Finding Qualified Joy in the Heart of Glanmire

Yet another car with pop-up headlamps.

Images of the X1/9: the author.

This one neatly predates the last car with pop-up headlamps on which I recently reported. Bertone took up the reins, making this car after Fiat handed it over in 1982. Production continued until 1989, which is the very same year Nissan decided to

launch the fourth-generation 200SX. Two more different approaches to the sports car would be hard to find. They looked different and cost very contrasting sums. You could get a Bertone X1/9 for just under nine thousand pounds and, for nearly twice that, the Nissan 200SX. I mention them to underline the remarkable span of time covered by the X1/9. If the Peugeot 107 was still on sale, it would now be 17 years old too. (I had hard time finding a car exactly 17 years from launch…)

But does age matter for all classes of car? The X1/9 could be seen as another example of a coelacanth car, so no. It landed in our vale of woes in 1972, only fifty years ago, and it remained available to purchase new until 1989. Somewhere along the line, product development stalled. Car Magazine considered it a decent little rocket but lamented lack of sustained nurturing from its makers, meaning that by the time 1989 had come along, it would be hard to say it could have competed with another little two-perch sports car with pop-up lamps arriving that same year.

Fiat had potentially a fine and entertaining two-seater on its books but, instead of nurturing the audience, they let Mazda woo them to their own version of pocket-sized performance fun, the lovely MX-5.

Ah, digression: on page 177 of the December 1988 edition of Car, where I found the MSRP for the X1/9, there is a small article headed “Fiat tops the European market, though Audi Volkswagen is closing in. Rover too is booming.” The Italian conglomerate had almost 15% of the market, selling the most cars for the third year in a successive, straight and uninterrupted continuous row non-stop. VW trailed by 0.2 percentage points. A few lines down, the article says “Ford, GM and Renault are looking less and less convincing as contenders for the top slot in Europe….” The third fastest growing major make in Europe had the name Rover, with sales up to 9.9% to win it a 3.7% market share. Um, yes, ‘fastest growing’ is a tricky term when taken out of context. Well, Rover is dead and GM has abandoned Europe in preparation for its disintegration in the coming decade. End of digression.

No longer available to order: source

Back to the car: it is not hard to imagine Fiat updating the X1/9 over the years with perhaps a new engine or two, much more advanced rust protection, a cup-holder, and a revised headliner. That would have got it through to the mid ’80s in a much more convincing shape. As far as I can see, the car here had the same interior as the launch car from some ten years earlier. I accept that the wedge-styling was getting badly out of touch by the time 1989 rolled around. However, it was still common to see hard-edged designs around then. And 1990 could very well have been the time to remodel the entire car to give it another decade’s innings: integrated bumpers, crash protection, more resistance to rust etc.

As we have read here before, product development has not really been Fiat’s forte. Had it been otherwise, we might be on the fourth version of the X1/9 instead of gazing in mild bewilderment at a 50 year-old design that still seems relevant and saleable today.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

26 thoughts on “Finding Qualified Joy in the Heart of Glanmire”

  1. Over the years the X 1/9 had at least three different interiors.
    Original

    Late version with aftermarket steering wheel and rev counter rotating counter clockwise

    Door cards had numerous variations, getting plusher over time.

    From a certain point in time production numbers were too small for Fiat and Bertone took the X1/9 as his own product, similar to the Pininfarina Spidereuropa. From then, responsibility for product development was with Bertone, resulting in some awfully kitsch versions with two tone paint jobs and bordello-style interiors.

  2. ‘And 1990 could very well have been the time to remodel the entire car to give it another decade’s innings: integrated bumpers, crash protection’
    There have been far too many 70s designs destroyed by 80s and 90s facelifts. Some things are best left as they are.

    1. The X 1/9 already was destroyed by the US bumpers fitted as standard. Just look at the early car in the article and the latest version with the rubber nose cone in the last picture of my first comment.
      And at least to my eyes the raised bonnet necessary to cover the taller 1.5 engine did it no favours.

    2. Fiat did a comprehensive job of destroying the style of the 127 with successive “face-lifts”….

  3. Good morning Richard. A nice reminder of a time when (some) mainstream manufacturers were willing to produce niche models on which they would probably earn little or no money, notwithstanding the long production run. The X1/9 really was a delightful little thing, especially in its original form with the neat quarter-bumpers:

    Which other mainstream manufacturers produced affordable mid-engined sports cars? The Toyota MR2, MGF/TF, Opel Speedster, Renault Sport Spider, Pontiac Fiero and Lancia Montecarlo come to mind, but I can’t immediately think of any others.

    1. The really amazing thing are the production numbers of these examples.
      Toyota MR2 and Pontiac Fiero and maybe MGF sold in relatively large numbers and the Montecarlo was a glorious failure.
      The X1/9 consistently sold around 17,000 to 20,000 per year until 1980 when numbers suddenly dropped to 1,500 to 2,500 per year for a total of 156,000 made in 17 years. What happened in 1980? (the TR7 appeared…)

      Are Italian cars really so much worse than others that they invariably have to sell in numbers too small to justify them?
      And then there is Fiat who burns money on projects like the barchetta.

    2. Daniel: You could also add the Matra-Simca Bagheera and Talbot-Matra Murena, and the VW-Porsche 914.

    3. Good suggestions, Jonathan, although back then Porsche was hardly a mainstream manufacturer. The Bagheera and Murena were quirkily interesting, especially the former, which looked rather exotic, I thought.

    4. Also the Honda Beat / S660, and the Autozam (Mazda) AZ-1. According to stuttcars.com, Porsche built 118,982 Type 914s.

  4. “resulting in some awfully kitsch versions with two tone paint jobs and bordello-style interiors”

    Oooh that’s a bit harsh Dave… at least it wasn’t boring black or gray!
    My X1/9 was an immaculate 82 “IN” special edition, silver over black with red leather interior, similar to the car photographed.
    I tried to turn it back to a 1300 by removing the bumpers completely and fitting the lower engine cover and K& N filter. Underneath the rubber spoiler was the original metal spoiler , so all I needed was a 1300 grill at the front. At the time parts for early x1/9s were plentiful, most of the bodies having rotted away.
    Despite having long legs, I fitted very nicely inside and the two luggage compartments meant we had plenty of space for weekend trips to the Swiss mountains. I ended swapping it for a 2.0 Lancia Delta after about 5 years of happy motoring. Several years later I bought an MR2 AW11, a much more refined ride. If you park the two next to each other you can see how tiny the X1/9 is compared to the MR2.
    Keep up the good work DTW!
    Andrew

    1. I nad no intention to insult a proud owner, it was just my personal opinion.
      When these cars were new a then-girlfriend had a bright green metallic special edition 1,300 with lattice pattern stickers and colourful Seventies interior. It had the default modification of an Abarth exhaust with four tailpipes which made it sound at least twice as fast as it was. Girl and car were real fun at the time.
      When the Fiat was terminally corroded it was replaced by an Alfa GTV6.
      The X1/9 really is very tiny – and the beta Montecarlo is even smaller!

    2. Daniel: True re 914. I suppose I was focusing more on the VW part!

  5. My goodness, you’re right, Dave. The Monte Carlo was 3,813mm (150″) long, while the X1/9 was 3,830mm (150 3/4″) long in its original form. I’d never have guessed, as the Montecarlo looks much more substantial.

  6. Would have preferred a X1/9 with fixed headlights, possibly featuring a glassback coupe with 348-inspired rear headlights if not other elements inspired by the Ferrari Mondial T for the rest and a 120-ish hp similar output as the mk1 MR2 (does not matter if its through turbocharging as on Uno Turbo/Punto GT Turbo or increased capacity with similar spec as later Torque motor).

    That said, there has to be a better alternative for a fixed headlight X1/9 than the Stradale-inspired conversion kits. Something along the lines of the Koenig fixed-headlight Ferraris or the 512M.

    As for a proper mid-engined successor to the X1/9, Fiat did not really have much available to make a small mid-engined car and that was before their early-2000s decline though would have preferred something 360-inspired with 456 rear headlights.

    1. The X 1/9 you describe was made under the name Lancia beta Montecarlo

    2. Leaving aside the Beta 037 Stradale replicas built by owners, the Montecarlo is a bit larger, blunt fronted and in standard spec pretty underwhelming.

      Without bringing up the Ferrari visual cues, was thinking more 1.4 Turbo or 1.6 NA sports car resembling a shrunken Pontiac Fiero with a similar fixed headlight front as the Lancia Stratos one-off built for Michael Stoschek.

    3. Only by a few inches, wIt’s the Montecarlo in turn being slightly wider, heavier, larger in capacity and unfortunately earning a bit of a tarnished reputation.

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I seem to have slipped up on due diligence with the intreriors. Apologies. The general point remains: the car wasn´t nurtured gradually or allowed to transition to a more appropriate style by the mid 80s. I was fuzzy with my prose. I meant to write something meaning that by 1988 Fiat could have redone the exterior entirely, not just a facelift i.e. a Mk2.
    Taste is not to dictate but I do tend to flinch at “bordello interiors”. Such memes have extirpated red and bordeaux velour interiors as much as J Clarkson´s fecal obsession with brown has annihilated chocolate/cocoa interiors. That still left navy blue – also gone from the order books, sadly.

  8. Glanmire, Brooklodge and Riverstown? The references to places north of Cork are coming thick and fast now….

    1. Interesting – yes, there´s some kind of pattern becoming discernable. I tried to write a novel about 25 years ago and failed (the mss ended up in a skip). I had no story. For some reason now I am mulling over a narrative that is emerging from my imaginings of life in suburban Cork: the story comes first not the wish to write for its own sake. I am not sure if I can see it through. Novel-writing is painful and thankless. Maybe it´s best left as a half-formed idea to chew on while I do my morning run.

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