Midship Triptych

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

All images: Driven to Write
All images: Author’s collection.

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.

x19-10
This is a freshwater lake bed, right?

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?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

27 thoughts on “Midship Triptych”

  1. There are 424 X1/9’s registered in The Netherlands today. Without the cottage industry behind it, it must be hard it is to find certain spare parts. I wonder if it’s just a case of numbers. Too few cars on the road to make a cottage industry a viable option.

    I’ve heard of a garage that buys Barchetta’s mainly as parts cars to keep the rest of the cars on the roads.

    1. Finding spare parts for older Italian cars indeed is a major challenge.
      For example the nearly only source for barchetta parts is a guy in the Netherlands who buys them to break them up for spares.
      The barchetta club managed to buy the original tools for the rubber seals for doors and roof and found somebody who makes parts with these tools. Don’t ask for the price.

    2. Dave, we are referring to the same guy 🙂 I noticed the X1/9 below has a Dutch license plate. It’s good to see this car in this condition with the original wheels.

  2. The X1/9 ‘serie speciale’ was available in metallic lime freen, a pale blue and a copper-like red. Common denominstor were the alloy wheels with three twin spokes
    (an extreme rarity today)

    1. The alloy rims themselves are very rare today and even rarer are the aluminium hubcaps.
      The first cars had hubcaps milled from solid and polished with a ‘Cromodora’ script along the circumference which are very much sought after today and cost real money. Later cars had hubcaps that were stamped from aluminium and had a ‘FIAT’ script in the centre.

  3. “In a curious irony, FIAT’s current open two-seater is now built by Mazda in Hiroshima, and so the world turns.”

    A reminder how much things have moved on since 2017.

    So-called 124 Spider production ended in 2020, about 40,000 sold in four years. A sorry escapade which probably has several clauses of its own in The Fiat Charter©.

    1. The fake 124 numbers aren’t too bad considering they needed more than ten years to make 50,000 barchettas.

    2. I couldn’t buy a 124 Spider because it is, in essence, a fake, but I really think it was a highly competent makeover and prefer its more traditional roadster looks to those of the current MX-5:

    3. What killed the 124 for me (besides it bring a fake) was the moped sized engine.
      With a naturally aspirated two litre it might have been attractive but not with a turbo blown 1.4.

    4. Dave – “The fake 124 numbers aren’t too bad considering they needed more than ten years to make 50,000 Barchettas.”

      That’s a woeful number. Post 1970, BLMC were managing to shift around 15,000 MG Midgets – by then a living fossil – in a poor year, and sometimes far more. 9795 were produced in 1979, its final year.

      Others may be able to confirm or repudiate this, but I suspect that FCA had some kind of legal obligation to buy a defined number of cars from Mazda, either yearly or over the product lifespan. Certainly Arnold Clark had some very tempting 124 Spider deals on offer within a year of it going on the UK market.

    5. The barchetta was built by Maggiora (after their bankruptcy production was transferred to Bertone but only for a very small number of cars) where production capacity was limited to around 40 cars per day. Maggiora was small enough for the barchetta’s no very efficient production process.
      The had to weld a complete second lower half of a standard Punto A post together with the upper part of the bulkhead to a standard Punto floorpan thirty centimetres behind the existing A post.
      barchetta bodywork is made from small snippets of metal – one front wing consists of three panels for its skin alone. All these snippets were brazed together on woode jigs to make the whole front of the car in one piece (same at the rear).
      Fiat can’t have made any money on the barchetta.

      But then how did they manage to build just 7,700 montecarlos in two production runs over six years?

      If your theory is right then how did Fiat end up with a contract with Mazda at all for this single model?

    6. The MX-5 based 124 Spider was originally intended to be an Alfa Romeo, until Sergio M decided a Japanese Alfa was just wrong. Again this sounds like contractual obligation – FCA deciding that they should get something out of the deal, rather than pay penalties for withdrawal.

      Would a “New Duetto” made in Hiroshima have been such a bad thing?

      Alfa’s cupboard was very bare at the time. The 4C was too expensive to compete with the mass-produced two seaters, and only able to be made in small numbers – 2500 maximum per year, and 9,117 actually produced from 2013-2020.

      An affordable Spider could have kept the Alfa dealers happy and given the brand more relevance and mass appeal than the 4C, two mediocre hatchbacks and an unattainable supercar.

    7. The urge to get something out of a deal seems to have been a Fiat mantra.
      They justified production of the Lancia Thesis by reasoning that because development costs were paid for and then even if they knew that nobody would buy it they could produce a handful of them nevertheless.

      Now I remember the proposed Alfazda 2ettottanta
      Would a Mazda-based duetto have been a good idea?
      The 2ettotanta was meant to have the larger 1750 TB engine as used in the 4C so it at least would have been powerful enough. But I think that Alfisti expect something more specifically Alfa and the danger of running into a Mondeo/X-type trap would have been exceptionally high.

    8. Dave,

      the MX-5-based Alfa wasn’t based on PF’s 2ttottanta (sic?), but an in-house design.

      Despite its production readiness, I have yet to see any images of it.

    9. Thanks for the info, I didn’t know Alfa worked on a open top car of their own at that time.
      At this point in time I already had lost interest in contemporary cars in general and in Alfas in particular, so this one got lost on me.
      A design of their own immediately invokes inner pictures of another pig snouted bug eyed Egger Alfa so it probably was the best solution to cancel it and to never show any pictures of it to the unprepared public.
      I had the opportunity to experience the 4C once because somebody I know got one as a loaner when his 159 was in for a lengthy repair. It was a half baked noise box (sports exhaust included) made to impress semi grown ups. Not my kettle of fish.

  4. Those look like Fiat 131 or 132 wheels on the blue car at the lake bed. They suit it quite well, though.

    Looking at Fiat’s publicity material, there’s no consistency of theme, even within ranges, let alone across markets, which is also possibly part of the Fiat Charter©. I don’t think it would have occurred to management to have a co-ordinated approach, somehow.

    1. If I remember correctly, these wheels were also available on the Ritmo.

    2. Hi Fred. I think you might be confusing the Supermirafiori steel wheels with these equally distinctive items on the original Ritmo:

    3. I checked the lines on the side of the Ritmo. The base of the DLO looked liked it sloped down from front to back. It doesn´t.
      And the Ritmo has a lip on trailing edge of the roof like a Lancia Trevi (1980) and Opel Kadett (1979). The Ritmo is 1978. Coincidence? Did clay modellers wander around bringing the idea with them?

    4. You are probably right and my memory is deceiving me.

      Thank you very much for the picture. What a beautiful design, one never tires of looking at it.

    5. Interestingly (to me, anyway), when they facelifted the Ritmo, very much in accordance with the Fiat Charter (i.e, they ruined it) the lip at the trailing edge of the roof was removed to improve airflow over the rear window and help keep it clean Here’s the facelifted version:

    6. I did wonder whether that lip would lead to turbulence over the rear window. It looks as though the lip was added midway through the design and I’ve seen later aerodynamic studies with it removed, too.

      I bet it would have been a hard design to change much, as one part depends on another – more so than in some other, plainer designs.

      Anyway, that’s a beautiful picture of the blue car.

  5. A delightful collection of catalogues there, Mr Doyle for a truly stunning looking machine. The green version is effective but simply blown away by the salt lake images – idyllic setting, beautifully light and managed.

    And the “new” 124 works for me, however fake. Barely see any of these cars, mind

  6. After the sudden end of the production of the Fiat 124, Fiat Dealers were selling their stock with ridiculously low price tags, even the fully equipped Abarth versions were as cheap as a well equipped VW Polo or a dull Opel Mokka X….

    Lucky those guys that got these bargains.

    1. There are still nearly new examples from MY 2019 on mobile.de for around 23k € and less than 5,000 kms that seemingly have been used by dealers as fun cars on summer days with dealer plates.

      Why did nobody want to buy the fake 124? For me it looks much better than the Miata, the technical base is good and it surely is way better made than anything Fiat would have managed to do on its own.

      The only thing that I don’t like is the far too small engine. In an open top car I don’t want an engine that gets all its power from the turbo. A big part of the fun I get from my barchetta comes from the relation of a decently sized naturally aspirated engine to the diminutive size of the car and its relatively low weight.

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