Picture yourself in 1978. The world was filled with colors never seen before by man. Bright orange, lime green, lemon yellow, arrest-me red, and cyan blue. The air was filled with the best music our artists (and narcotics) could provide.
A 1973 Pontiac Grand Am rumbles past blaring Lynard Skynard, a gorgeous blonde in one of those new Jaguar XJS’ attempts to start their car, and a new Fiat X1/9 sits out front on a lot alongside other “foreign jobs” with a look like you’ve never seen before. It looks lovingly at you, showing off its pop-up headlights as if it could wink at you and show a little ass, tempting you to take a chance.
After very little persuasion, you sign on the line, trading in your Toyota Celica for something far more unique. Louvers as an engine cover, a removable targa roof, and an engine in a place you never thought possible. Closest thing you’ve ever seen to this was on the big screens, Luke Skywalker flew something like this last year. You turn up Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife” and down the road you go in your new Grigio Metallic Fiat X1/9.
It becomes apparent pretty early on that you’re not going to win any races on Woodward Drive, except perhaps against a baby in a runaway pram, but this Fiat X1/9 handles better than an X-Wing starfighter with a bogey on its tail. With its fully independent suspension on all four corners and goofy 41/59 weight distribution (helped by some clever steering and suspension geometry) you’re the king of the twists and turns. Sure, you still have to watch out for those pesky Triumph Spitfires and Porsche 914s, but with the Fiat’s agility, it handles better than a fruit fly on speed. Bertone big brothers Lancia Stratos and Lamborghini Miura watch in pride as you attack each corner with the confidence of Niki Lauda. Utilizing every dollop of power to maintain motion, every pony is prancing hard to pull (well, push, really) this cart.
The 1970s were a pretty bad time for people who cared about going zero to sixty faster than the speed of light. Most cars from the mid-seventies were comically slower than their predecessors. Making cars snarl with asphalt-rippling power and no regards to human life inside or out of the car was deemed a bad thing by Uncle Sam and the insurance companies that had to pay out for our calamities.
It was game over for the performance cars, ushering in a new age of 5 mph safety bumpers, seat belt buzzers, and power-robbing emissions equipment. In 1972, Fiat introduced the first sports car to be mindful of the changing tides. Its power source was that of their existing Fiat 124, a 1.3 liter, single overhead cam four cylinder, making a saucy 85 horsepower and returning excellent fuel economy. Designed by Bertone, the Fiat X1/9’s larger safety bumpers were elegantly styled, incorporating the parking lights smartly recessed within. By 1976 the bumpers grew in size again, but still looked attractive compared to the X1/9’s competitors’ beaks and butts.
All that said, this Fiat X1/9 is downright groovy, it’s outta sight, I can get down with it like a Cadillac with four flat tires, ya dig? It’s as provocative as a thick 1970s mustache yet classier than a J.C. Penney catalog girl. The rhythm of the engine, a seemingly unbalanced, growling four-cylinder, infectiously resonates up and down your spine. Legroom isn’t gracious but allows enough room for your platform shoes. With the Targa top removed, wind and sunshine flood every corner of the cabin, billowing out your ruffled baby blue polyester shirt. The speakers are pitchy, but match Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” as if the band were there with you in the passenger seat jamming.
A Cheshire cat-like grin grows across your face as you snick the shifter into first gear. With its short ratio, you’re taking off quickly as if on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Quickly hitting 6,500 rpm, you coax it into second gear just to hit redline again. Third gear, a long curve and you dare take the chance to hit it like the road owes you money. The X1/9 rolls a bit, then quickly settles into the turn, giving you the confidence to bury the throttle and ring the bells of your Italian 4-cylinder X-Wing starfighter. The little engine that could is screaming like a cat in heat, and you slam it into high gear now moving at a speed that’ll make Jimmy Carter’s head spin. Your lack of modern power means nothing. The lack of air bags means nothing. You’re in your own rocket ship on a course through the stars.
A tight right hander is coming up and you heel toe down into third, engine-braking down to an appropriate speed to avoid ending up in prison. The car is communicative, with balanced disc and drum brakes that slow the Italian flea with ease. Sun shines down across the bonnet and the brilliant silver paint glimmers like Elton John’s best outfits. Burbling and a humorous “pop” from the exhaust remind you that you’re rallying a car of racing heritage.
An upcoming red-light on the horizon beckons you to cool your heels. Slowing down, you take a second to relax the grip around the sculpted four-spoke steering wheel. For a moment, you forget about the Fiat X1/9’s tales of of rusting, catching fire, or electrical gremlins. In the moment, you’re left gripping the wheel and tall, thin gear lever. Hands vibrating from excitement, your feet cold as if you just performed on a stage of hundreds.
The light turns green and the fun starts all over again.
Thanks to Bobby Iasillo for lending us this Fiat X1/9 for review.