Small Wonder

Alchemy, à la Turin.

Image: Road and Track

The Autumn leaves were still carpeting the streets as the motor show stands were being dismantled at the Torino Esposizioni. November 1968 found Nuccio Bertone a worried man. Having grown his business substantially, not simply as a design consultancy but also as a contract manufacturer, Gruppo Bertone, like all satellites orbiting amid Italy’s car industry during this fecund period, was heavily reliant upon the patronage of the domestic OEM manufacturers, and in particular, the Jovian mass of FIAT SpA.

The source of Nuccio’s concern was the advent of Turin carmaker’s new for 1969 128 model. This technically advanced front-wheel drive saloon, enthusiastically received by press and buying public alike, would become a core model line, and spearhead FIAT Auto’s efforts to make a renewed breakthrough into the American sub-compact car market. Furthermore, it would also mean the ultimate demise of a core component of Bertone’s revenue stream.

Image: My Car Quest

Earlier in the decade, following the 1964 introduction of the Fiat 850 berlina, FIAT commissioned Bertone to design (and build) a two-seater Spider version, aimed primarily at the US market. This pert little roadster con vivace, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro would prove a significant US sales success, and a vitally important piece of business for Bertone’s Grugliasco manufacturing facility in Turin[1].

Given his influence and contacts, Nuccio was likely to have been privy to FIAT’s plans for the 128 family, and it became clear that any new model to succeed the 850 Spider would not only be 128-based, but with a front-driven layout, could be readily built at an existing FIAT Auto plant. For Bertone, this loss of business could spell commercial disaster – he simply had to act. Fortunately, not just an astute businessman, Nuccio Bertone also possessed a keen instinct for design, even if he had little hands-on stylistic talent himself.

1969 Fiat Runabout Barchetta concept. Image: caradisiac

As the idea for a small mid-engined design formed he tasked lead designer, Marcello Gandini and assistant, Arrigo Gallizio to create a mid-engined two-seater, employing a 128 drivetrain[2]. Although FIAT initially baulked at the idea, it was said that the Bertone proposal was seized upon enthusiastically by Gianni Agnelli, who found the idea of a supercar in miniature immensely appealing[3].

But first, proof of concept was required, so for the 1969 Turin motor show, Stile Bertone displayed the Runabout Barchetta concept, a dart-shaped open roadster (inspired by speedboat design) which previewed the production car[4]. Following its warm reception, work began in earnest on the X1/9 development programme[5]. With the bulk of production intended for the United States, the imperative was to comply with the ever-tightening regulatory environment. Primarily this manifested itself in terms of impact resistance and the proposed legislative ban on fully open car designs.

Hence X1/9 was designed with a massively strong unitary bodyshell, capable of withstanding all existing and proposed safety legislation; the provision of a stout structural member incorporated into the B-pillar, also ensuring occupant survival of even violent rollover scenarios. The removable roof panel was a fibreglass moulding, rather than fabric, for safety reasons. All of this structural integrity however ensured that while its passive (and active) safety credentials were (for the time) beyond reproach, the X1/9 paid a price in heft – at 1940 lbs, it dented the scales at 144 lbs more than an equivalent 128 Coupé.

Another core design stipulation was that of packaging. Owing to intelligent design and the compact, transversely mounted powertrain, the cabin was spacious, and allowed for two separate luggage compartments, fore and aft, lending the X1/9 an element of practicality lacking in most putative rivals.

Stylistically, the Icsunonove cleaved faithfully to the Gandini doctrine of the time, being a less extreme version of the Runabout Barchetta in profile yet deviating notably in detail. With what amounted to a three-volume silhouette, what might in lesser hands have been a somewhat static looking device proved to be a dynamic, purposeful shape, with superb proportions, a purposeful stance, and a distinct character.

Image: carstyling

Because despite what a first glance appeared a relatively simple, uncomplicated shape, it was in fact a highly sophisticated piece of product design, and an object lesson in less equalling more. There were (for those with eyes to see) clear references to contemporary Fiat products[6], but detail design aside there were few (if any) rival carmakers with the nerve to build such a technically dense and visually uncompromised car. Because if Lamborghini’s Miura had successfully upended the performance car hegemony, and Ferrari’s 1967 Dino showed how it could be improved upon, Bertone’s X1/9 not only demonstrated the extent to which the mid-engined concept could be miniaturised, it also completely redefined the inexpensive, mass-produced compact roadster.

Needless to say, the car was very well-received following its 1972 debut[7], the greatest reservation expressed at the time being the delay between its announcement and deliveries starting. Apart from the home market, initial priority was given to the United States, but even taking this into account, it was not until mid-1973 that US deliveries could begin, the 850 Spider remaining in production until such time. For right-hand drive markets however, the wait would prove interminable[8].

The X1/9 as it arrived in the Uk. The go-faster stripes were all a bit unnecessary. Image: echoretro.fr

FIAT did their due diligence when it came to chassis dynamics, but the X1/9 paid a price for its weight; the free revving 75 bhp, 1290 cc engine providing somewhat less than sprightly performance in stock form[9], a matter which would be exacerbated by the impact of US emissions equipment, which further diminished power. Nevertheless, the little Fiat could circumvent its power deficit – making up for its lack of straightline speed by retaining it through the corners – the X1/9’s balance and superb roadholding leaving all contemporary rivals in the dark ages, not to mention its own 124 Spider stablemate.

In 1978, the Fiat 128 nominally gave way to the new Ritmo[10], and the X1/9 would adopt the upper-level Ritmo’s enlarged 85 bhp 1498 cc engine, giving a useful boost in power, while a five-speed gearbox aided flexibility. Inside, a plusher redesigned cabin addressed some of the criticisms of the original layout, while externally, US Market-inspired impact absorbing bumpers made parking a less fraught experience but did nothing for the aesthetics.

Image: stubs.centreblog

This would in effect mark the beginning of the X1/9’s slow decline. From 1973 until 1978, around 100,000 X1/9’s had been delivered – primarily to the USA – but from this point, sales began to plateau[11]. A further blow occurred in late 1981, when FIAT Auto took the decision to cut their losses and pull their failing model lines from the US market. But while FIAT’s saloon cars (and Lancia offerings) had not resonated with American customers for wholly explicable reasons, their two roadsters remained eminently marketable prospects. Hence it was decided to retain both the 124 Spider and X1/9 in production – both being produced by external suppliers – but with responsibility for them henceforth entirely within their respective purview[12].

Canadian X1/9. Image: veikl

In the absence of FIAT’s own US distribution and dealership network, American International Automotive, operated by maverick entrepreneur, Malcolm Bricklin took over the cars’ importation, sales and aftersales, the X1/9 herein carrying Bertone badging[13].

From this point, FIAT seemed to lose interest. Apart from maintaining the car’s regulatory position[14], they had bigger, more pressing fish to fry. It would not be until after their post-1983 model-led resurgence that any attempt at significant model development took place. And while spy photographs showed a prototype with a glass back rear end and allegedly, an Uno Turbo powertrain, nothing came of it – largely due to the car’s dwindling appeal in the marketplace. No real harm, for aesthetically at least, it was not an inspired redesign[15].

Image: carstyling

As the 1980s dwindled, the X1/9 became a succession of increasingly desperate looking special editions; duotone paintwork, needless spoilers and extraneous addenda, all to little real effect. Customers remained loyal, largely because nothing else could offer its range of abilities, but by then, there were too few of them. Time was catching up with the X1/9. More modern alternatives from Japan, while less cleverly designed, were better wrought, more refined and unlike the delicate little Italian, wholly dependable.

The end came definitively in 1989, amid a good deal of anguish from the motor press, whose enthusiasm for the design was only matched by their frustration at FIAT’s neglect. Toyota kept the compact midship-mounted sportster concept alive in the intervening years, but the MR2 in its various forms was never as alluring, and it would not be until the advent of the exquisite, if more rarefied Lotus Elise that anything as clever or finely wrought would enter production.

The end… Image: Car magazine.

An object lesson in how basic materials can be combined to produce something wholly transcendent, the X1/9 stands as a statement of philosophy – that of the sweet life being available to all – but also of how it is possible for something diminutive and relatively inexpensive can amount to so much. That the icsononove’s abundant promise was never fulfilled remains nothing short of a tragedy, but rather than mourn this unfortunate twist of fate, we can instead marvel at both Bertone and FIAT’s ambition.

Not every supercar hailed from Modena.

Sources: Classic and Sportscar Jan 1987/ Car magazine Aug 1989.

[1] This was particularly acute after Bertone lost out to rival, Pininfarina on the Alfa Romeo 105 Spider and 124 Spider contracts.

[2] Allegedly, Bertone’s initial attempt was for a front-engined 128 Spider, but it was not a very appealing proposition, thereby forcing a wholesale rethink. The story goes that Nuccio became determined to propose a vehicle that FIAT would be unable to build themselves, thereby securing his Grugliasco workforce – recounted by none other than Marcello Gandini himself.

[3] He probably just fancied one for himself.

[4] To throw the press, and rivals off the scent, the concept had an Autobianchi-badged powertrain. 

[5] The X1/9 was the first Fiat Auto model to retain its development code into production; the Lancia Y10 later doing so. 

[6] The side scallops made reference to the 126 and 132 models, introduced at the same time. 

[7] Owing to commercial sensitivities, FIAT elected not to reveal the X1/9 at the Turin show, postponing its official debut until just after the salon di Torino. 

[8] UK and Irish customers had to wait until early 1977 before RHD X1/9s became available from Lingotto. 

[9] The X1/9’s powertrain was shared with the X1/1 (Fiat 128). This engine was originally derived from an Abarth racing unit, which was repurposed by Aurelio Lampredi for more prosaic purposes. However, its racing bones would show through – not least in its willingness to rev – with the right camshaft, up to 8000 rpm. The short stroke, belt driven four could be readily and inexpensively modified and 130 bhp was easily achieved. 

[10] The Ritmo didn’t directly replace the 128, the latter remaining on sale in Europe into the early ’80s.

[11] It isn’t inaccurate to say that sportscar buyers in the US market preferred relatively conventional engineering solutions. Therefore, the Fiat 124 Spider maintained a strong following well into the 1980s, despite its age and antiquity. The X1/9 on the other hand, proved more of a leftfield choice. 

[12] FIAT’s commercial decision to retain the X1/9 and 124 Spider in production was sound. However, it is possible that there was another imperative at play; not exactly altruism, but perhaps the maintenance of the respective carrozzeria’s production capabilities during a difficult time, for they might be needed again at a later date. 

[13] The X1/9 bodyshell had originally been assembled, painted and trimmed at Grugliasco, before being sent to receive its drivetrain and final assembly at Lingotto. Following FIAT’s withdrawal from the US however, and the closure of the Lingotto facility in 1981, Bertone took over assembly in full – as did Pininfarina of the 124 SpiderEuropa.

[14] Bosch fuel injection was standardised for North American market X1/9s from 1982. (It had been available as an option from 1980). 

[15] While the Uno Turbo powertrain was a thoroughly sensible and much needed progression, the body styling was very much in keeping with the Fiat (facelift) Charter®.

 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “Small Wonder”

  1. Excellent research and write up. Congratulations.

    I had a good company with X1/9 during my youth, and I must say that those behind the concept, design, engineering and production of such an excellent execution did a perfect job, altogether combined.

  2. Much criticism has been made of the X1/9’s lack of power, it’s a shame the Uno Turbo powertrain wasn’t squeezed in.
    But it can be now, along with anything else that fits, or can be made to fit, from Fiat’s own larger four cylinder engines, (as used in some Abarth versions) to the Alfa V6 and various engines from other manufacturers, ( somewhat to the chagrin of Fiat enthusiasts, the Honda K20 is a popular swap.)

    https://www.midwest-bayless.com/p-1029-acura-honda-k20-k24-engine-swap-kit-for-fiat-bertone-x19.aspx
    https://www.fiatforum.com/threads/what-engines-fit-x1-9.26349/page-2

    Later on Bertone themselves had a go at restyling the X1/9 with a bubble back like a 924. The less said about it, the better.

  3. The X1/9 was the first car for which Bertone had full responsibility in terms of design, development and production readiness (just as the larger – in reality physically smaller – sibling X1/20 Lancia montecarlo was the first such car for Pininfarina).
    Bertone needed a car that could be sold at prices high enough to make sure production numbers didn’t exceed his capacity and were too small for Fiat at the same time.

    The green X1/9 with the go-faster stripes actually is a ‘special’ version which was available in metallic paint only in bright green, medium blue and pale red. The stick-on stripes helped to disguise the cheap black blanking plugs in the holed for the US sidemarker lights for which the X1/9 was often criticised in the press. The ‘special’ had a new and very colourful interior.
    https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/52d46dd9e4b0f63bcb07fa01/1430435725025-UZTHJU5TYMVNPZCV5IFX/image-asset.jpeg?format=1500w
    A girl I knew had such a bright green X1/9 to go with an MV Agusta motorcycle.
    The little Fiat later was replaced by an Alfa GTV6.
    That’s what I call a garage with style…

    The later 1.5 engine had a taller block that didn’t fit under the original engine cover. The cars with the bigger engine therefore not only had those impossibly ugly bumpers but also a raised engine cover that made the car look slightly hump backed.

  4. Good morning, what a nice piece on a very interesting car.

    But the funniest thing has to be the ads – especially the long, convoluted text in French (I happen to be fluent, as you might recognize reading my less than perfect English) and of course that girl in a blue bathing suit, posing in such a natural way on the top of the car – as everyone would, of course!

  5. This mid-engined beauty was an absolute delight and really did look like a supercar in miniature with its ultra-crisp finely drawn lines. It was, of course, best in its original, unspoiled form without decals or the later, disfiguring US spec bumpers.

    But, what was it actually called? This isn’t a trick question. Was it X1/9, X1-9 or even X1.9? Even Fiat (and Bertone) seemed unable to decide. Fiat’s UK advertising seemed to settle on X1/9 even though the ‘official’ B-pillar decal instead used something between a dot and a dash between the 1 and 9. In this advertisement for the Bertone branded car, it is referred to as both an X1/9 and an X1-9:

    And that, dear friends, is the question for today’s heated debate!

    1. Dear Daniel, it’s a good question indeed. Unfortunately, I have no answer. I can only reiterate: Why this name? And how is one supposed to read it?

  6. The first car I bought when I moved to Switzerland was a X1/9 IN, a special edition in silver over black with the red leather interior similar to the photo above. It was perfect for exploring the country, the two boots were more than large enough for a weekend away. Despite having long legs, I managed to fit in quite comfortably, maybe I was a bit more flexible in those days. The roof panel could be removed and stowed in less than 30sec and top down in the mountains you could give Vollgas without worrying about going over the edge.

    Being a 1500 version, it had the big bumpers, these were removed in between tests and improved the looks no end, the weight reduction was also welcome. When Hr Polizist questioned their omission, I told him it was because I was fixing the rust, an explanation which was accepted without question. The original metal front spoiler was hiding under all the plastic, so I fitted the plastic grill from the 1300 to restore the sleeker look (see photo above of the yellow example). I also swapped out the air filter for a K&N, which reduced the height of the engine and I had the flat 1300 engine cover to install but never quite got round to it.

    My example was pampered and usually only came out on sunny days*, so had no rust and proved reliable; the only time it let me down was when an exhaust gasket blew one morning which entailed a tow home. The only sour note was a small incident with a cyclist who didn’t see me coming. The repairs took longer than expected due to the difficulty in sourcing a replacement headlight pod.
    After several years of happy alfresco motoring, we had to swap it for something more practical for my wife, a Lancia Delta but that’s another story.
    All in all, a brilliant little car. I’m glad I had a good one not a rust bucket. Although I gaze at examples for sale or restoration, I think of my shiny red MX-5 in the garage and try to put those nostalgic thoughts back in the box**

    Thanks again DTW
    And merry Christmas to all the contributors for the discussions!

    Andrew
    *For shopping and trips to the UK, I had a P924 (automatic, fully galvanised!).
    **A fully sorted green 1300, with deckchair seat fabric would be sorely tempting though
    ***A don’t forget it’s a film star as well, starring in the “Silver Streak” with Gene Wilder and Richard Prior

  7. The X1/9 is a beautiful piece of motoring. I regret never having owned one.
    A few years ago, there was a Series 1 in yellow at a classic car meeting. Definitely a car to fall in love with.

    Porsche also had a hand in the X1/9. The roof construction is the same as on the 914 and Porsche licensed the patent to Fiat/Bertone.
    (My father, who designed the roof attachment on the 914, also got something from the licence fees at the time. I wonder if Porsche is as generous to its employees today).

  8. Apparently, Bertone also made a sucessor proposal called the X1/10. It looks like a Volvo Tundra-Ferrari Rainbow combo and I’m not sure if I like it or not…

    [img]https://i.imgur.com/7bH0Cn7.jpg[/img]

    [img]https://i.imgur.com/mydfzT8.jpg[/img]

  9. I think the X/19 is lovely. Every I see one, I think the styling is a bit busy (depending on the version), but I have to say it looks great fun. Here’s an American road test from the early ‘80s. Engine access looks a bit tight.

  10. What a fantastic little car, left to wither on the vine like so many Fiats. The proposed successor that David posted looks fully absurd, the X1/10 boarezina looks… interesting, but a lot less refined.

    In today’s car market, it’s mind boggling to think of such a small car (and the Beta MonteCarlo) being designed, but small coupés and convertibles were standard fare back then. Making the thing a mid-engined mini-supercar certainly wasn’t. It’s actually easy to forget how young the whole (mid engine) supercar concept was when the X1/9 debuted, the Miura only being six years old.

    Many thanks Eóin.

  11. Thanks for the article, the X1/9 is one of those cars that despite being really interesting I´ve never spent too many thoughts about. But seeing an early 1.3 one without the terrible US bumpers (or the “Gran Finale” rear spoiler) is a delight.

    On paper the Beta Montecarlo (or X1/20) resolved the lack of power and had a plusher interior, seems the perfect upgrade from the X1/9; it would be nice to read some experiencies from somebody who owned or drove both.

  12. Thanks for bringing this car back to our memories, Eóin! I still remember it from the days when it was quite common on our streets.

    What struck me most in the article, however, wasn’t the subject car itself, but the fact that there were only 5 years between the antediluvian 850 and the modern(ist) 128. This was really a change of era for Fiat in short time!

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