Midship Triptych

Three brochures for the X1/9 illustrate Fiat’s differing marketing approaches.

All images: Driven to Write
All images: Driven to Write

Despite having an instantly recognisable house style, Fiat’s 1970s brochures were often rather stark looking affairs. Studio shots, no background and just the facts. For an economy hatchback or suchlike, there was an element amount of logic in this approach, but for what many dubbed a Ferrari in miniature, it risked underselling what was at the time a unique proposition.

Conceived to replace the popular Fiat 850 Sport Spider, the 1972 X1/9 would prove long lived. Claimed figures vary but at least 160,000 were produced over a 17-year lifespan. The story goes that faced with the likelihood of Fiat taking production of the 850 Spider’s replacement in-house, Nuccio Bertone pushed for a mid-engined concept, ensuring that his business would benefit from any enforced outsourcing. As it turned out, Bertone received the contract to produce painted and trimmed X1/9 bodyshells, which were then transported to Fiat’s Lingotto facility for final assembly.

Utilising running gear derived from the much lauded 128 series, the X1/9 was an instant hit with customers and critics alike, offering exotic car thrills at saner velocities, all for a price mere mortals could aspire to. It was no shabby compromise either; the engineers did their homework and honed one of the finest mainstream small car drivetrains of its era into a compact sports car that could humble more rarefied machinery, yet was practical, reasonably spacious and could be serviced at your local Fiat garage, back in the days when you could still find one.

The X1/9 landed in RHD form around 1977 and the earliest brochure in my possession dates from around that period. I seem to recall most of the X1/9’s in this neck of the woods were what Fiat describes here as the ‘Special Series,’ painted metallic green, with black ladder decals along the flanks, which it really didn’t need. More stripes livened up the seat facings, while alloy wheels and fog lamps came as standard.

The Lido special edition arrived about a year later – ostensibly a run out model before the revised series two version was launched and in this case, Fiat’s marketers laid it on rather thick. “Have you ever seen a series production car in metallic black?” they ask. “The Lido comes in aggressive, aristocratic metallic black finish highlighted by a narrow horizontal band (or an adhesive stripe to the likes of you) and the Fiat trademark in silver. The bumpers are in high gloss chromed steel with rubber over riders, a combination to recall the ‘Roaring Twenties.’” One assumes the marketing team were on deadline and it was getting on for cocktail hour because that really is palpable nonsense.

This is a freshwater lake bed, right?

The second series arrived in 1978, dubbed here as the ‘Five-Speed’. Powered by an enlarged version of the same Lampredi belt driven OHC four also powering more upmarket versions of Fiat’s Ritmo, the 1979 model year X1/9 boasted more power; up from 73 to 85 bhp, and the eponymous five-speed gearbox. Wider wheels and tyres were fitted – 165/70 SR 13 against 145-series tyres on earlier models. These later cars also featured a redesigned dashboard and interior refinements. The biggest external change came with the fitment of massive US-spec 5 mph impact bumpers which did nothing for the aesthetics or one imagines, the weight distribution. However, the little Fiat’s styling and overall balance was so good, it wore such indignities with better aplomb than most.

This later brochure is a more lavish affair, offering a higher standard of photography and a merciful lack of marketing hyperbole, presenting the car for what it is, even if the settings appear not only a little forlorn, but also hardly the sort of place you’d immediately think of taking your X1/9, or any Fiat for that matter – not without some element of trepidation at least.

Full production and overall responsibility for the car was shifted entirely to Bertone in 1984 at which point all Fiat badging was removed. The model was discontinued entirely in 1989.

The X1/9 showed the two sides of Fiat. On one hand the social leveller, democratising what had hitherto been the preserve of the elite, allowing exotic car styling and engineering to be made available to ordinary mortals such as ourselves. But one the other hand, Fiat’s inability to stabilise their business meant the car was to all intents and purposes allowed to wither and die. The X1/9 should have been a bigger success than it was – for a large portion of its life there was simply nothing like it. Instead Fiat abandoned the model along with their ambitions in the US market in time for Mazda to redraw the maps and make the territory their own. In a curious irony, Fiat’s current open two-seater is now built by Mazda in Hiroshima, and so the world turns.

Postscript: According to Honestjohn.com there are only 1258 examples left in the UK. If the X1/9 had carried an MG badge on its nose there would probably be an entire cottage industry behind it now. What is it about Fiat that induces such apathy?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “Midship Triptych”

  1. Fiat really should be a successful giant. It should be Toyota, but more interesting. It’s hard to analyse why this isn’t the case but, historically at least, it’s certainly not the quality of its engineering people. The X1-9 was a lovely little thing, but with one of those irritating designations that relied too much on getting the punctuation right (X19, X1.9, XI-9…). Would it have sold better as the Fiat Zephyr?

    At first I misread that to be 128 examples left in the UK, and actually that seemed perfectly credible. So 1258 examples is pretty impressive really. They must endear themselves – not surprisingly.

    1. To make matters worse, the official writing is X1/9, actually (no idea why there’s a dash in the UK/Eire brochure).

      Fiat’s nomenclature was as inconsistent as its product planning. They were on the verge of giving their cars names (the Ritmo/Strada being first, if I’m not mistaken) back in the day, which is why the X1/9, X1-9 monicker appears stranger still.

      The only issue onto which I can shed even a faint ray of light is the origin of the term X1/9 itself: it was the car’s internal code originally (the Ritmo’s was X1/30, incidentally). Why anyone would choose to give such an awkward name to a dashing little sportscar eludes me though. After all, there’s a good reason why, say, a certain Mercedes had a 500SL badge on its boot, rather than R129.

    2. You know I always wrote it X1/9 but in this instance I went with the printed word. That’ll show me. I’ll amend the text accordingly…

  2. A lovely car, only slightly hobbled by Atlantean bumpers (I’m making a bid to make ‘Atlantean bumpers’ popular parlance). Was the X1-9 the most accessible Italian wedge of all time? I imagine so.

    I think the sparser original brochures were far superior in design terms. Wedges always look better when extracted from reality, the eye popping green allowing the eye to linger on the sculptural forms rather than the discord between the rational surfaces of the car and and the chaos of reality. American manufacturers pioneered this trick in their advertising going into the early 1970s, using bold colours to isolate and enhance their cars.

    1. Do they need bumpers in Atlantis, Chris? I’d have thought the water would act as a buffer.

      Interestingly, I see from a quick Google that City of Nottingham Atlantean buses have bumpers that are positively …. Atlantean. Whereas Merseyside and Manchester Atlantean buses have bumpers that are positively …. absent. What is it about Nottingham?

    2. How peculiar. I had assumed that the big black bumpers were universal to later Northern Counties-bodied Atlanteans, but it would seem not. A lesson there about the relevance of individual experiences to universal applications, but I am damned if I am the man to learn it.

    3. Chris. I think you’ve coined a term that would get a wry nod of acknowledgement in parts of the Midlands, but a blank Ye Wha? further North. So, to help its more universal acceptance, Simon Kearne has agreed for it to be officially incorporated in the DTW Style Book.

    4. That is very kind of you. The term probably has relevance to more people than the upper class public school derived idioms that infect British journalism.

    5. Interesting you should say that Chris. Simon has a one-in/one-out policy regarding his style book and has informed us that, following his fostering of ‘Atlantean’, ‘turpitudinous’ can no longer be used when referring to the Veyron or any other vehicle.

  3. I liked the black Lido in the brochure. I’m not a fan of such mid-engined sportcars from the 70s (though I do admire the Stratos’ rally achievements, of course) but of course they are interesting.

    Down in Brazil, a small manufacturer sold a replica of the X1/9 named Dardo. They persuaded Fiat to let their dealerships sell and service the Dardos. Official production of these replicas ended in 1985 but some say the last unit was actually built in 2004.


    1. Eduardo. The more I learn about the South American industry, the more I realise how little justice we did it in our Theme a few months back.

      The Dardo has more of a sweep back to the targa pillar. Although I quite like the abruptness of the original, the replica is more conventionally elegant.

  4. “Why anyone would choose to give such an awkward name to a dashing little sportscar eludes me though.”

    Thank goodness Mazda didn’t make the same mistake with their MX-…Miata.

  5. To be fair, ‘Icsunonove’ has a certain Latin flair as it rolls off the tongue. This being Fiat, I’m pretty certain no-one bothered to consider how the name translated to Inglese.

    1. On related matters, Nuccio Bertone’s name translates into Inglese as ‘Joe Robertson’.

    1. Oh dear, that’s not pretty.

      Here’s where Fiat got the idea from:

    2. It has some promise though obviously needs more work, not sure about the smaller engine allowing for a 2+2 layout however, seems pointless compare to fitting a larger engine and putting up a better fight against the mk1 Toyota MR2.

      Believe more could have been done to develop the x1/9 and have it remain in production until it is directly replaced by the 1995 Fiat Barchetta, using either 105-133 hp 1.3-1.4 Uno/Punto Turbo engine or an earlier 103-115+ hp 16v dohc version of the 1581cc unit used in the 1989-1994 Lancia Dedra.

      Fwiw tried uploading an Italian language link of the glass-back facelift proposal though it ended up disappearing, no big deal though thanks to Car Design Archives.

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