Italian automaker Fiat had been established for years before trying its hand in the sports-car market. As with many manufacturers during the 1960s, Fiat used one of their existing models as the basis for their first sports-car offering, resulting in the Fiat 1200.
In this article, you will learn about Fiat’s sports-car history, from the Pinin Farina-styled 1200 to the wildly successful Fiat 124 Sports Coupe and Spider -- both worked off the success of existing Fiat sedans, producing sleek, sporty additions to the lineup.
Eventually, however, Fiat had to pull out of the sports-car game, first by halting production on its sports cars in North America, and later in Europe as well. Fiats had always carried a reputation for being somewhat unreliable, which eventually forced them out of the market. Still, Fiat was and remains a high-quality carmaker.
Let's begin our exploration of Fiat on the next page with the 1200 and 1500.
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The maker of the Fiat 1200, 1500, 1500S, and 1600S models, Fiat has been the General Motors of Italy for as long as anyone can remember and, like the American firm, got into the sports-car business relatively late. Fiat’s first postwar move in this direction was the 8V of 1952-54, but this was strictly a limited-production indulgence (only 114 built) while the 1100 Transformabile of 1955-59 was ugly and unsuccessful. Then, with help from Pinin Farina and OSCA (Officina Spedalizzata Costruzione Automobili), Fiat finally got serious about sports cars in 1959, when it started down the road to building the 1200, 1500, 1500S, and 1600S models.
One of Fiat’s best-sellers at the time was the 1200 sedan, a chunky, uninspired four-door with unit-steel construction, coil-spring independent front suspension, and a live rear axle suspended and located by semi-elliptic leaf springs. This hardly seemed the stuff of which sports cars are made, but technical chief Dante Giacosa knew better. Retaining the sedan’s powertrain, floorpan and some inner body panels, he called in PF to build him a sports car.
PF (which always insisted it had nothing to do with the Transformabile) produced a simple but attractive two-seat convertible complete with wind-down door windows -- and consequently landed the contract to build production bodyshells in quantity. Fiat would provide floorpans; PF would build, paint, and trim the bodies before returning them to Fiat’s Lingotto factory for final assembly.
Meantime, Fiat had decided to offer a choice of engines: the sedan’s plodding 1221-cc ohv four and a newly designed 1.5-liter twincam unit. Fiat had planned to build the latter, but turned instead to OSCA, the Bologna-based engine and race-car specialist then run by the Maserati brothers.
Both new models were revealed in 1959: the 1200 Cabriolet with 58 horsepower and the 80-bhp, OSCA-engine 1500S. As the twincam version wasn’t meant to be a volume item, it was left to the pushrod two-seater to establish Fiat’s sports-car credentials, which it did in short order.
Both were stylish and well equipped little tourers, and the 1500S was as fast as an Alfa 1.3 Giulietta. PF soon produced a removable hardtop as a factory-approved extra. Also with Fiat’s blessing, it built and marketed a fixed-roof model that looked rather like PF’s later Lancia Flavia coupe design.
The next six years brought numerous improvements to these conventional but sweet-handling open Fiats. The 1500S gained standard front disc brakes at the end of 1960, then became the 1600S via substitution of an enlarged OSCA-built engine boasting 90 bhp.
The original 1200 was similarly upgraded in March 1963, being “re-engined” with the latest 1481-cc pushrod four from the new Lampredi-designed sedans to become a 1500 Cabriolet. This brought 72 bhp and more torque, bumping top speed to about 90 mph. At the same time, the 1600S acquired rear disc brakes and a modified four-lamp nose.
The most significant change of all appeared in March 1965: a brand-new 5-speed all-synchro gearbox for both models. It didn’t increase their performance, but it did make them easier to drive. It also hinted at Fiat’s future, for this same gearbox would return in 1966 for the successor 124 Sport Coupe/Spider and the 124/125 sedans on which they were based -- the most successful postwar cars in Fiat history.
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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.
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?
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Fiat 124 Sport Spider
The Fiat 124 Sport Spider didn't get the credit it deserved in its early years. A few sports cars, the Alfa Romeo Duetto for example, are fully appreciated only after they’re gone. Some -- most any Porsche -- win accolades the moment they appear. Still others seem well regarded while in production, then their reputation fades.
Perhaps it’s the Fiat lineage that tarnished the 124 Sport Spider’s legacy. Possibly it’s that the car wasn’t very fast. Maybe its econo-sedan roots and friendly price painted a pedestrian image. But as its two-decade run unfolded, the Fiat 124 Sport Spider came to be considered an eminently enjoyable example of a fading golden age.
“It’s a highly refined sports car with appealing styling, excellent ride and handling, and rather modest all-out performance,” said Road & Track in 1976. “It isn’t as new as tomorrow by any means but it has survived the test of the years to become a classic in its own time.”
As with many a sports car, beneath the Spider could be found a sedan; in this case, Fiat’s little 124 four-door. Starting in 1968, the Italian giant actually based two sporting cars on this platform: an airy four-passenger coupe with the standard 95.3-inch wheelbase and the Spider on a 5.5-inch shorter span. For the sporting applications, the basic 124 chassis was altered only with higher spring rates, wider tracks and wheels, and all disc instead of disc/drum brakes.
Pininfarina did the styling and the Spider never really looked outdated, even integrating 1970s federal “crash bumpers” without much disruption. The arms-out driving position was too Italian for most, and despite a padded “back seat,” this ragtop was a 2+2 in theory only. But the five-speed gearbox shifted crisply, instrumentation was thorough, and no sports car had a soft top that folded easier or sealed better.
The 96-hp 1.5-liter enlargement of the 124 engine boasted a new twincam head with toothed-belt cam drive, a world first. Displacement and tuning fluctuated during the ’70s to meet U.S. smog rules. The car reached its ultimate form by 1981 as the Spider 2000, with a fuel-injected 102-hp 2.0-liter. Fiat fled the American market in 1984, but transferred Spider production and marketing to the coachbuilder, which sold an upgraded edition, the Pininfarina Azzurra, for another year or so in the United States.
Greatness doesn’t require a sports car to gain stature after it retires. That it was great in its own time, on its own terms, is quite enough.