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.
A (true) Fiat X1/9 Christmas Story by Sean Cornelis
A long time since I saw an X19,girderworm has seen off most of them in the UK.Still see MR2s about.
The DeTomaso Mangusta and Miura are gorgeous
OK – this obscure knowledge will probably cost me my man card forever….but didn’t Bobby Ewing give such a Fiat X1/9 to his niece Lucy Ewing as a present on “Dallas” ? 😉
This car, and its predecessor the 850 Spyder, are two of my favorite Fiats – fun to drive and full of Italian character. Of course, if you own one, its mandatory that you keep a fire extinguisher between the seats………..
This reminds me that, years ago, some Car and Driver writer stated that the X1/9 was the car most likely to be seen in distress on the side of the road.
I had an 850, now I have an X 1/9. Totally fun to drive. I never even caught my 850 on fire – the fan belt didn’t break and catch the fuel line… I like the neutrality of the x, but I loved the lighter weight of the 850.
Nice little cars ~
Every 10 years or so there’s another uptick in interest here in So. Cal. and a bunch more get resurrected .
And old friend of mine’s husband who lives in San Diego has always been a pretty big collector of these. Had three or four, then owned a Lotus Europa, which he recently sold and got another X1/9.
Yeah ; like that .
The interesting thing is : mostly kids have them now and there’s two distinct camps : those who think every machine has ‘ extra parts ‘ (they’re _LAZY_) and so leave off critical small parts like the cam belt cover , etc. , .etc so it’s always broken (these cars are also always filthy & greasy) and the -other- group of kids who think it’s a time machine they’re lucky to have , theirs are always spotless and race ready .
ALL of them tell me the primary fault lies in the cam belt , it apparently has a fairly short life .
Doesn’t look too hard to change to me .
As a die hard air cooled VW guy since the 1950’s , I of course stupidly bought two 1975 VW/Porsche 914 2.0 4’s , cleverly welded to – gether into one O.K. looking and driving vehicle .
I loved it , my brother did too but in time he beat the poor thing to death .
The ATS 2500, deTomaso Vallelunga and Bonnet Djet had mid-rear engines before the Miura, but were not nearly as successful.
I wish they put a nicer body on the X1/9. I’m Fiat through and through but these only appeal to my head.
The other vexing thing about the X1/9 is the 1971 deTomaso 1600 below. The Bertone lineage from the Autobianchi Runabout to the X1/9 is there, so how did Ghia come to this 1600?
The story goes that Alejandro de Tomaso got a sneak preview of the X1/9 prototype from the bodyshop it was made. And he simply called Tom Tjaarda to come down there with his sketchbook and copy it for him. Why? Because he’s a sneaky bastard? DeTomaso has always been one of those entrepreneurs/con men/self promotors this business seems full of. People like DeLorean or Shelby or Iacocca or Lutz.
Probably, he wanted it to leverage a deal with Fiat. “Give me this or that deal, or I will produce this car and underprice it”. Or he wanted the X1/9 business for himself, or he wanted to show his capabilites, “Look! I made it better and more good looking than yours, and yours isn’t even out yet!” making Fiat look the copycat. Or whatever. DeTomaso has always been an opportunist, and he saw the opportunity and took it…
I actually quite like the styling. The park bench US bumpers do it no favors, but i’ve always thought it a nice little wedge with an interesting angle to the b-pillar.
I feel similarly, although I do have to wonder how much the angularity was a stylistic choice and how much it was an effort to keep the body tooling costs down. Nonetheless, given the prevailing aesthetic of the time, I think it turned out pretty well.
In France, the MR2 lost its “2” and was sold as the “MR”.
Because, when it´s told in french, MR2 sounds a lot like “merde”, which means “sh…t”.
actually it sounds like “emmerdeux” which means “sh…tty” 🙂
Xmas CC effect. Spotted at my local U-Pick about two weeks ago, awaiting the breaker’s torch.
Wow ~ that’s far too clean to be scrapping ! .
Nate, you are so right. These are on the cusp of serious collectors. That one doesn’t have rust! I’m doing my best to find a decent 914, but that ship has probably sailed. The 914 was the closest I could get to a 356.
Even in dry Los Angeles , oldies tend to rust away if neglected long enough .
VW/Porsche 914’s were equipped with Factory rust , similar ro Chevy Vegas ~ they’re super fun cars and are still here and there in rust free(ish) condition cheaply but then you have to scrape out the dog/mouse poop and scrub the cat pee stench off then take pretty much every single nut bolt and screw apart , clean , lubricate and re assemble then decide if you’re a witless pedantic (me) who loves misery and keep the crude Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection or slaps a pair of dual carbies and drives off .
I loved my 914 2.0 four banger ! .
I’ll give to a tip on finding classics cheap : go look at the worst adverts like : “1963 Porsche 356 , runs , $12,000.00 ”
I went and discovered a pissed off jerk who’d been GIVEN a pristine 1963 Coupe with low original miles , one owner , one exterior re paint , still 6 volts , the three band Blaupunkt radio played *perfectly* ~ it didn’t even have any rust in the battery box .
Long and short story , the fool was angry because he’d had to $pend any $ on it atall and the butchers he allowed to work on it , used crappo low quality parts and damaged the wiring instead of fixing the sticky starter solenoid etc. so I got it for $7K and drove it home on scary brakes…..
They’re out there , usually close to home no less , gotta beat the bushes , the most basic and un interesting adverts often yield the best results .
Whew ~ another too long post , sorry .
OBTW : that Junkyard X-19 was RED to boot ! .
If one is any taller than 5-10 and weigh more than 160 pounds, this car will be a tight fit on you.
This car was popular in New Orleans when new; but Fiat’s unreliability quickly curbed ’em all.
A cute car……if you could fit into it!
You’re correct I got a lift home in one once,6’1 and a half and built like Vanessa Feltz it’s definitely a tight fit
An Air Force buddy of mine had one of these in the seventies. Ironically he was about 6’5″ tall so I don’t know how he was able to get into and out of the Fiat. In retrospect he must have the superior flexibility of the young and athletic on his side; I do remember that he claimed to be comfortable enough once he was in the driver’s seat. Another friend had a Fiat 850 Spyder for a couple of months; it actually seemed to have more passenger room than the X1/9, although that was a low bar to cross. The 850 didn’t live very long in Knobby’s hands; the little four was treated like a motorcycle engine and was taken to the redline for every shift. If you miss enough maximum RPM shifts in any car, eventually the engine will suffer a failure.
A guy I worked with, in New Orleans of all places, had a brown X1/9 which he bought new in about 1978. He was 6′-4″ and from the UK originally, but he seemed to have no problem driving the X1/9. Of course, with the 1300 cc engine and no A/C, it was not the ideal commuter car for southern summers, so it got driven a lot with the targa roof off. For a while, he lusted after another X1/9 with the 1500 cc engine, but eventually, the age of the car and a move away from his mechanic pushed him into an early ’80s Celica and then an ’85 T-bird (both brown, of course) purchased used from a rental fleet.
I rode in the X1/9 as a passenger one time on the interstate, and it wasn’t too much different from taking a go-cart into traffic. Everything on the road is bigger than you, and you can almost count the cracks in the pavement.
Even after the X1/9 was retired from daily driver duty, my friend still held onto it and drove it occasionally when the weather was nice.
My Uncle Mike had an X1/9 when I was really little. I love how these look but I suspect I wouldn’t have fit in the thing by age 13 or so.
My aunt got a brand new x 1/9 in 1980. I was 8 and to me that car was marvelous next to my grandma’s 77 Nova. It felt like like a spaceship. The a/c sound was different to the ones in American cars, the tachometer worked counterclockwise and it told you to refill with a little light located in the center of the gauges and a little hysterical bell sound. I’ll never forget that car. The targa roof fitted nicely on the front trunk.
I’ve always liked the mid-engined sports car. My favourite examples are the Fiat X1/9, the Porsche 914, Lamborghini Countach. I got to drive a Toyota MR2.
I drove a second-series MR2, which was deeply disappointing. It was an automatic, and felt just like a Corolla.
An automatic in a sporty two seater makes about as much sense as a screen door on a submarine. If that doesn’t kill the whole concept of what that type of car is supposed to be, I don’t know what does. But if you were shopping used, you choose from whats out there, I suppose.
The early 16-valve Toyota 4A-GE engine was also a peaky high-revving engine — the redline was 7,600 rpm and the power peak was something like 6,600 rpm — so it was not exactly an ideal mate for an automatic transmission in any case. Interestingly, the U.S.-market Corolla Sport with the same engine was generally offered only with a five-speed manual.
I would’ve preferred the 2nd gen MR2 over the 1st gen. But at the time I couldn’t afford it.
Ive always loved the looks of this car. Something about the angles, the targa roof and how it all hangs together just speaks to me. Granted, Id fit in this thing like a bear on a unicycle and its likely a nightmare to keep running…
If only Fiat had resurrected this in a modernized form instead of that dopey 500 which looks like some kind of hello kitty/bug larvae.
Alas, a modern version would probably end up having to look quite a bit different because of the European pedestrian safety laws. It might still end up looking good, but I don’t think they could get away with making it look like a giant lift-roof axe blade this time.
My brother wanted one of these – we went out to look at one but it had already been sold. Fortunately, years later, he got a 1st generation Toyota MR2 (1985) and it was fun to drive, and solid and reliable too.
I had a chance to buy one for little money when I was a teenager. It turned out someone had been using it to lower boats into the water. (There was a trailer hitch on the front bumper and cracked shock towers.) It turned out to be too far gone to save but it was a neat car none the less. They also tended to dissolve on contact with moisture. You will rarely see one even in Oklahoma that is not a rust bucket.
No mention of the Fiero, in either the article or the 27 comments so far? Okay, then: Fiero!
I’ve had two Fiat Spyders, a 1600cc and then a 2000cc, so the X1/9 has always been on my radar. Love the angular styling (very Italian!) and appreciate the serious attempt at a mid-engine for the masses. Drove a couple of them decades ago when I was a gofer at an Alfa dealership, and the virtually 50/50 front/rear weight distribution gave them that “as though on rails” cornering stability that reg’lar guys normally only get to experience secondhand via reviews of big-buck exotics in car magazines.
But for me, the X1/9 (like the 850 before it) was just too damned small. And I don’t just mean inside: it’s so significantly tinier than most everything else on the road these days its presence would barely register in traffic on multi-lane freeways. That relative invisibility on the road is slightly frightening no matter how good a wheelman you are.
What a mid-engine-for-the-masses this Fiat could have been had it been scaled just 10 – 20% bigger. Not quite as big or bulky as a Pantera or a Miura, and so still able to scoot with a (larger) four banger (like the 2000 from the last Spyders). Or maybe at most a small six, like some of the later Fieros. Yet overall trim enough that you’d never need the eight (or 12!) cylinder monstrosities that price the Ferrari and Lambo mid-engines out of the driveways of reg’lar guys like me.
Although the new Fiat 500 isn’t a vehicle I would consider for myself, I am following Fiat’s return to N. America with interest. (Actually my initial reaction to the news was complete shock, as I thought Fiat was about as dead an automotive brand as could be imagined.) I hope the 500 does well enough that other, sportier models could be brought over. Like a 21st Century Spyder. Or a 21st Century X1/9 (hopefully a little larger this time!).
The X1/9 was to be complemented with the larger Fiat project X1/20, which ended up becoming the mid/rear engined Lancia Beta Monte Carlo (Scorpion in US).
I was wondering when someone would mention the Fiero!!!
Well, let’s just say that my Fiero CC was a bit…controversial : https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1984-pontiac-fiero-gms-deadly-sin-19-give-us-five-years-to-get-it-almost-right-and-then-well-kill-it/
I was too young to be able to afford an X-19 when they came out. By the time the first generation MR2 came out, the Fiero was already out, and it’s styling flat out blew the Toyota away. I liked the Fiero so much I bought a brand new one in 1987. IMO, it was one of GM’s best looking cars ever, and also an amazing engineering achievement. It was also affordable, like the original X-19. I never liked any other GM car as much (other than the ’74-’77 Corvette) until the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky came out. Unfortunately, just like the Fiero, they were very short lived.
While cars like the Porsche Boxster may be affordable to buy used, they are definitely not affordable to own. They are not the most reliable cars around, and parts prices are in low earth orbit.
I’ve often thought a cool drag racer on a budget would be to take a hopped up Iron Duke from a Fiero and put it in a Chevette. The factory used to offer racing versions of the Iron Duke motor…up to 3 liter displacement I think. Fiero suspension parts would go on a Chevette too.
Late to the party again.
I had a buddy in college who had one of these. Back in the day, this thing was a chick magnet (for the right demographic) and he had a lot of fun with it. The few times I got to drive it, it was a revelation compared to my big-block Torino. However, he didn’t keep it long, the legendary Fiat reliability caught up to the car. Of course, at the time the car was five years old, so it was probably close to the end of its regular service life in the rustbelt, anyway…
Fast forward 25 years. I’m trolling the iron lots in Atlanta, and a Bertone X-1/9 shows up on one. It was nearly perfect, had the Cromodora wheels, etc., all the toys. It was a fairly late production car (1988 or so) and relatively low mileage, too. $6K on the lot, but about $6K too much for me at the time. I still think about that car from time to time.
So much that I still troll the ads. I found the one in the pic at the Bayless Midwest website. It’s since been sold, but it was a near-perfect survivor from 1982. They were asking $9K, which I thought was pretty reasonable, considering that Bayless went through the car mechanically.
Maybe another time…
Geozinger, you missed a really nice X1/9 from MWB. That car appeared to be about 2 years old, and well cared for.
I got to do a fair amount of the work on it, and it was pure joy, Everything (nuts/bolts, wiring) in perfect order, everything more like new, than 23K miles. We overkill checked everything, to make sure we offered a high quality vehicle. Seeing it everyday, I started wanting it, to replace my long gone Silver 1980 X1/9. Too many other cars, and a wife that might go crazy.
First new car I ever bought was a ’74 that I regretted selling 6 years and 98k miles later. Wonderful cars that just required following the recommended maintenance schedule. Here’s my ’81, photo taken last Summer…
Actually the 1st production Mid-Engine Road Car was the DeTomaso Vallelunga back in 1964. It 1st rolled out at the Turin Motorshow back in 1963. They beat Lamborghini to the punch by a full 2 years.
DeTomaso built 3 of the first 6 Mid-Engined Production Cars ever built. 🙂
When I was a teen, a friend had one of these. Yellow. His was a pile of junk. Missing bumpers, roof, front nose piece, headlights, and the front hood, and rust all over. No muffler either. He couldn’t drive it at night or in the rain or winter. He sure was proud of it though. To him it was a real race car.
While looking at a used Monza or Sunbird for my sister in the very early 80s my father happened across one of these that the H-body owners were also selling. He ended up buy the GM car, and went back two more times for closer looks at the Fiat. I thought he’d had a stroke: it was very unlike him to get so caught-up in the car. Maybe he missed all the work he had been doing on his Corvairs and Tempest since he’d switched to a new Chevette for commuting duties.
Shame was there was enough rust along the A-pillars and the bottom frame of the windshield to turn him off. He passed on the Fiat. I tried to redirect this desire to something else (So I’d have something other than a Chevette or Citation to drive) but his mania had passed. Something about that Fiat.
That’s the problem with Fiats of the 70s, the quality control was iffy, at best.
It is unfortunate the Fiat X1/9 never received more powerful engines, whether the 105-134 hp 1.3-1.4-litre Turbo from the Fiat Uno Turbo or even a 103-115 hp 1.6-litre version of the existing 1.3-1.5-litre engines used in the X1/9.
The following link suggests there was a way for Fiat to properly update the X1/9 to better challenge the mk1 Toyota MR2 and further prolong the life the car until the early to mid 1990s, one of the only missing things that comes to mind would be the lack of a fixed headlight variant similar to the fixed headlight conversions for the Porsche 924 / Porsche 944.