(first posted 6/23/2016) The weather just begs for some top-down motoring, and for many, that means a genuine sports car. Back in 1976, there were a lot more options even at the affordable end of the market, and R&T took six of them out for a comparison. Individual reviews are one thing, but it takes a comparison to really find their relative strengths and weaknesses. And there were plenty here.
There was change in the air in the mid seventies, and no where more so than in the sports car market. The long-time British favorites (MGB, Midget and Spitfire) were getting extremely long in tooth, and very vulnerable to new competition. The Fiat 124 Spider wasn’t exactly youthful anymore, except in comparison to them. And the newcomers were both decidedly different than the traditional front-engine roadster formula: the mid-engine Fiat X1/9, and the hardtop TR7.
The two MGs, the B and the Midget, were “classics” or utterly geriatric by 1975, depending on your choice of words. At least the B still had some positive qualities, but the Midget? Not really. Its size alone was outdated by then, and its skittish handling and modest performance pushed it to the back of the pack.
Meanwhile, the very fresh Fiat X1/9 won the comparison, due to its exemplary ride, steering, braking, handling and roadholding.
It wasn’t the fastest by far (0-60 in 14.8 secs), but it didn’t take any of the sheer pleasure away from driving it. Having had a chance to drive one through the hills above Los Angeles in 1978, I fully concur. It was nothing less than revelation, after early exposure to MGAs and Bs. It danced its way through the curves, and everything worked so light and elegantly. The X1/9 was a brilliant little car; no wonder Toyota used the same formula with its first MR2.
The number two-placed Triumph TR7 was the great last hope to turn things around for the British, and it did have some very redeeming qualities, including better than average performance.
In fact it, was by far the quickest of the bunch from 0-60, if 11.5 seconds can be considered quick. But then that’s not the only quality sports car drivers were looking for. It certainly lacked the open-top experience so coveted in a small sports car. There’s nothing like an open top to make a slow car feel fast. The TR 7 didn’t have a convertible top (until 1979), and its styling was a bit out there. The result was that although it sold moderately well, it certainly couldn’t reclaim the sports car crown for Old Blighty.
The Fiat 124 Spider acquitted itself quite well, and came in a close third. It’s lovely DOHC four was feeling the effects of emission controls, and the driving position would never be right for many, but it still delivered the goods. In the classic Italian tradition, it could feel a bit heavy at slow speed, but fast driving brought out its excellent ride and adhesion.
The Spitfire was the highest placed of the old guard, thanks to its four wheel independent suspension, which gave it excellent roadholding, ride and complemented its steering.
Not bad for a body-on-frame roadster that was based on the Herald and was now almost 15 years old. Although it still had swing axles at the rear, a major (and clever) revamp in 1971 eliminated most of its inherent vices. But there were inevitably shortcomings too.: ventilation, body structure, top removal and instrumentation, among others.
The MGB was a relic from another era, and the shortcomings it arrived with in 1962 had all become worse.
The jacked-up suspension (to meet bumper height requirements) ruined the handling. And the venerable B-series long-stroke four, which dated back to the early 50s, was now utterly emasculated, resulting in the worst 0-60 time of the bunch: 18.3 seconds. That’s VW 1500 territory.
Can it get worse? Yes.
The Midget really did not belong on the new car market anymore. A direct evolution of the Bug Eye Sprite, its roots were in the 50s when Brits were willing to make major concessions to buy then-legitimate low-end sports car. But that was an eternity ago, in terms of what had transpired since. The Midget’s darty handling, due to the rear wheels wanting to pitch in on the job of steering the car, and its tendency to hop and skitter over the slightest pavement imperfections, along with its overly-quick but yet numb steering rather defied and defiled the whole sports car concept. A street-legal bumper car. At least it now had the Spitfire’s larger 1500 cc engine, so it was actually several seconds faster to 60 than its bigger brother.
Speaking of affordability, these cars ranged in (as tested) price from $4299 ($18k adjusted) for the Midget to $6045 ($27k adjusted) for the 124 Spider. A 2016 Miata starts at $24,915, and the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider starts at $24,995, so while the choices have drastically reduced in number, in terms of affordability, performance and every other metric, it’s never been a better time to buy a sports car.
But if you were transported back to 1976, which one of these would it be for you? For me, it’s clearly the X1/9. And contrary to the myth about them, as long as they’re not exposed to salt, the Fiat was mostly a pretty robust car, if one knew its foibles.