A Mid-Engined Sports Car for the Masses

The impressive saga of the Fiat X1/9

After the introduction of the BMC Mini in 1959, the first modern small car with front-wheel drive and a transverse engine, pundits pushed for the use of the same principle behind the cockpit to build an inexpensive sports car of advanced mid-engined design.

All a maker had to do, they argued, was to put the whole transverse engine-gearbox-differential package in the back and drive the rear wheels with it. Lamborghini’s Muira and Ferrari’s Dino showed how to do it for five-figure prices, but no maker of any size managed to build such a car that most folks could afford to buy. Until Fiat with its X1/9.

Looking sprightly and seductive, the Fiat X1/9 was the first small sports car to exploit the mid-engine craze that was sweeping racing. It did so in great style.

The X1/9 was the happy result of a joint effort by Fiat and Bertone, who designed and built its bodies, to create a successor to the oval-eyed 850 Spider that was a speedy seller in the important United States market. Bertone was building these at the rate of 120 a day, but their rear-engined power trains were on the brink of being phased out in favor of Fiat’s new ranges of front-drive small cars. Something new had to be created, thought Nuccio Bertone, who in his younger days had done some racing. He was a good judge of sporting cars.

To their credit, Bertone and his chief designer Marcello Gandini had already penned the bodywork of the mid-engined Lamborghini Miura of 1965–66 with its transverse V-12 engine. Fiat too had taken an interest in mid-engined drive trains, one early prototype using the powertrain of its 1964 Autobianchi Primula, the first small car to have engine and gearbox end-to-end instead of BMC’s transaxle under the engine as in the Mini. This Fiat approach was destined to set a pattern for all the world’s low-cost front-drive cars.

Looking like driving fun incarnate, the Runabout used the transverse engine/gearbox introduced in the Autobianchi A114 Primula in 1964, placed behind the seats.
Pictured next to the Autobianchi A114 Runabout, the Fiat X1/9 could not deny its inspiration. Bertone and Gandini succeeded with a superb design.

For the 1969 auto shows Bertone and Gandini decided to build their own mid-engined concept car with an Autobianchi drive train. They pushed the boat out with an open-cockpit speedster topped by a prominent rectangular rollover bar, to the sides of which powerful lamps were fixed. A sharp thrusting front end completed the Autobianchi A112 Runabout, in Italian terms nicknamed a “Barchetta” for “little boat.” Underpinning this image was its complete lack of doors.

Nuccio Bertone tried his luck at the 1969 Paris Salon. Gianni Agnelli’s younger brother Umberto asked his opinion about the current Fiat sports-car range. When Bertone hesitated, Umberto pressed him for a candid reply. The stylist answered that he thought Fiat’s offerings were excellent cars but not sports cars as he understood the term. “We could do better,” he added.

Giuseppe Puleo’s advanced-design team created struts with wide-based wishbones at all four corners of the X1/9, giving a stable base with negative camber for high grip.
A profile view of the X1/9’s internals bears witness to the shrewd allocation of space by the Puleo team. They worked wonders in providing ample space for luggage.

“Then do so,” came Umberto’s reply. He backed up his assignment by mustering the talents of Fiat’s advanced-design department under Giuseppe Puleo, reporting to renowned engineering chief Dante Giacosa. True to their mission the amiable Puleo and his team had been developing the concepts of a number of Fiat models under their own internal coding system. The X1/1 was Fiat’s 128, the 130 sedan was X1/3, and a larger mid-engined sports car was X1/20, which became the Lancia Monte Carlo/Scorpion. In the middle was X1/9, conceived as a low-cost sports car that would make maximum use of the components of the 128.

Work went ahead with impressive speed. At the 1971 Turin Show the first rumors about a new Fiat sports car swept the scene, prompted by Alessandro De Tomaso’s display of a Ford-powered car said to be so close in shape and style to the forthcoming Fiat that it was almost actionable.

Late in 1972 Fiat’s original was introduced to the press in Sicily, where journalists (including this one) drove it over the demanding Targa Florio circuit. This was a sign of tremendous confidence in the little car’s handling and stability. So comfortable had Fiat’s people become with its code name that the X1/9 reached the public with that designation.

In its general dimensions the X1/9 resembled a 5.5-inch-lower version of the well-liked 128 SL Fiat coupe. Its wheelbase was 86.5 inches, track 53 inches and overall length 151 inches. At 1,940 pounds, its official curb weight was some 100 pounds more than the coupe’s, accounted for by the two-seater’s very stiff frame, for an essentially open car with removable targa-type roof and very high crashworthiness.

From external suppliers, the X1/9’s panels arrived at Bertone’s Grugliasco factory to be assembled into bodies, painted, and finally equipped with running gear.
From external suppliers, the X1/9’s panels arrived at Bertone’s Grugliasco factory to be assembled into bodies, painted, and finally equipped with running gear.

Those were the years in which car makers were struggling to bring their structures in line with America’s intensifying crash-safety requirements. Another project of Puleo’s group was the creation of a small, experimental safety vehicle, or ESV, using the Fiat 500’s rear-mounted power train. This had robust boxed side rails running front to rear through the sills. Puleo used a similar design for the X1/9, for which the American market was expected to take three of every four cars produced. The sports car had to be overdesigned if anything to meet all possible U.S. standards.

In early prototypes the crash-absorbing structure did its job, but the monocoque was too weak in bending and torsion, impairing handling consistency. The solution was to install a central backbone that ran from the firewall to the toeboard. This did the job while enhancing crash-energy absorption at the same time—at the cost of an increase in weight.

At all four corners of the X1/9’s chassis were McPherson-type strut suspension units with coil springs and “live” wheel hubs. The original idea was to use the 128’s front struts at all four corners, a great low-cost solution. Test mules, however, were “undriveable” for almost a year, said a well-informed source. “There wasn’t a living human in Fiat who could reconcile its unpredictable road manners with production requirements.”

Fiat decided the Targa Florio circuit would best show off the qualities of its new X1/9. Examples were parked at Palermo’s Hotel Igeia to be chosen by journalists.

This was of course intolerable. As well, complaints were coming from Bertone about the front struts, which were too tall to achieve a plunging hood line like the Runabout’s. Ideas of using the 128’s struts without change went by the boards; those at the front were lowered in relation to the hubs while struts at the rear were given much stronger wide-based wishbones to give better control of the crucial propulsive hubs.

The final design, said Guiseppe Puleo, was aimed at neutral steering with a full tank and a gentle oversteer at the limit that could be easily corrected by the driver. “The aim was to make the driver king of the car,” he said, “and not the car king of the driver.” A natural feature of the X1/9 was a low polar moment of inertia with its main masses concentrated toward the center of the chassis. This gave it enhanced agility that counted on the driver to master and exploit its quick responses.

The fuel tank was near the center of the car, right behind the driver, so weight distribution remained much the same no matter how the car was loaded. It varied from 57 percent to 59 percent on the rear wheels, enough for plenty of grip. Inside the X1/9’s 13-inch steel wheels were 8.9-inch brake discs gripped by floating single-piston calipers. Steering gear was rack-and-pinion with three turns lock to lock. No anti-roll bars were fitted, the car’s low center of gravity keeping cornering roll to a minimum.

A brief section showed the Sicilian roads most typical of the Targa Florio circuit. There were 44.7 miles of these switchbacks, last used for racing in 1973.

Under the slotted matte-black engine hatch of the X1/9 was the power package introduced almost four years earlier by Fiat in its 128 sedan. It was right at home in this sports car with its belt-driven overhead cam, aluminum head, five-bearing crankshaft and well over square dimensions of 86 by 55.5 mm for 1,290 cc. With a twin-throat downdraft Weber and 8.9:1 compression ratio, the X1/9 commanded 75 net hp at 6,000 rpm in Italy and 72 lb-ft of torque at 3,400 rpm.

The engine/gearbox assembly was much like that of the 128 SL except for new castings for the oil pan and inlet manifold. These were required by a reduction in the engine’s installation angle from the 128’s 22 degrees to 11 degrees in the X1/9, a change requested by Bertone to improve the unit’s packaging. Moved to the end of the camshaft, the distributor was more accessible. Thanks to the revised positioning and ingenious stowage of the spare wheel behind its passenger, the X1/9 had useful trunks at both front and rear. The removable roof panel stowed in the front compartment.

The gearbox had to be modified to move the shift linkage to the front instead of the rear when efforts to use the original point of attack proved fruitless. Even then shift quality suffered, the Porsche-synchronized lower gears being hard to engage, so the synchro was changed to the faster-acting Borg-Warner cone system with molybdenum-treated engaging teeth. As well clutch actuation was changed from cable to hydraulic, reducing pedal effort.

This Fiat X1/9 paused near the pit area of the Targa Florio or Florio Trophy, for which racers first competed in 1906 over a 140-mile circuit. It suited the new Fiat perfectly.

Respectable rather than blistering, the X1/9’s European performance gave a 105-mph top speed and a 0-to-60 time of 12.5 seconds. With the strangling effects of emissions controls, the power of the first American models was a pathetic 66 hp for a top speed of 93. It took two shifts to get to 60 because the speeds in gears at the 6,400 rpm redline were 28 mph in first, 45 mph in second, and 69 mph—a long step up—in third. The shift was excellent, fast and positive, especially across the gate from second to third.

When I drove an X1/9 at its launch on the Targa Florio circuit in Sicily I concentrated on its many corners. These usually demanded second gear, in which I let the engine rev as high as I needed to go fast. Glancing down, I found the tach needle around 7,500 rpm and climbing, more than 1,000 rpm above the limit. The short-stroke four reveled in it, even touching 8,000 a few times with no signs of stress or shortness of breath.

The bucket seats weren’t adjustable for back angle but leg room was generous, if narrow. Returning to Palermo’s grand Hotel Igeia in dusk, a reassuring glow from Bertone’s handsome dials, set flush behind a single curved plastic lens, projected information. Lifted into position by electric motors, the headlamps fanned a steady beam. Noise came from various directions: wind hissing around the window frames; a resonant booming in the body at 85 mph; a gentle but persistent whir emerging from the engine room via the hatch vents and creeping around the side pillar into the cockpit through the air-extractor vent.

Tossing a roostertail of spray down the Autostrada on the way to the Targa circuit, the X1/9 felt steady, light to the touch yet stable and well damped in yaw. The feel of the little 1,290-cc four was promising, hard and crisp and smooth like a BMW four, punching much more purposefully in this sports car than in its more remote location in the 128 models.

From every angle the Bertone/Gandini design of the X1/9 was captivating. Details such as the ribbed engine cover and integrated side scoops highlight its shape.

Turning off the Autostrada on a cloverleaf, I cranked in more lock than I thought the Michelin X tires could handle to see what would happen. The rear end popped out of line with a sudden swerve. As I got to know the Fiat on the next few turns I found that the rear would slide out at low speeds under full power on wet asphalt but it was easily caught by a quick counter-turn of the wheel. In fact it was fun, a typical symptom of a high-negative-camber (-2 degrees) rear suspension at the limit.

On switchback after switchback on the Targa circuit I had to leave an extra margin because the X1/9 didn’t always telegraph its moves. It would drift with all four wheels together, or plow a bit, or slide its tail. Braking was beautiful: smooth, progressive, powerful and fade-free with a slight tendency toward rear-wheel lockup in the wet. Steering that felt heavy at first was progressive and predictable when pushed hard, a pleasure with its great-looking padded 14-inch wheel.

High up on the circuit, three miles of dry road were traveled three times to push the X1/9 as hard through turns as possible on public roads. She behaved impeccably. Planting my left foot on the wheelhouse and my right on the throttle I could steer it with absolute accuracy, like a little race car, through the meanest corners. It was indeed neutral, predictable and amazingly agile without being skittish.

The remarkable space utilization of the X1/9 deserves display. The detachable roof fitted neatly into the front bay above any luggage.

A price was paid in the ride, firm and lively on springs of relatively short travel. It pitched a lot as mid-engined cars tend to do—another sign of the low polar moment—but didn’t overly trouble its occupants because they were at the center of gravity of the X1/9 where motion was the least.

I managed to find some faults at the launch. The sun visors didn’t completely fold out of the way. The pushbuttons at the bases of the backs of the seats that released them to pivot forward were fingernail-busters. Fresh-air ventilation wasn’t powerful and the dash was less impressive and less legible during the day. The appearance of the spoiler under the nose wasn’t great but wind-tunnel tests found it essential for high-speed stability.

At the time I wrote “there’s nothing on the market near its price that’s as enjoyable and as able as the X1/9,” adding that “[i]t is an engineering, styling and marketing coup of the first magnitude.” Buyers thought so too, happily snapping up the X1/9 at rates of 15,000 to 20,000 annually. The package became even more appealing in 1979 with the introduction of the Ritmo/Strada’s longer-stroke 1,498-cc four—covered by a bulkier engine lid—and a five-speed transmission. This model, the X1/9 1500, also had an upgraded interior and gauge package.

Views of the X1/9 cockpit with and without its roof show how neatly this was accomplished. The rear roof support did have some protective potential.

“At last, and in no uncertain manner,” said Motor, “the X1/9 has the outright performance that its chassis and appearance deserve.” With 85 hp at 6,000 rpm, acceleration to 60 was one-tenth under the 10-second mark and top speed was up slightly to 108 mph. At 6,900 rpm it reached 105 mph in fourth. However “overall noise volume is such that you may as well switch off the radio when motoring fast.”

I took full advantage of this in 1978–79 when I was an executive vice president of Fiat Motors of North America. I had an X1/9 as a company car as often as possible. The roads on my commute were unchallenging except for the right-hand bend where the Cross County Parkway met the Hutchinson River Parkway going south. I attacked that like Ascari in his Ferrari at Monza’s Lesmo complex.

A short shift lever was in the character of the X1/9, whose gearbox was fast-shifting. A central console carried heating and ventilation controls and rocker switches.
The X1/9’s steering wheel perfectly suited its character, also giving a good view of the instruments. The author found that the 6,500 rpm redline was easily exceeded.

The second Energy Crisis in 1979 foreshadowed the end of Fiat’s road for the X1/9 when sales of sports cars—no matter how gas-stingy—were hard hit. Fiat relinquished responsibility for the model in 1982, by which time it had made 140,519 of these wonderful cars. Then Bertone took over, putting on its own badge, completing final assembly in its own plant—formerly done by Fiat—and selling them through selected networks. In the U.S. Malcolm Bricklin set up a new company to import the X1/9 and the former 124 Spyder, now made and badged by Pininfarina.

Finally in 1989 the plucky career of this unique model came to an end. That it had solved a difficult engineering problem with great style was shown by the paucity of similar entrants from other manufacturers. Toyota accepted the challenge with its MR2 series, which in its latest version had no luggage capacity at all—quite a step down from two compartments in the X1/9. MG Rover finally produced a modern MG in the F model that was closer to an X1/9 equivalent.

Not without its faults, the X1/9 was as prone to rust as other Bertone-built cars—though not in the class of the 850 Spider—and its belt-driven cam could produce unpleasant surprises. But on a twisty road of a summer’s day the X1/9 delivered the sensation of a racing car on the road, charming and responsive. And it looked like you were driving an exotic Italian concept car—which, in a way, you were!