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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

The Untold Story Of The Fiat X1/9 Abarth

Manufactured in over 150.000 units between 1972 and 1989, the Fiat X1/9 is fondly remembered for its unique style and excellent handling.

But what if I told you that the Fiat X1/9 could, at one point, have become a rally champion?

Buckle up, as this is the untold story of the stillborn Fiat X1/9 Abarth, the mid-engined rally monster that never was.

Heart transplant

Our story begins in 1974 at the Abarth works of Corso Marche in Turin, where one of the earliest X1/9 produced, one of the press cars used during the model's launch in Sicily in November 1972, is being rather unceremoniously stripped and cut up.

The surgery, operated under the direction of Abarth's chassis designer Mario Colucci, was needed to make room for a much larger powertrain: a five-speed gearbox mated to Abarth's "type 232" inline-four engine, the same used on the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth "Group 4." Fed by two Weber 44IDF carburetors, the twin-cam 1.8 liters engine produced around 210HP.

New Generation

Although the 124 Spider, driven by Maurizio Verini and navigated by Gino Macaluso, still won the 1974 Italian rally championship, the model's days were numbered, and it didn't take much for Abarth's men to eye the new X1/9 Bertone as Fiat's potential new rally weapon.

Completed with the necessary competition equipment, its chassis and suspension reinforced and equipped with wheel arch extensions to cover the much wider tires, the X1/9 Abarth weighed in at just 750 Kg.

The pop-up headlights were replaced with fixed elements, the bumpers were deleted, and large spoilers appeared front and rear. But probably the most extrovert feature of the X1/9 Abarth was the large air intake sprouting up from the engine cover, nicknamed "periscopio" (the Italian for "periscope").

From March of 1974, Fiat-Abarth campaigned the X1/9 in the "Group 5" prototype class in the few events that allowed it, where the X1/9's potential quickly became apparent. On its third outing, the X1/9 won outright the "Rally Delle Alpi Orientali" with Fulvio Bacchelli and Bruno Scabini.

By the end of the 1974 season, the X1/9 Abarth proved itself a formidable contender: according to Fiat's development driver Giorgio Pianta, the X1/9 Abarth was easier to drive and faster than the Lancia Stratos.

At this point in the story, it's worth remembering that, despite Lancia being part of the Fiat group since 1969, the two brands' racing teams remained separate entities until 1977, and a certain rivalry existed between them.

Nevertheless, all that Fiat needed to do was build the 400 road cars required for homologation in "Group 4." Bertone had already made the necessary preparations, and the X1/9 Abarth could be homologated by February of '75. But it was not to be.

Broken dreams

Much to the disappointment of Gino Macaluso, who had been appointed as Fiat's sporting director and was the main force behind the X1/9 rally program, Fiat's upper management decided not to proceed with the project.

Only four race cars and one road car prototype were ever made, but enthusiasts have been building replicas out of regular X1/9s ever since, with varying degrees of accuracy, of course!

Macaluso resigned in disgust, leaving the automobile industry for good, yet, in hindsight, Fiat's decision made a lot of sense. After all, Lancia had just won the 1974 world rally championship with the Stratos, and Fiat's higher-ups saw no value in racing another mid-engined, Bertone-bodied low-volume "spaceship" with negligible sales potential.

The model that Fiat was more interested in promoting through racing success was the mass-market 131 family saloon, and that's where Abarth's energies were swiftly redirected.

But that's a story for another time...



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