that jammed. Radbourne are also to offer, at what seems a very reasonable £40 charge to me, a tinted and laminated screen to replace the ridiculous toughened zone production one: at this ride height, flying stones are a way of life. The seat backs are also fixed, which seems shoddy and unnecessary in a car that's hardly cheap, even in Italy.

Compensations, apart from the marvellous handling, include that quickly detachable roof, economy that's hard to push below 30 m.p.g., and the enjoyment of owning something different, which is still a very practical, and enjoyable mode of transport.

More details of this ingenious Italian motor car can be had from Radbourne Racing Ltd., 1a Clarendon Road, Holland Park Avenue, London W11.— J.W.