50 Years Young: The Striking Fiat X1/9 Bertone
2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Fiat X1/9, which was presented in November of 1972 in Sicily, on the same roads of the legendary Targa Florio. Here's its story...
Contrary to most Fiat models, the X1/9 proved much more popular abroad than it ever was in its native country, with the USA becoming the model's largest market as soon as exports there started in 1974. Here's the story of the X1/9, the striking mid-engined sports car that Fiat nearly didn't make.
One Man's Vision
The X1/9 would have never happened without the vision and determination of legendary coachbuilder Nuccio Bertone.
Bertone built 850 Spider bodies for Fiat by the thousands, but following the presentation of the modern front-wheel-drive 128 in 1969, he could see the writing on the wall for those older rear-engined models, leading him to start work on a new sports car utilizing the 128's running gear.
However, Bertone's vision for a 128-based sports car was radically different from Fiat's, as he wanted to place the 128's engine and transmission behind the passenger compartment, which made for better weight distribution and a much slender front-end design.
Bertone showcased his vision at the Turin motor show in late 1969 with the Runabout concept car. Bertone's designer, Marcello Gandini, took inspiration from outside the motoring world, with its pointed shape, generous rollbar hosting the headlamps, and striking colorway coming from period speedboat designs.
Despite its space-age appearance, the Runabout was fully functional, equipped with Fiat 128 engine and transmission mounted amidships. The Autobianchi badging and period claims to have used A112 running gear were nothing more than a cunning ploy from Bertone to avoid ruffling too many feathers at Fiat's Mirafiori HQ.
Apparently, Fiat's boffins did not share Nuccio Bertone's enthusiasm and much less his insistence to make what they called a "little Miura," an exotic and impractical flight of fancy unworthy of the company's time due to its limited sales potential.
Thankfully for Bertone and hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts, Fiat's president Gianni Agnelli saw the merit of the X1/9 project, and the car was, somewhat begrudgingly, made into a production reality.
What's in a name?
Fiat's engineering supremo Dante Giacosa introduced the practice of using "X1," followed by a progressive number, in the late 60s. Yet, the X1/9 is the only time one such project code became a commercial name, almost as if Fiat couldn't be bothered to come up with something better.
Thankfully, much more care went into the car's design: the X1/9's body was designed from the outset to pass the 30 Mph frontal crash test required by American safety legislation and was brilliantly packaged. The mid-engined configuration also gave the X1/9 two separate luggage compartments, with the front one serving as storage for the roof panel when detached.
With the fuel tank and spare wheel located between the engine and passenger compartments, most of the X1/9's weight was concentrated around its center of gravity, giving it excellent handling characteristics.
As previously mentioned, the Fiat X1/9 was equipped with the same 1.3 liters single overhead cam inline-four cylinders engine and four-speed gearbox from the Fiat 128 Coupé, with a few minor changes due to the different location.
The engine produced 75HP at 6000Rpm and, due to the X1/9's relatively low weight and good aerodynamics, performance was adequate for the period: the X1/9 accelerated from naught to 100 Km/h in around 12 seconds and had a top speed of nearly 170 Km/h.
Bertone produced the X1/9 bodies in its own facility in Grugliasco, near Turin. They were then transported to the Fiat Lingotto, the legendary factory with a rooftop test track, for the engine and running gear to be installed.
Production of the US-spec X1/9 started in 1974, and by 1975, the overwhelming majority of production would be sent across the Atlantic. In fact, the X1/9 in Italy remained a slow seller throughout its life due to unfavorable socio-economic conditions and Fiat's apparent disinterest in pushing X1/9 sales.
Unfortunately, the X1/9s destined for American customers saw their already unexceptional performance further diminished: the beefier bumpers added 25 Kg of weight while the 1.3 liters engine lost about 10HP due to the lowered compression ratio.
The X1/9 Dallara
October 1975 saw the launch at the Paris motor show of the Dallara Bertone Icsunonove, a full-blown race car designed by legendary engineer Gianpaolo Dallara according to Group 5 regulations.
Thanks to extensive use of aluminum componentry and fiberglass body panels, the Dallara X1/9 weighed about 200 Kg less than the roadgoing version. At the same time, only the cylinder block remained from the original 1.3 liters engine, which now produced 190HP at a heady 9700Rpm.
It's unclear how many genuine Dallara X1/9s were made, with some estimates putting the number at less than 20 examples, although many more replicas exist.
Development of the range
1975 also saw the introduction of the "Corsa" appearance package, which included decals, wheel arch extensions, and a decklid spoiler but no mechanical upgrades.
1976 brought the X1/9 "Serie Speciale," with a slightly larger front spoiler, fog lights, adhesive decals on the side, and a partly redesigned interior. But more importantly, Fiat finally began producing right-hand-drive cars for the UK, which soon became the model's second largest market.
By 1978 total X1/9 production passed the 100.000 units mark, and, in October of the same year, the significantly updated "X1/9 Five Speed" was presented at the Birmingham motor show. Under a taller engine cover sat the 1.5 liters engine and five-speed gearbox from the Fiat Ritmo 75, producing 85HP in this application thanks to a double-choke carburetor and different camshaft profile.
The thick, redesigned bumpers compliant with US law became standard on the European versions as well, together with the wider front spoiler, while the interior got an all-new dashboard.
Following its withdrawal from the US market and the closure of the Lingotto factory in 1982, Fiat ceased production of the X1/9. However, Nuccio Bertone wasn't ready to see his baby sports car die and took over the complete production process, marketing the car under the Bertone badge.
From 1982, the cars destined for the United States were fitted with a new electronic fuel injection system, which brought performance somewhat closer to the European-spec cars. Meanwhile, the range was enriched by the "IN" and "VS" versions, with two-tone bodywork and better-appointed interiors.
However, this was not enough to maintain sales, especially after the Toyota MR2's presentation in 1984. Bertone ultimately pulled the plug on the X1/9 in 1988, having produced 156.459 units since 1972.