Road test; Fiat X1/9

Soldiering on • •

After 17 years, everybody’s favourite Fiat is being phased out. The last X1/9s have rolled off the Bertone lines, and about 300 are on their way to this country to satisfy a demand which has tapered off over the years but never quite disappeared.

In fact, last year Fiat UK sold 900 X1/9s, more than it did in 1987, helping towards a grand total over the years of around 180,000 examples of the pretty targa-top which brought mid-engined motoring to a mass market.

The car’s announcement was in November 1972, making it a year older than that other long-running Bertone midengined sports-car, the Lamborghini Countach. But while the Countach has continued to be the sales leader of the Bolognese marque, rolling out of the Sant’ Agnes factory faster than ever before, the attractive little Fiat faced a serious decline in demand in the early Eighties. There were a number of reasons for this fall-off; there had been only one updating of the car, but that would have been less important had the power unit matured further. As it was, the car had seen one major advance with the change from the original 1300cc engine to a 1500cc version some six years into production, but continued to be available only as an unsophisticated single cam with a lowly 85 bhp, while other Fiat and Lancia products were boasting much higher specifications.

More damaging for Fiat as a whole was the serious rust scare which burst the company’s sales bubble at this time, and as sales of all models slid rapidly down, both the sports models, X1/9 and Fiat 124 Spyder, suddenly became fringe products, eating up production space without generating much return.

Fiat’s solution was neat and rapid: the shells of both of these sport-cars were built by their respective designers, Bertone and Pininfarina, before being transported to Fiat’s plant at Mirafiori for assembly. During 1981 Fiat smartly shifted the complete assembly job over to the two coachbuilders, starting with the ailing American versions, and both cars lost their Fiat badges, becoming instead the Pininfarina 124 Spyder and the Bertone X1/9.

X1/9 production stabilised at a lower level of around 30 complete cars per day compared to the one-time peak of 100 shells a day, and Bertone also took over the marketing. After this, demand settled to a limited but steady level which has carried the wedge-shaped machine well beyond what would have been its natural life as a purely Fiat product.

Rumours of its death have been frequent over the years, but the versions currently on offer through Fiat UK are definitely the final ones. You can have it penny plain or twopence coloured: £8926 buys the ordinary model in one body colour, while spending £10,124 brings one of two metallic paint finishes, different alloy wheels, fancy interior trim, and a small spoiler — the first body add-on in the X1/9’s history, apart from the arrival of the Federal 5 mph bumpers with the 1500cc model in 1978. This sort of special edition is the norm for the run-out of a long-standing model, but the cheaper version (stocks are dwindling fast) is extraordinary value for money even for a twilight car. Forget the unsophisticated engine, the very ordinary acceleration figures, and roadholding which a good hatchback can see off — the X1/9 has other charms. Even now it is a handsome machine, and its clever detachable roof offers a practical choice for a wet climate. Mechanically, the car is reliable and robust, with its well-proven parts from more mundane family cars, it is comfortable, and it is economical.

Against these fun aspects must be placed the dated feel of the mechanics, showing an almost complete lack of development since the 1500cc engine was inserted — a surprising history for a car which arrived in the showrooms almost exactly as it left the drawing board. Given this, it is a tribute to the original car that it is still often compared to the sophisticated Toyota MR2, two generations younger.

All mid-engined cars are sensitive to side-winds, but the Fiat’s light weight and rather stodgy steering make it a wandery motorway car in gusty conditions. Running over cats-eyes produces sharp thumps which feel heavily damped by the time they reach the driver’s hands, and the rack ratio is slow, needing large movements in rapid manoeuvres.

A pair of MacPherson struts is crammed under the low nose, with lateral forces going into a slightly-leading transverse link while braking forces are resisted by a long tubular trailing link. Behind, the Fiat 128 strut and hub is used, but located beneath by a very wide-based fabricated wishbone.

Unusually, the X1/9 is not equipped with anti-roll bars at either end. While these do help to control roll angles, they are often used more as a means of trimming a car’s handling behaviour because of the pronounced effect they can have on the side-to-side weight transference either at the front, the rear, or both. Their absence here indicates a desirable basic balance in the handling which makes this a pleasant machine which merits the term “sports-car. for its responsive cornering attitude rather than for any high adhesion levels. It comes on 165/70 SR13 tyres which look meagre by the standards even of today’s family cars, and would probably fall short of the g-forces a Cavalier can generate. Yet to my mind predictability counts for more than grip when it comes to confident cornering.

In this low car roll is not a problem, despite the heavy detachable roof panel; in fact the feel of the chassis improves as the body tilts away from the corner: with the first wheel movement the front is slow to answer, but into the curve the car settles down at the back and the front seems to bite. By the time the throttle is wide open on the exit the inside front wheel feels as if it is doing very little, not quite lifting just before the car flattens out leaving the bend.

In other words, the harder you drive it the better it is. The understeer and steering stodginess which show up in relaxed driving disappear when pressing on over an interesting piece of road with the engine echoing loudly through the thin bulkhead. Much of this rather coarse sound battles through to the cabin despite being separated from it by the fuel tank (behind the passenger) and the spare wheel, which sits upright behind the driver, a unique and very practical position.

This is not a quiet car at any time; with the roof on the engine is plainly audible, and without it the wind noise is pronounced, though, oddly, the racket seems to diminish if the electric windows are open. Very little air disturbs the roofless cell which makes cold weather travel pleasant. Excellent ventilation grilles help the climate inside, and good legroom (for those of average height at least) plus a well-placed wheel make it a relaxing car to sit in.

Designed at a time when legislation looked like stifling open cars, the targatop principle was well-suited to the midengined layout, with a solid rollbar to give rigidity to the shell with its deep sills and central service tunnel. The structure feels stiff and strong, and though the side pillars obscure some of the view, the fixed glass rear window is a bonus for an open-top.

Fiat/Lancia sometimes produces some very fine fascia designs, and though the X1/9 has not had a major internal revision for over ten years the layout still looks crisp. As always some of the minor dials are obscured by the hands, but the legible main instruments carry on an Italian tradition with an anti-clockwise rev-counter. Two things have changed: a comfortable leatherclad Momo wheel replaces the very Seventies Lancia Stratos-style one, and the nasty paddle-shaped gearlever has thankfully been supplanted by a plain leather knob. This is as well, since the gearchange is particularly bad. This was a low mileage Press car, but it is hard to believe that this clonking, stiff and stubborn mechanism would ever improve. First was difficult to engage from standstill, and third sometimes completely elusive. Even fourth was hard to find at times.

Even worse was the throttle, apparently lubricated with Araldite if anything at all: so sticky from closed that it literally needed a kick to get the car moving. This was another reason to keep driving the car hard, which it seems to like, being Italian. A heavy but nicely sharp clutch pedal also thrives on firm use. Other aspects of the assembly were perfectly good: the doors and covers all shut properly, and the delicate pink/blue check trim was neatly applied.

There can be few production cars available today which have no brake servo. Fiat decided there was no need for one on the X1/9, and after the fiasco over the braking on the Lancia Beta Montecarlo, must have breathed sighs of relief. Mid-engined cars are always at some risk of locking the lightly loaded front end, and the Montecarlo’s front only brake-booster gave it a premature enthusiasm for this which almost killed the car. In the X1/9 the unassisted pedal operates on four small 8.9in plain discs and does not feel heavy at all, but the brakes do fade appreciably with surprisingly short bursts of speed, needing some babying to restore them to health.

Bertone’s layout for this car was exceptionally efficient for its time, and has not really been improved on for a mid-engined car today. It must be said that, for a small sports-car, a front-engined vehicle designed with modern technology can in practice equal the theoretical handling abilities of the central plan, without the packaging compromises and on-the-limit severity; examples are the BMW Z1 or forthcoming FWD Lotus Elan. Nevertheless the Fiat has one flaw in its practicality (which it shares with several conventional cars, the Z1 amongst them), that is the complete lack of inside stowage. A healthy stack of soft bags will fit in the tail boot, and the front cover will swallow an assortment of coats and wellingtons as well as the roof panel. But in the cabin there is only a tiny glovebox, and with two up the everyday clutter of atlases, sunglasses and briefcase has to be decanted into the boot.

A normal lever under the passenger’s side of the dash releases the front cover when it is time to put the roof away. This requires practice and effort, for the panel is large and heavy; the two screenrail catches undo easily enough, but there is a knack to tipping up the vinyl-covered slab, lifting it over the windscreen, turning it through 90deg. and easing it into exactly the right position in the nose without falling in after it. Once settled on its rubber mounts a rubber toggle holds it in place, leaving luggage space below it, though difficult to get to.

Engine access is fairly limited through the lift-up cover behind the cabin, released like the boot by a lockable catch set into the left-hand door opening. Under it is the 1498cc transverse four borrowed many years ago from the Fiat 128.

It has always seemed a shame that the X1/9 retained this thrashy single-cam engine when very similar twin-cam engines of much greater power were fitted to other Fiats and Lancias, but the investment to modify the installation no doubt exceeded the probable returns on this relatively small production machine. In addition the X1/9 was planned to run alongside the Lancia Beta Montecarlo, which did use the Fiat/ Lancia twin-cam, and there was a clear marketing distinction to be made between them. As it is, the motive power feels very old-fashioned now, slow to start on its autochoke downdraught twin-barrel carburetter, and buzzing from its uneven idle to a raucous maximum of 6500 rpm, 500 over the best power rating of 85 bhp. Pulling its highest torque at 3200 rpm means that it has a healthy band over which it performs at its best, and the 0-60 time is around 11 seconds. Gear spacings are not close, but neither are they critical, the level of torque allowing a choice of gears for most hazards.

Given that the X1/9 has soldiered on unaltered for such a long time, mainly as a result of customer demand rather than long-term planning on the part of Fiat or Bertone, it is only fair to revel in the fun aspects of the little machine rather than make direct comparisons with today’s sports-cars, and on those grounds the final 300 UK buyers will certainly enjoy their X1/9s. GC

Maker: Bertone, Italy.
Importer: Fiat UK Ltd, Uxbridge.
Type: Two-seat mid-engined sports.
Engine: Transverse four in line, 1498cc (86.4mm x 63.9mm), sohc, two valves per cylinder, alloy head, 9.2:1cr. Weber downdraught twin-choke carburetor. Power: 85 bhp at 6000 rpm. Torque: 87 lb ft at 3200 rpm.
Transmission: RWD, five-speed, single-plate clutch.
Suspension: (Front): MacPherson strut, transverse plus trailing link. (Rear): MacPherson strut, wide-based lower wishbone.
Steering>/strong>: Rack and pinion.
Brakes: (front and rear): plain discs, no servo.
Wheels and tyres: 165/70 SR13 tyres on 13in alloy rims.
Performance: 0-60 mph: 11 sec, Maximum speed: 106 mph.
Price: £8926.