Fiat X1/9

The Fiat X1/9 looks sharp, is a great performer and, best of all, has a limited number of admirers, says Keith Adams
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The old cliché tells us that in springtime, a young man's fancy turns to all things sporting (well, something like that) - and that inevitably means that men in pubs and bar rooms across the country will be talking about MG Midgets, MGBs, Triumph Spitfires....

It's not as though we don't love these doyens of British open-topped pleasure, but taking on any of these well-established classic funsters is treading a very well beaten path. For the individualists among us, owning the same classic as a million others can be a bit of a turn-off.

Well, despair not - if you're looking for open-topped nirvana, sprightly performance, a sweet engine note and supercar dynamics, then look no further than Fiat's delightful X1/9. Oh, and just to tempt you even more - you can buy perfectly good examples of these honeys for well under £1,000. Imagine how much MG you're going to get for that.

But just because the X1/9 is eminently affordable, don't be fooled into thinking it doesn't come with impeccable pedigree and stacks of charisma.

First seen as a design concept in 1972, the X1/9 was rapidly developed into the latest in a very long line of small, open Fiats. Styled by the Italian designer Marcello Gandini, of Bertone, it looked like a miniature Lamborghini. If you're not instantly familiar with the designer's name, run a quick Google image search and marvel in some of the all-time greats such as the Lamborghini Countach and Miura, Lancia Stratos... and the Citroën BX.

Wedgy and edgy, the X1/9's sharp suit clothed a state-of-the-art technical package. It was designed to use the Fiat 128's drivetrain in a radical way - moving the power pack and suspension assembly from the front of the 128 to the rear of the X1/9 resulted in a supercar-apeing, mid-engined layout and near-perfect weight distribution. At the time of its launch, this was pretty radical stuff.

The pop-up headlamps and a targa top may have suggested performance, but the original production version's 1,300cc alloy-headed engine was overwhelmed by the weight of the massively strong body shell. All too soon, the pretty X1/9 became known as a car for shallow poseurs - those more concerned with how their car looked, not how it went.

And that was a shame, because the X1/9 was (and remains) a driver's tool par excellence. Steering is full of feel and direct like a go-kart - good news, because the nervous handling demanded an alert hand at the helm to keep it all in check, especially in the wet.

The X1/9's story should be all-too familiar to MGB and Midget fans. After a glowing launch and rapid initial sales, the company did little to develop it usefully. While 1978 heralded the arrival of a beefed-up 1.5-litre engine, five-speed gearbox, and a power hike from 75 to 85bhp, it also marked the point the X1/9 was frozen in time.

And to add insult to injury, ugly, US-spec safety bumpers replaced the original car's super-slim blades. That scarred the pretty little X1/9 for the rest of its life.

At least the upgunned version went a bit quicker. But from that point on, buyers melted away - a combination of fading appeal and the onslaught from the new generation of hot hatchbacks, typified by the Golf GTi, doing their worst. Without sales, there was no money for improvement, and without improvement, the sales fell further. It was a sad and terminal cycle of decline.

A widespread reputation for rust and dodgy electrics did nothing to help the X1/9's cause, and by 1985, the arrival of the conceptually similar (but vastly better) Toyota MR2 should have seen the Grim Reaper do his worst.

But Fiat didn't take the hint, and continued to sell the Bertone-built car until 1989 - at which point, the X1/9 was old enough in car-years to pick up its bus pass. By then, even the flakiest of hairdresser types had tuned out and were looking at Ford or Volkswagen for their open-topped kicks.

Somehow the X1/9's image never recovered from the lows of the Eighties - and its subsequent passage into the annals of classic car history has been an uneasy one. Most buyers don't recognise the X1/9 as a razor-sharp Seventies wedge enjoying shared DNA with Lamborghini - what they actually see is a pair of breeze-block bumpers top-and-tailing a whole lot of trouble. They then go off and buy MGs or Triumphs.

More fool them, we say - because they're wrong to write off the X1/9. Even the most average examples, picked up today for a few hundred quid, are a revelation to drive for anyone fed on a diet of modern cars. Steering feel is as positive now as it ever was - and even the clumsiest driver will have fun in it. Fuel consumption and servicing costs are pretty light - as long as you shop around for parts.

We like the way that so few people fail to embrace the X1/9 - it can just be our little secret. You can see it not only as a baby Lamborghini, but also as a thinking man's Midget.

What do we like most about the X1/9 - its sharp styling, tiptop pedigree, pleasurable soundtrack, superb dynamics? Yes and no. The chances of seeing another on your Sunday jaunt in the countryside are marginal at best - and that makes it priceless compared with a Midget, MGB or Triumph.

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