Flattery, both sincere and otherwise.
Copied even before it was launched, and manufactured in modified form with a fibreglass body in Brasil until well into the current century, Fiat’s compact mid-engined targa-topped coupé inspired imitators both before and after its long career.
The Fiat X1/9 as launched at the 1972 Turin Motor Show was a productionised and consequently less radical evolution of the 1969 Autobianchi Runabout concept by Bertone, credited to Marcello Gandini. At the previous year’s Turin show, however, a vehicle that looked extremely similar to the planned but as yet unveiled Fiat was on display. To add insult to injury, the little yellow sportscar was parked almost within touching distance of Bertone’s majestic stand. What on Earth had happened?
Picking up the telephone in his studio, Tom Tjaarda barely had time to say “Pronto?” before his boss, Alejandro de Tomaso, ordered him to come at once to a small workshop in Grugliasco that was associated with Bertone. Tjaarda’s objections about being in the middle of a project were ignored: “Stop everything! We need to make a car for the Torino Salon-now!” barked de Tomaso. Aware that his boss wasn’t the patient type, Tjaarda rushed to the address in Grugliasco he was given. De Tomaso gestured to Tjaarda to join him as soon as he spotted him entering the workshop. “See that prototype over there in the corner?” de Tomaso said. “Yes, isn’t that the new mid-engined one Bertone is doing for Fiat?” Tjaarda replied. “Copy it.” de Tomaso hissed at Tjaarda under his breath.
Tjaarda could not believe what he was hearing, but his objections were waved away. De Tomaso then engaged the workshop manager, who was the only member of staff present at that moment, in animated conversation to distract him so that Tjaarda could make some quick sketches in his notebook. Tjaarda felt confused and embarrassed: why copy someone else’s design? What was de Tomaso up to? What would Bertone, not to mention Fiat and, by extension, l’avvocati think?
Nevertheless, and likely for fear of losing his job, Tjaarda completed his sketches and went back to work in the Ghia studio. The sketches were duly transferred, enlarged, augmented and stored in a drawer in Tjaarda’s office. After this, nothing happened and de Tomaso never mentioned the subject again until, upon returning from a vacation on the Greek island of Mykonos, the designer noticed that the drawings had disappeared.
It transpired that de Tomaso had taken the drawings and decided to build a prototype based on them. Word had already gotten out within Ghia that they were being ordered to produce a design that was not their own and its designers and craftsmen were not at all comfortable with this. Tjaarda even contacted a lawyer who was a friend of his as he feared for his reputation, but in the end he complied with the demands of his headstrong boss as he realised that the prototype would be made anyway, with or without his cooperation.
So, the car, christened De Tomaso 1600 Spider, was built and became the prominent centerpiece of the De Tomaso stand at the 1971 Turin Motor Show. It did not take long for Bertone representatives to notice the interloper, especially as their stand was only a few metres removed. They were, to put it mildly, not impressed.
CAR magazine’s Doug Blain was present and approached an embarassed Tjaarda, whom he knew well, on the stand. “Well, Tom, this is going to create a mess like I’ve never seen before.” Blain said. “How the hell did you find out about that new Fiat?” he asked. “What can I tell you? We were in a Bertone workshop and there it was” replied Tjaarda. “Shall we have breakfast together?” suggested Blain. Tjaarda quickly agreed, only too happy to escape the looks, reactions and questions of the Ghia stand visitors, especially those from Bertone. From a safer distance behind his coffee, Tjaarda could observe Nuccio Bertone’s reaction: he paled visibly, but did not say a word and left quickly. Gandini, however, was livid and clearly insulted, expressing his views loudly enough to attract attention from neighbouring stands.
In the end, de Tomaso’s party spoiler went nowhere, quietly and quickly sinking away from memory. The question remains, why did de Tomaso pursue this path? It is highly doubtful that the Argentinian ever had serious plans to put the 1600 Spider into production. Some suggested that there was not much love lost between Bertone and de Tomaso who, now at the helm of Ghia, saw an opportunity to steal a march on his rival. However, considering the sensational Countach on Bertone’s stand at that same show, wowing both the press and public, it was quite evident which carrozzeria was then the boss.
At the 11th Sao Paulo Motor Show in 1978, a familiar looking car named the ‘Dardo F1.3’ and produced by Corona S.A. Viaturas e Equipamentos was presented to the public. Unlike the De Tomaso 1600, this was not an unauthorized copy of the X1/9 and Fiat do Brasil would provide it with full support in sales, maintenance and warranty. The Dardo, which is Portuguese for arrow, was the brainchild of Italian-born engineer and self-proclaimed car designer, Toni Bianco.
Although the Dardo F1.3 at first sight looked virtually identical to its Torinese relative, the car was quite different under the skin, and that skin was in fact also not as per the Fiat X1/9, being made of glassfibre rather than steel and mounted onto a tubular steel frame. The engine was installed in the same location as in the X1/9 but in this case it was the 1,297cc 72bhp four-cylinder unit sourced from the Fiat 147 Rallye, coupled to a four-speed gearbox from the same car. Like the original, the Dardo featured independent suspension all round and disc brakes on all four wheels.
Inside the car, the instrument panel did not come from Fiat but was a Volkswagen Variant II item. Later versions would be fitted with instruments from the VW Passat, Fiat 147 and Fiat Oggi. The Brazilian car magazine Quattro Ruodas tested the Dardo and was not wholly convinced. For the steep price of almost one million Cruseiros, the equipment levels were found wanting, as were the fit and finish: the test car had a bootlid that did not close correctly and a few too many uneven surfaces in its bodywork.
Performance was nothing special either; a top speed of just over 145km/h (90mph) and 0 to 100km/h (62mph) in 18 seconds. The recalcitrant gearbox from the 147 also did not help to smooth progress. There were positives to report also, however: roadholding and stability were praised and the Dardo was easy to control, with predictable handling. The unassisted steering was found to be just fine. It also had, by sportscar standards at least, a generous luggage capacity of a combined 310 litres, and fuel consumption was deemed economical.
In 1981 an alcohol-fueled version became available. A year later, the Dardo F1.5 with, as the name implies, a larger 1,496cc engine putting out 96bhp, replaced the F1.3. The new F1.5 also had a five-speed gearbox. Appearance-wise, there were now different bumpers front and rear and wraparound taillights, which came from the Ford Del Rey. These improvements notwithstanding, sales of the Dardo never moved the needle very much and a dubious 1983 facelift obviously inspired by the Porsche 928 did not lure any more customers into the showrooms either. As Quattro Ruodas had already concluded in 1979, the Dardo was simply too expensive for what it offered.
It is therefore unsurprising that Corona S.A. stopped making the Dardo in 1983 and sold all moulds and materials to a Cotia-based businessman named Rosário Di Priolo who restarted production, now under the brand name Grifo Dardo. The Grifo wisely reverted to the original Fiat X1/9 front-end styling but the car remained otherwise unchanged. How many Dardos were made is uncertain, but the estimate is not more than 300, with the last Dardo reportedly being assembled as late as 2004.
Author’s note: Source of the De Tomaso 1600 story : Ruoteclassiche, September 2020.