Fiat X1/9: First Drive of Our New Addition
The Fiat X1/9 is one of those cars that seems to have perennially lurked on the edge of the classic car scene - once common, now rare, beloved of many but with a frightening reputation for rust and unreliability. It's a car that is often overlooked, which is a shame as it offers a genuinely unique experience for drivers.
All of which may explain why Great Driving Days has put one on its fleet and also why we're the first classic car hire company to have one. The new addition is one of the last X1/9s built, a 'Gran Finale' produced by Bertone in 1989 and fitted with the later 1500cc Fiat engine. For the last few weeks it's been in our workshops being prepared for the restart of our hire season at the start of July.
To celebrate its return to the road, we took it on a test drive, combining some of the best Worcestershire roads that we use on our classic car driving experiences.
First, Some History
The diminutive Fiat was originally developed in the late 1960s for Fiat by Bertone, with the project overseen by Marcello Gandini, who designed the Lamborghini Countach and Miura. The styling was influenced by power boat design and intended to inject some showroom verve into Fiat's line up with a small, inexpensive sports car to sit below the established 124 convertible.
The car was launched in 1972, retaining its prototype code name, X1/9 for the production model. Although designed to be inexpensive, the new car featured many innovations beyond the distinctive styling, in particular the mid-engine layout and a 1300cc engine developed by ex-Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi. The engine layout was more commonly associated with exotica like the Ferrari 308 GT4 and Lancia Stratos rather than a small, volume production car like the X1/9. In fact, the little Fiat shares more than just a layout with these cars - all three cars use the same door handles and the Stratos has the same headlight pop-up mechanism.
The X1/9 was warmly received when it was launched, proving popular in Europe as well as Fiat's target market of the USA. It filled a niche, for many years ably met by British manufacturers, for an inexpensive, small two seater sports car. That the X1/9, unlike many of its rivals, was also really good to drive also meant it won many admirers.
Production of the X1/9 was split between Bertone, which manufactured the bodyshells, and Fiat, which assembled the cars. In 1982 production fully transferred to Bertone, and these later cars are badged as Bertone.
The X1/9 was significantly revamped in 1979, gaining larger 'Federalised' bumpers and the larger 1500cc engine. Some prefer the earlier cars, but these are now extremely rare.
Rust & Reliability
Despite its 'mini Ferrari' looks and layout and superlative driving experience, the X1/9 has languished in the classic car doldrums for two simple reasons - rust and reliability. Like all Italian cars of its era, it wasn't built particularly well and preferred warm southern climes to wet northern winters.
On top of its propensity to rust was its tendency to break down. The mid-engined layout looked great on paper but caused overheating problems that made X1/9s notoriously unreliable. Although later cars cured many of these problems, the car's reputation from its early years was well deserved and these improvements failed to shake it off.
Driving A X1/9
Diminutive is the word that immediately springs to mind with the X1/9. It's very low, very compact and designed for Italian drivers: although there's plenty of headroom, legroom is on the limited side. But I'm 5 ft 11 and found it comfortable. Imagine a targa-roofed go-kart and you're some way to understanding what jumping into a X1/9 for the first time feels like.
Inside the Fiat is a curious mix of late 80s exuberance, showroom gimmickry and low rent plastics. The seats are a curious - and very difficult to repair - swathe of multi-coloured blues and greens, which extends to the doors. Elsewhere there is unrelenting black plastic only relieved by a big 'Gran Finale' badge and even larger Nuccio Bertone signature. This may appear to be a Fiat, but as the numerous badges outside and inside explain, it's actually a Bertone.
Despite the of-its-time 80s makeover of the interior, it's quite a pleasant place to be - you sit very, very low facing a leather wheel and a bank of dials - with more Bertone badging. Beyond the screen the bodywork falls away dramatically - unless you pop up the headlights (which of course is one of the first things you'll want to do), your view is of only the road.
Fire up the X1/9 and the sense of being in something quite different is there again. The rev counter rotates in the opposite way to what you expect and the engine, which is right behind your ears, sounds immediately like a swarm of angry bees.
Those bees are there for the duration of your drive. And that is, in fact, a good thing - you're constantly aware of what the engine is doing and which gear you should be in. It's there too when you put your foot down - with just 85 bhp this isn't a quick car, but there is a distinct shove from behind when you let the revs run wide.
The X1/9 is a car to be driven. Unlike many inexpensive so-called sports cars, it goes as well as it shows. The steering is light and very direct and there's very little roll, so you can point and aim the X1/9 at corners and simply enjoy it hurling round them. Just like a go kart.
That all this is happening at quite low speeds is the X1/9s real skill: unlike bigger, thoroughbred mid engined sports cars you don't need the Nurburgring to start enjoying it. Not that it doesn't actually feel fast - you sit so low to the ground, with so little metal between you and the road that you'll be constantly checking the speedo to avoid prosecution. Luckily, that's never a risk.
Driving the little Fiat does come with a couple of warnings. Firstly, it was a small car to start with and in the intervening 30 years other cars have got much, much bigger. And that lack of surrounding metal can make you feel a little vulnerable. On the narrow country roads I used, I found oncoming SUVs slightly alarming, particularly their tendency to use all of the road.
Secondly, the gearbox takes a little getting used to. It's a typically Fiat notchy change that is a little slow, so it is at odds with the sensitive and quick steering.
But those are minor niggles. Drive the X1/9 with a wary eye on other road users and you'll quickly be able to settle into how fun this car is. In fact, it's a hoot: I haven't driven a small car this engaging and thrilling for a long time.