Three brochures for the X1/9 illustrate Fiat’s differing marketing approaches.
Editor’s note: This piece was first published on Driven to Write on march 1st, 2017.
Despite having an instantly recognisable house style, FIAT Auto’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 to 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 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 or I) 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.’” And no, I am not making this up.
The second series arrived in 1978, dubbed by FIAT as the ‘Five-Speed’. Powered by an enlarged version of the same Lampredi belt driven OHC four also powering more upmarket versions of the Fiat 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 X1/9’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 product 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. But one the other hand, the carmaker’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 greater 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. Had the X1/9 carried an MG badge upon its prow there would probably be an entire cottage industry behind it now. What is it about the Italian marque that induces such apathy?