Once upon a time, when Buck Rogers was on TV and I was a boy, there was a little Italian sports car, so small and angular, it appeared to have been conceived as an experiment in origami. Back then the future promised to be full of jump suits and little jet propelled conveyances, and to my young eyes the little car must simply have been the first step on the ladder – they just hadn’t perfected the jets yet.
Sadly the Fiat X1/9 wasn’t the first small step, and any similarity to Buck’s Thunder Fighter was purely coincidental, in fact the Autobianchi Runabout concept car upon which it was based first appeared at the Turin Motor Show several months before Mr Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind. Bertone’s concept had already been readily accepted by Giovanni Agnelli, when it appeared in Turin, and just days later Project X1/9 began in earnest, the aim being the creation of the first mid-engined sports car for the masses. Having worked on the Lamborghini Miura with its transversely-mounted mid-engined configuration, Nuccio Bertone was confident that the same principles could be applied to a smaller, cheaper, sports car with equal success, after all, why should only the rich be able to afford good roadholding?
Three years later the little car was rolled out to universal acclaim from the press, members of whom were given the opportunity to test the car on the torturous Targa Florio circuit in Sicily, where unsurprisingly it excelled. Minor grumbles about interior trim aside, the car was an immediate hit, with all the fun elements one would expect from a budget sportscar, plus luggage space at both ends and a nifty Targa top. The only thing slightly lacking was power, due largely to the weight gain inherent in adhering to the strict US safety regs. The popularity of the car in the all-important US market unfortunately meant that there were no export models left over for the UK, and it wasn’t until 1976 that right-hand drive examples went into production.
Initially the X1/9 was powered by the 1290 cc SOHC engine from the 128, but by ‘78 the saloon was on its last legs, and the decision was made to give it a little more poke, with the 1498 cc unit from the Strada and a five-speed ‘box. Now capable of over 100 mph the X1/9 had the performance to match its looks, but unfortunately took a hammering, along with the rest of the Fiat range, for its rust problems. As a result of this, most notorious of Fiat issues, the car would be manufactured by and badged a Bertone from late ’81, retaining Fiat mechanicals, gaining increasingly fiddly detailing and critically coming with a six-year anti-rust warrantee.
Such was the speed of their decay, very few of the 1300s remain, and though the later cars were undoubtedly an improvement, time has still taken its toll, for in addition to corrosion woes the electrics were famously temperamental and equally lacking in damp resistance. In a sense though, the scarcity of roadworthy examples has served the car well, for Bertone’s design remains as fresh and modernistic today as it must have appeared in 1972, making the rare sight of an X1/9 a reason to stop and stare. There has long been talk of a new X1/9, and if Fiat can do as good a job with it as they have on the revamped 500, whilst retaining the spirit of the original it’ll be a fantastic car, even if it’s unlikely to look so space-age. If only they’d perfected those jets…