Fiat X1/9 Review: Budget classic

By: David Morley, Photography by: Wheels archives

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Influential and offering a great driving experience, the X1/9 is finally being taken seriously...

Fiat X1/9 Review: Budget classic
Fiat X1/9

 

Fiat X1/9

You whippersnappers might find this hard to believe, but way back when ecstasy was a good thing and sportsmen still had day jobs, mid-engined cars were wonderfully, fabulously exotic. Only true supercars and racing cars sported the engine between the driver and the rear axle, and the rest of us could only dream about such a layout.

And then along came the Fiat X1/9. Not that the Fiat cheapened the mid-engined design, but it did bring it within the reach of, if not the masses, at least some of us who didn’t drive race cars or sell drugs for a living.

The X1/9 also opened the way for things like the Toyota MR2 (yes, a mid-engined Toyota). But here’s the difference now: While the MR2 is certainly admired by some sections of the car-buying community, the Fiat X1/9 is actually still seen as the real deal. By the time it reached its final Bertone incarnation (which we’ll get to) it was a bona fide performance car and actually drove circles around the MR2. And since the X1/9 is still affordable and around in decent numbers, it’s a cinch to be included in our ongoing list of affordable classics.

Like a lot of truly great designs, the Fiat X1/9 was around for a long time; more than a decade (albeit with a five-year gap in the middle in this country as Fiat changed importers and government rules and regulations altered).

First seen here in 1978 (but in other markets since 1972), the original X1/9 was your typical wedge-shaped sports car that looked like it had simply been built in three-quarter scale. Yep, it was tiny and the thing had some awkward angles (mostly involving the plastic bumpers and such) but overall, it was instantly recognisable as something pretty special. And if you squinted, you could see a bit of Lancia Stratos in it, too.

It was also pretty pricey and, at $9637, it was almost half as much again as the just-released VB Commodore in base-model form (around $6500).

So, even back then, it was regarded as a bit of a toy for people with too much money. That was only backed up when you looked at the mechanical specification. With just 1.3 litres of displacement and a single overhead camshaft, the X1/9 had to battle on with just 56kW. But even worse was the fact that it had just a four-speed manual bolted to the end of the transversely-mounted engine.

But what none of its critics knew was that the X1/9 was – thanks to its mid-engined layout – a very pure driving experience. Forget the meagre power output and the lack of an overdrive, because the Fiat was fun; pure and simple. The little engine loved a rev (which was lucky because there wasn’t a lot going on down low) and it made the right noises and remained willing right up until the last rpm. The gearbox was light and nice to use and the whole engine/gearbox/ suspension in the rear of the X1/9 was actually the front end of the Fiat 128.

But man, was that cabin tight.

The fuel tank was mounted ahead of the engine unit on the driver’s side and the spare wheel occupied the same space behind the passenger’s chair. Until it came to right-hand-drive production, that was (in 1976) when the driver suddenly had the spare tyre limiting how far back the seat could go on its runners. Luggage space was limited to a small compartment under the ‘bonnet’ and a second small space under a lid behind the engine. But better news came in the form of a removable targa roof section which could be stored on board and gave the Fiat a whole new party trick (not to mention making the cabin vastly less cramped).

Originally, the bodies for the X1/9 were built by Bertone in Turin and then transported to Fiat’s production plant at the nearby Lingotto plant (the one with the test track on the roof) for assembly.

The 1.3-litre, Fiat-assembled cars sold here until 1983. At that point in the model’s history, Fiat lost interest and handed the whole project to Bertone who now performed the entire build and assembly job.

Again, right-hand-drive versions weren’t the priority and the Fiat brand in Australia was making like a game of pass-the-parcel so it wasn’t until 1988 that the Bertone-badged cars made it back into local showrooms.

But when they did, there was good news. The move to Bertone assembly took place just after the X1/9’s major facelift, bringing with it a 1500cc engine (still SOHC) and the five-speed gearbox the thing should have had from the start.


OTHER CONTENDERS

Toyota's original MR2 is the logical competitor to the X1/9. They did overlap in the sales race for a few years, but by then, the Fiat was the superior Bertoneassembled version.

On paper, the Toyota had things sewn up. With DOHC, a slick gearbox and the promise of Tojo reliability, the Bertone looked distinctly second-best. But on the road, it was a different story, and where the Toyota would oversteer on a trailing throttle, the Fiat was actually the tidier handler with more inherent balance. And while the MR2 needed a pretty big rev to deliver, the meat of the Fiat’s urge seemed to be available more of the time.

The other alternative that falls into the affordable, mid-engined category is the Porsche 914. Although it wasn’t officially imported here, a few have been privately imported over the years and Unique Cars often features one or two in its classifieds. Some were imported as factory right-hand drive cars, others have been converted. Frankly, we’d take a left-hook version without hesitation.

Power for the 914 came from either a 1.7- or 2.0-litre version of the Volkswagen Type 4 air-cooled engine (as used in the later Kombis). It’s a tough unit, but again, nothing will survive forever, so check it out carefully.

Engine oil leaks are a big problem and make sure it starts and runs smoothly or you could be looking at synchronisation problems between the two carburettors. The five-speed gearbox can feel a bit loose and slow, but it shouldn’t graunch during upshifts.

The only other problem with the 914 is that its looks are pretty polarising. Some like it, others reckon they can’t tell whether it’s coming or going.

The engine still made the same 56kW (officially) but torque took a major hike to now peak at 109Nm (versus the piddly 97Nm of the 1.3). Okay, so it doesn’t sound much, but in reality, the step up was a big one. The cabin was still tight for anybody bigger than an Italian jockey and there was still crazy stuff to contend with like the mad-woman’s-breakfast ergonomics that included a tacho that swung anti-clockwise as revs rose.

But all the important stuff remained, too, like the tactile steering and precise gearbox and the balance and poise that only mid-engined stuff can deliver. And here’s the other acid-test: Would you still make room in the shed for the first Toyota MR2? Some would, others, er, nope. But the X1/9? Oh yeah. You know it makes sense.

So, you’re now convinced that an X1/9 has a place in your life; what do you look for? If you said ‘rust’ go straight to the top of the class. Like anything old and Italian, rot can be a big problem. X1/9s tend to develop cancer around the edges of the doors and bootlids and around the front windscreen. But really, just about any metallic part of an X1/9 can be a target for the rust critters, and it’s important to also check the floorpans, sills and the inner panels of the engine bay and firewalls.

Mechanically, there’s not so much to worry about and the little engines are tough and simple. That said, nothing lasts forever and any X1/9 – even a late one – is a fair chance to have been to Mars and back. Engines will get smoky before they die and check for crunchy gearshifts particularly between first and second as those Italian-spec synchro rings get to pension-age.

Make sure you take it for a good drive at freeway speeds, too. A good X1/9 will still feel tight and have a decent side-step; a worn out one will feel loose and rattly and won’t encourage you at all. And don’t be too put off by a modified example. Plenty of people managed to fit DOHC engines from bigger Fiats and while these may require a degree of co-operation form the rego authorities,
in just about every case, they’ll make for a better car. Just check with your insurance company first.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Fiat/Bertone  X1/9

Years of production: 1972- 1989
No. produced: 140,500 (Fiat), 19,500 (Bertone)
Body: 2-door coupe
Engine: 1290cc or 1498cc 4cyl, SOHC, 8v
Power: 56kW (1.3)/ 56kW (1.5)
Torque: 97Nm (1.3)/ 109Nm (1.5)
Gearbox: 4-speed or 5-speed manual
Suspension: MacPherson strut (f/r)
Brakes: Discs (f/r)
Price new: $9637
Price now: $3500 - $12,000


*****

 

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