Wednesday January 10, 2018
A little over 40 years ago, those British motorists who craved affordable open-topped transport with that essential sense of brio were finally offered an RHD version of Fiat’s delightful X/19. Autocar thought it was ‘a design of considerable flair offering performance and economy at a sensible price’ and Motor Sport called the Fiat an ‘incomparable and delightful, mid-engined small sports car’. Today, any surviving model is almost guaranteed to turn heads, not least Claire Lee’s ultra-rare ‘Gran Finale’ last of the line example that starred at the Lancaster Insurance sponsored Pride of Ownership stand at the NEC.
Back in 1969, Bertone displayed a rather incredible-looing prototype named the Autobianchi A112 Runabout at the Turin Motor Show, with running gear from the new FWD Fiat 128 saloon. Naturally, a car that looked as though it had belonged in an episode of UFO attracted considerable attention and the Runabout’s coachwork formed the basis of the X1/9, which debuted in November 1972. The body incorporated an integral roll bar in anticipation of new safety regulations in the vital US sales territory and power was from a transversely mounted 1.3 litre SOHC engine. There was also all independent suspension, disc braking and a Targa Top’, a form of detachable roof that was previously associated with Porsche.
Prior to January 1977, UK-based enthusiasts could only either read of this splendid machine in Motor or spend £3,750 on one of Rabourne Racing’s RHD conversions. When the officially imported X1/9s began to appear on the mean(ish) streets of Hampshire, I vividly recall being amazed. Green metallic is the colour that I still associate with the X1/9, not least because of this Thames TV report, but the appeal of this great Fiat extended well beyond the paint finishes and the pop-up headlamps. For just £2,997, you too could don a pair of shades and become the Vittorio Gassman of downtown Portsmouth, the sun pouring through the open roof as the Fiat sped towards that thrilling rendezvous at Cosham High Street.
The standard equipment for the British-market included alloy wheels, front fog lamps, tinted glass, cloth trim in tones that were either distinctive or brash according to your point of view and – best of all – tailored luggage for the rear boot. The roof could be stored in the front boot but a slight challenge to taller owners was the limited cabin space that was exacerbated by the fixed backrests on the seats. But this was a mere detail in such an enjoyable car, especially if you were one of the fortunate owners of the special edition Lido with its black metallic bodywork and white suede trim. For some reason, I envisage Kirk St. Moritz from Dear John favouring this form of the X1/9…
From late 1978 onwards the X1/9 was offered in 1.5-litre form with an engine and five-speed transmission from the Ritmo/Strada; there were also, at last, reclining seats. The top speed was 106 mph which was some 3 mph slower than the TR7 but then the Fiat cost nearly £200 less and offered fresh air motoring; the Triumph would not be available in convertible form until 1979 in the USA and 1980 in the UK. For the first ten years of its run the X1/9’s interior and bodies were constructed by Bertone and after 1982 they manufactured the entire vehicle. Production finally ceased in 1989, leaving behind a legacy of a design that radically altered the nature of the mass-produced sports car, one that continues to exude sheer style. And many visitors to the NEC will instantly think of such images as these when they encountered the X1/9 at the Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show, with Discovery.