The Fiat X1/9 Is Still One Of The Most Fun And Accessible Mid-Engined Cars Out There
Story by Alexander Byles
Photography by Marco Annunziata
The Fiat X1/9 ( which remains the only ever mid-engined rear-wheel drive model from the Italian manufacturer), is gaining a higher distinction among enthusiasts these days, but there have always been proponents of the affordable, accessible sportscar. Featuring a prototype-inspired model name and a forward thinking and forward-canted wedge design by Bertone’s own Marcello Gandini, the X1/9 brought some of the high-spec Italian performance staples to the masses.
The first real manifestation of the car that would become the X1/9 appeared in 1969, with Autobianchi and the release of the Bertone-designed A112 Runabout concept, a futuristic beach buggy sportscar hybrid of sorts from Gandini’s desk. When Fiat acquired Autobianchi, the Runabout project was buried even deeper below the feasible projects chosen by Fiat’s more profit-and-loss-driven managers. That was until Gianni Agnelli, Mr. Fiat himself, saw the prototype in 1971. Needing a replacement for the 850 Spider, he initiated production of the X1/9 which drew clear inspiration from the Runabout concept.
Presented in 1972 at the Targa Florio, the monocoque wedge body—made distinctive by a relatively long bonnet and retractable headlights which combined into something of an echo of Gandini’s Stratos—featured aerodynamic aids by way of an integrated front spoiler, while the concept car’s ski boat-esque hoop was retained and used as a roll bar. Meanwhile, the targa design allowed for the hardtop roof to be removed and handily stored in the front trunk. Manufactured by Bertone at its Grugliasco plant about six miles west of Turin, the X1/9 shells were then carted the short distance over to Fiat’s Turin factory for final assembly and component fitting.
Once at the Lingotto plant, Fiat added engines based the 128 Coupe’s 1280cc inline-fours, launched the year before. Designed by former Ferrari supremo Aurelio Lampredi, the SOHC inline-four was adapted to feature a cast aluminum sump and an aluminum head, while also adding twin-choke Weber DMTR carbs.
The engine was located ahead of the transaxle in a transverse layout, and in an upright position that was designed to save space while raising the center of gravity just a smidge for payment. A four-speed gearbox was connected to the engine, which in X1/9s had a potential of 74hp at 6,000rpm and could produce 72lb-ft of torque at 3,400rpm. Nothing radical, but enough to make full use of the skinny treads. And although the X1/9 came in almost 145lbs heavier than its indirect predecessor (tipping in at about 1,940lbs), it gained a few mph in top speed over the 128 Coupe because of its aerodynamic improvements, and could be stretch to a little over 100mph in the right conditions.
Braking power was provided by discs all around, and the four-wheel independent suspension featured MacPherson struts fore and aft. While straight line performance from the 1280cc engine was far from noteworthy, crucially the chassis—based on the Stratos—combined with the mid-engine rear-wheel drive layout, was heralded as an excellent combination, and the X1/9 received rave reviews for its handling. It was never a supercar killer nor was it supposed to be by any means, but it was a fun and quick-enough way to get into mid-engine cars without spending too much.
After mild aesthetic and mechanical updates, 1979 saw the launch of the second series of X1/9 with five-speed 1,498cc variants, like this well-kept 1980 example in the photos. As is often the case with updates, the weight increased, but by less than 100lbs, while the increased bore of the motor granted 85hp and a top speed of 110mph.
“With its sublime handling, the 1500 is such great fun car to drive around the hairpin bends we have here in Tuscany,” says this car’s owner, Riccardo Innocenti, who purchased the X1/9 in December 2018.
When i asked him why the X1/9, he told me that he “learned to drive on a Series One, which belonged to my uncle. I thought it was beautiful then, and it has a line which is still current-looking now: that wedge shape with retractable headlights. It was the 1970s and there was this undeterred search for perfect aerodynamics.”
A longtime fan, it was a chance conversation that encouraged Riccardo to finally pursue his own; “I’ve always loved cars, though I had never owned a classic. Then on one hot Sunday in August of 2018, I was in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, near Florence, for the traditional monthly gathering of vintage and sports cars.
“I was admiring A Triumph TR6 when the owner approached and asked me which car I had at the event. My dry response was that I owned a 2010 Ford Focus and that it would take a while before it became a classic! The TR6 owner pressed me, so I confessed that as a Ferrari enthusiast I’d like to own a 308 or a Testarossa, but that it would likely remain a dream.
“’Dreams must be achievable!’, he told me. At that point I confessed my attainable dream—but, again, I thought it would remain as such: ‘I would like an X1/9, but I’ll never buy one. The work and cost involved to purchase and maintain it would just be too much for me: no no, it’s just a dream’.”
The TR6 owner left Riccardo with these words: ‘The next time I see you, I want to see you with an X1/9’. The chance encounter had an impression on Riccardo, who returned home that afternoon and began looking at X1/9s online. That was it: he decided he had to have one, or in the words of Riccardo “the fuse had been lit: it just had to burn through the wick.”
Riccardo’s family got involved in his search, along with his bodyshop-owner friend, Alessandro. Together they made several trips to see various prospects around the country—including some cars that were beyond repair—before settling on this one.
“The car was completely original, but she’d been practically stationary for nine years,” Riccardo explained, “The owner, who also ran a body repair shop, didn’t really want to part with it, but he’d had little use out of it over the previous decade.”
Riccardo had to replace the alternator, brake pump and camshaft, plus rework the distribution and cylinder as well as the clutch pump, but all the work has been carried out with original components. The exhaust is original too, though it’s been re-worked with stainless steel, and the bumpers also required replacement.
In April 2019 he achieved a gold badge from the Automotoclub Storico Italiano (ASI) to recognize the X1/9’s vintage, though some bodywork had also been required for an ironic mishap.
“I had to have some parts repainted including the front hood, which had a 10cm scratch—the result of the previous owner using it as a cutting board for a pizza!”
Sales of the X1/9 dipped in the early ’80s, arguably because of lack of investment in upgrading the car by Fiat, which allowed the car’s performance to fall further behind the competition. Which is unfortunate, considering the triumph of its handling and design. After manufacturing 140,500 vehicles, Fiat canceled production in 1982. Such was the fondness for the little targa however, that Bertone refused to accept that the end had come, and so picked up where Fiat had left off and went on on manufacturing the X1/9, building a further 19,500 units until production finally ceased for good in 1989.
While some look back and wonder what could have been had the X1/9 been developed to its full capability, 85hp is enough for Riccardo, who you’ll find nimbly cornering around the bends of Tuscany. And if you really want to see the potential of the X1/9 chassis, just go to your favorite video site and search for some of the hillclimb builds to get your full-size go-kart fix for the day.