The U.S. Bertone iteration for '84, by which time Fiat had passed production and sales to the coachbuilder.

Fiat/Bertone X1/9

Fiat’s X1/9 wasn’t the first mid-engine production sports car, but it has been one of the most enduring. Announced in 1972, it was elegant, nippy, and full of character, thoughtfully equipped and remarkable value for money. That the X1/9 was “right” from day one is confirmed by the fact that it’s still being built 16 years later with few major changes.

It wasn’t Fiat’s first low-priced sports car, either. The giant Italian automaker had enjoyed good success in the 1960s with coupe and spider versions of its little rear-engine 850 sedan, though these were sporty economy models, not genuine sports cars.

Bertone had supplied bodies for the 850 spider though, and devised the X1/9 (Fiat’s internal project code) to replace it. At first the idea was for Bertone to build the new middie on a freelance basis from Fiat-supplied components, but Fiat quickly recognized the design as quite practical for mass production -- i.e., “cost effective.” The rest, as they say, is history.

The Fiat X1/9 followed the Lotus Europa and VW-Porsche 914 in being a “corporate kit car,” with two-seat sports bodywork over a rearranged group of components borrowed from a workaday sedan. In this case, the donor was Fiat’s front-drive 128, introduced in 1969. It was a simple matter to site its transverse power package midships to drive the rear wheels, thus creating a mini Lamborghini Miura. Steering also came from the 128 shelf, as did brakes, though the Xl/9 benefitted from its “kit” composition by getting discs at the rear as well as the front.

Considering its spare 87-inch wheelbase and tidy overall size, the Fiat X1/9 was a marvel of space efficiency. Not only was there decent cabin room but two trunks: one fore and one aft (behind the midships powertrain). The fuel tank lived twixt engine bay and cockpit, the spare inside behind the right seat. Bertone’s wedgy styling was up to the minute then and still looks good now, while the structure was evidently quite strong.

The cockpit for the Fiat Bertone is tight but well planned.

A good thing, too, because besides having two doors and three access panels (one for each trunk plus engine cover), the X1/9 body had a Targa-style lift-off roof panel above the cockpit that could be stowed in the front trunk. The all-independent suspension was by compact coil-sprung MacPherson/Chapman struts, thus further reducing space intrusion. In all, a clever, well thought-out package.

And a nicely balanced one, thanks to the lower polar moment of inertia and reduced body roll associated with the midships layout. Weight distribution, originally 41/59 percent front/rear, was hardly ideal, but steering and suspension geometry helped compensate, making the X1/9 maneuverable, fun to drive and not at all quirky.

Initially, the X1/9 wasn’t as fast as it looked. Its 1.3-liter sohc four, inherited from the 128, may have been okay for Europe but couldn’t cut it in the U.S., bogged down by emissions controls and the extra poundage of federally required safety gear (including too-obvious “crash” bumpers). In fact, overall performance wasn’t much better than that of the increasingly asthmatic MGB.

Fiat partly answered the problem in both markets for 1980 by substituting the 1498-cc engine from its then-new Ritmo/ Strada sedan, and junking the original 4-speed transaxle for a longer-striding 5-speed, which also helped economy. The following year, Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection replaced the previous Weber carburetor for small gains in power and torque.

These and minor yearly cosmetic and equipment revisions are pretty much the extent of changes to date, except that Fiat decided to get out of the sports-car business in the early '80s and arranged for Bertone to take over complete manufacturing and marketing of the X1/9. This has led to various “special editions” in recent years, though the basic car remains the same.

Meantime, Fiat had decided to bail out of the U.S. market after years of steadily falling sales. Thus, if you want a new X1/9 nowadays, you’ll buy it through the Malcolm Bricklin organization and pay upwards of $13,000 for a car with Bertone badges.

A final point. Fiat’s Lancia division would use the kit-car approach for the larger (and not very popular) Beta-based Monte Carlo of 1975 (sold briefly in the U.S. as the Scorpion and developed, incidentally, as project X1/20). Today’s Toyota MR2 and Pontiac Fiero follow the same pattern. Who’s next?

To learn more about Fiat and other sports cars, see: