Car Stories: The EXcellent X1/9
Car companies are not generally noted, these days, for breaking the mould. When they launch new models they tend to be an obvious visual and engineering evolution of the old model.
Not so Fiat and the ground-breaking X1/9. There have been other cheap mid-engined convertibles but none, not even the MGF or original Toyota MR2 (which was heavily based on the X1/9), have delivered quite the full force sucker-punch to expectations as the X1/9.
Here's the story of the X1/9 and the history of our own Fiat X1/9 hire car.
First, Some History
In the late 1960s famed Italian design house Bertone had one eye on the design boards and another on the bottom line. Because alongside penning achingly beautiful cars like the Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari 250 GT, the firm also manufactured low volume, often humdrum models like the Fiat 850 Spider.
This twin-track approach meant that Bertone often created design prototypes with one eye on potentially building them too. One such proposal was the Autobianchi A112 Runabout of 1969, designed by Marcello Gandini who had also created the stunning Lancia Stratos and the achingly beautiful Miura. Borrowing heavily from contemporary speedboat design, the Runabout was based on the small Autobianchi A112, a car that just happened to be similar in size to the Fiat 850, on which the 850 Spider manufactured by Bertone for Fiat was based.
Fiat took the bait and, with Gandini's help, evolved the Runabout into the X1/9 using the transmission and running gear from the Fiat 128 saloon. Unlike the 128 the new car was mid-engined and rear wheel drive, with a clever removable roof to create a simple convertible design. The roof could be stowed under the bonnet without restricting luggage space. Pop up headlights and a 1.3 litre engine, also borrowed from the 128 and designed by a former Ferrari engineer, completed the package.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a company that later called one of its cars Strada - Italian for 'Road' - when it came to naming the new car, Fiat didn't waste too much time. In the early 70s its passenger car prototypes were coded X1 - the number nine simply indicates this was the ninth car developed under this programme. The X1/9 it became and it was launched at the Turin Motor Show in late 1972.
In line with Bertone's masterplan, X1/9 bodies were made at the firm's factory in Turin and then transported to Fiat's factory in Lingotto for final assembly. The press loved it and so did car buyers - it was cheap, great fun and surprisingly practical, with a small boot at the back - ideal for golf clubs - and a bigger space at the front. With its 'mini Ferrari' mid-engined layout and excellent weight distribution the X1/9 was an absolute hoot to drive. That the fun began at realistic speeds only made the little car more engaging.
The car proved particularly popular in the USA, where its clever design easily met crash regulations that scuppered the success of full convertibles. Over 100,000 of the 160,000 X1/9s built went to America.
Like MG with the B, Fiat kept the X1/9 in production long beyond its natural life - the final 'Gran Finale' versions were sold in 1989. But unlike the British firm, Fiat continued to develop the little car: it gained a 1,500cc engine with a full 85 bhp on tap and Federalised 'big bumpers' to meet changing legislation. In the car's final years Bertone took over full production and, although these cars were sold through Fiat dealerships, they only carry Bertone badging.
The X1/9 was brilliantly packaged, enormous fun to drive and cheap to run - thanks to all those Fiat bits - but the little car did have one very big problem: rust. Actually, two problems: the reliability wasn't all that great either. Just like every other Italian car of the era, X1/9s got rotten very, very quickly. They didn't just rust in obvious places, like the wings and wheel arches, they did it in the places you couldn't see like the sills and the central channel under the car that held the cooling pipes. If you could live with the rapid disintegration then the dodgy electrics, poor cooling system and fragile switchgear also conspired to test the nerve of even the most enthusiastic 9er.
Today there are very few original 'small bumper' X1/9s left and not that many later 'big bumper' cars. Until recently values have also been surprisingly low, mainly due to their reputation for rust and general Fiatness. But that is beginning to change because surviving cars have mostly been restored, rustproofed and improved, and because classic car enthusiasts are cottoning on to the car's unique abilities. Why pay £10,000 for a MGB when you can have more fun and £5,000 left in your pocket with a X1/9?
Our Fiat X1/9
A Fiat X1/9 is an obvious and yet also not very obvious choice for a classic car hire fleet. Obvious, because it is an Italian convertible that is hoot to drive. Less obvious because they've all but disappeared from our roads and they don't score highly on any scale involving the word 'reliable.'
And yet we have one. Back in 2020 I was looking for cars to expand our range of classic convertibles. A MGB was an obvious choice, but they've become expensive and, as sports cars go, they leave quite a lot to be desired. MG Midgets and Triumph Spitfires are too small and uncomfortable and the TR7 still carries too much baggage. So I looked to Italy and quickly alighted on the Fiat X1/9, a car that was very nearly my first introduction to classics (I bought an Alfasud instead).
Finding a car was less trouble than I had imagined. When adding new cars to the fleet I prefer to buy classics that need work: experience indicates that even show queens initially prove unreliable as hire cars because they have generally covered so few miles with the previous owners. Buying cars that need work avoids the price premium.
The X1/9 I bought came with no history and had been off the road for a while. The vendor - a car dealer - didn't know what he had or how to fix it so sold it as quickly and as cheaply as he could afford. During lockdown before the start of our 2021 season we concentrated on making the car reliable, including a new clutch, new cambelt, full service and new radiator pipes. Since then the car has proved reliable - and very popular. Although some customers don't quite get the car, the majority do: they love its go-kart steering and handling and its swarm of angry bees buzzing away behind your ears. This is a classic car hire unlike any other on our fleet. Which is why it is there.
During the winter 2021/22 we plan to get the car resprayed - the car is solid but has some paint damage in places - and working out how to retrim the notoriously fiddly Alcantara seats.
You can hire the Fiat X1/9 by the hour, day or weekend or as part of our multi-car Road Trips. To find out more call 01527 893733, email email@example.com or visit www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 0157 893733