With depreciation and cars like the Porsche Boxster and the Lotus Elise keeping mid-engined cars from being completely unreachable for anyone below Fortune 500 CEOs and their families, the days where you could buy a reasonably-priced MR car from a showroom floor have become a thing of the past. Shame because it took a lot for them to get there. This Fiat was the first car to take the idea out of the posters and the racetracks and put it into the garages of the common man. It only took, oh, about 50 years…
Everyone who is up to date on their pub trivia questions will tell you that the first mid-engined road car was the 1966 Lamborghini Miura. If we are pedantic, the extremely advanced 1921 Rumpler Tropfenwagen had it beat by several decades, but the production numbers for that are in the 80-100 range and of those only two are known to still exist. That makes it rare even when compared to the Miura (around 740 or thereabouts) But the layout had already seen extensive use in the motorsport world.
From what I can gather, the first racing car to have an MR (mid-rear) layout was the 1923 Benz Tropfenwagen. Yes, the concept was got on license from the Rumpler. It was powered by a 90HP 2.0L six-cylinder engine. Top speed was around 115 MPH. Do not be fooled by the now-pedestrian numbers, we’re talking about a time where the Ford Model T was still in production here. On its most successful outing at the 1923 Italian GP it achieved a very respectable fourth and fifth place finish. A third car was entered but it retired on lap 30.
This had created the spark, and soon Dr. Ferdinand Porsche would bring the layout to the streamlined Auto Union Grand Prix racers and then the 550 Spyder. In 1959, Jack Brabham would go to win the F1 World Championship with a mid-engine Cooper-Climax. A couple of years later in 1961, Brabham and Cooper would join forces again to try their hand in Indianapolis. They achieved ninth place. As pedestrian a result as that seems, it was a beginning salvo that signaled an incoming British invasion. One that would succeed a couple of years later when Jim Clark won it in 1965 piloting a 500HP Lotus 38. Mid-engine cars had achieved dominance of the racing world and wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.
The same year Lamborghini was showing the rolling chassis for what would eventually become the Miura in the Turin Motor Show. While it was the first one, the Miura wasn’t alone in its segment for too long. Everyone was going mid-engine crazy and the market was quick to give the people what they wanted.
Lotus released the Europa in December of the same year. A year later DeTomaso launched the Mangusta (above) and Porsche released its 914 roadster in 1969. Finally, Ferrari launched the Berlinetta Boxer in 1973 after Enzo had softened his stance on “The Horse pulls the car, it doesn’t push it”. All very nice. And all very expensive. The Porsche and the Lotus may be cheaper than the rest of them but it was still rather pricey to make it into the garages of the great masses. That’s where Fiat came along.
Hitting dealership floors in 1972 in Europe and in 1973 in the US, the X1/9’s styling was based on the Autobianchi Runabout concept by Bertone. The name comes from the nomenclature that Fiat was using for its experimental vehicles at the time. It designates it as the ninth (9) production-vehicle concept (1) of Fiat since the nomenclature was first used. Lower production costs came thanks to the joys of parts sharing, as it used the engine, transmission and suspension components of the recently launched Fiat 128.
The engine itself was single overhead cam 1.3L engine producing 75HP mated to a four-speed manual transmission. The curb weight was a very slim 880 kg (1940lb). The targa top was a result of Fiat making sure that the X1/9 could pass the new U.S crash tests. The expected results were a stiffened body with an integrated cage to protect its occupants in case of rollover. The unexpected result was that this stiffness helped the car be one of the best handling vehicles on the market at the time. Road and Track had this to say about the X1/9’s handling after throwing it for a few laps around the Targa Circuit:
The engine location between the seats and the rear axle seems to impart an ideal weight distribution, for despite ever-changing surfaces the handling remained basically neutral. Going rather too fast into what turned out to be a hairpin, a spot too much lock made the front end break away on the damp road, but a quick liftoff and that responsive steering instantly straightened it up. There is no apparent roll and the ride is pitch-free except when the road character changes suddenly.
Timing was on the Fiat’s side too. The traditional British sports car offerings were getting ever weaker. The MGB was made to walk on its tippy-toes to comply with headlight regulations, The Triumph TR6 was replaced with the TR7, and do I need to say anything more? Meanwhile, the Lancia Stratos, DeTomaso Pantera, Lotus Esprit and Lancia Montecarlo kept the mid-engine fire burning strong.
It’s not like the X1/9 was immune to the changes in regulations though. 1975 brought rubber bumpers and emissions regulations to lower the power to 63HP. It’d take a couple of years for Fiat to take action by adding an extra gear to the transmission and replacing the 1.3L engine with an enlarged 1.5L model that developed 85HP. It also got a bit fatter, tipping the scales at 962kg.
Fiat got considerable mileage out of the X1/9, getting ten years and 150,000 units sold before washing their hands off the project in 1982. That’s not to say that it stopped being produced, as Bertone decided it wasn’t quite done with the X1/9 yet. At around the same time Fiat was calling it quits on the U.S market, leaving all marketing and support responsibilities in the capable hands of one Malcolm Bricklin. Yeah…
To top it all off, it may have still been cheap and fun to drive, but the world was moving on. The Toyota MR2 brought the best of the X1/9 formula and improved on it, making it bullet-proof and even bringing a tasty supercharged variant, but it was all rather wasted once Mazda released the MX-5 in 1989. It was considerably more practical than any mid-engine car. Small, frugal and extremely fun, it was the nail in the coffin of the economical mid-engine sports car. Sales tanked during the Bertone years, selling only 20,000 units between 1982 and 1990, when the last few models were imported stateside.
Today, the closest thing to cover the ground that the X1/9 had is the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider. It even weighs the same as the early X1/9s, but it’s more expensive and of a much-more limited production. Mid-engine cars have gone upmarket again since the final MR-2 stopped production in 2007, so if you want a cheap and fun mid-engine sports car you’ll have to turn to the classifieds as your only option.