It brought mid-engined motoring to the masses, but a quarter of a century after the last X1/9 was made, the number of survivors has dwindled alarmingly.
Until the arrival of the Fiat X1/9 in 1972, mid-engined sportscars were exotic and unattainable for anyone of modest means. However, while this sporting Fiat was the first mid-engined car to be built in significant numbers (in a 17-year production run, 163,750 were built), it never made much of an impact in the UK. Here we were wedded to the idea of low-tech, front-engined sportsters from British marques – the notion of an affordable sportster with its powerplant in the middle just didn’t cut much ice.
By the time the classic British sportscars had been killed off, the hot hatch revolution was underway, and once again the X1/9 was overshadowed. It didn’t help that the mid-engined Fiat wasn’t anything like as well built as most of its potential rivals.
Despite its exotic looks, the X1/9 took all of its mechanicals from existing Fiat models. The 1300cc engine and four-speed gearbox were borrowed from the 128; thanks to their being mounted in the middle of the car, the handling was a joy. This wasn’t lost on motoring writers of the time, who also loved the economy, comfort and excellent crash resistance. But they weren’t so impressed by the fact that flat out, the X1/9 could just about muster 100mph; the four-speed gearbox also meant a busy engine on the motorway.
The answer came in 1979, when Fiat fitted a 1.5-litre OHC engine and five-speed gearbox more usually seen in the Strada. The result was a 110mph top speed and more relaxed cruising. Unfortunately, the car grew huge US-spec impact bumpers at the same time, which didn’t please the purists. By 1982, production had been farmed out to Bertone, which introduced the high-spec VS, complete with leather trim, two-tone paintwork and electric windows. But the writing was on the wall thanks to the arrival of the Toyota MR2 in 1984, and by 1989 the X1/9 had been consigned to history. Now, it’s reckoned that fewer than 500 roadworthy examples survive in the UK.
Power (bhp@rpm) 85@6000
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 87@3200
Top speed 112mph
Gearbox 5-speed manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
By far the biggest issue that faces X1/9 owners is keeping corrosion at bay, as the factory-applied rustproofing was terrible. Replacement panels dried up soon after the X1/9 went out of production; now, all that’s available are costly, hand-made (in the UK) parts that take six months to produce.
Rot can strike anywhere, but any corrosion tends to be obvious rather than hidden. The front and rear wing bottoms, sills, door bottoms and wheelarches are the first areas to go, along with the front and rear valances. The doors rot badly to the point where reskinning isn’t an option; also check the windscreen surround, the engine and luggage compartment lids plus the rear shock absorber towers. Nose panels can rot spectacularly, just like the panel at the base of the windscreen; repairing the latter is particularly likely to be involved.
Engines notch up 100,000 miles easily, if maintained. The 1300 and 1500 engines were borrowed from the 128 then the Strada, and they’re easier to access for servicing than you might think. All X1/9 engines have a cam belt that should be replaced every four years or 36,000 miles, while setting the valve clearances is awkward as it’s done with shims. The most likely issues are oil leaks from between the camshaft carrier and cylinder head, while head gasket failure can be an issue with 1300 engines.
The engine’s location means it’s susceptible to overheating if the cooling system isn’t kept in tip-top condition. There’s a thermostatically controlled electric fan (check it works) while the nose-mounted radiator corrodes and gets covered in debris. The alloy engine can corrode internally if anti-freeze levels aren’t maintained, while the steel pipes that run from the radiator to the engine can corrode inside and out; they need to be flushed through occasionally. This latter job can easily cost £600 to fix. Thermostat housings go brittle with age, then break; many used ones have been bodged with putty, so beware. Also beware of the draining system having been drained, so it doesn’t leak – it has been known.
The running gear is generally reliable. Brake callipers can seize though, along with handbrake cables on sparingly used cars – there’s no servo to go wrong. The handbrake clips on the rear calipers also seize up, and as the callipers are fragile, it’s easy to damage them when working on them. Modern brake upgrades are available for £700-£1000 – they fit straight on.
The balljoints in the front and rear suspension often wear; the former are easily replaced, but the latter are costly as they’re integral with the lower wishbone. Four-speed gearboxes tend to last well, but the five-speed units are much weaker, suffering from particularly poor synchromesh on second and third.
INTERIOR & TRIM
Low-quality interior trim pretty much guarantees problems, as the carpets tend to fall apart. Split seat trim is also a fact of life for X1/9 owners – especially on the driver’s side. The 1300 got cloth trim, the 1500 vinyl while the Lido featured Alcantara trim and the VS has leather-covered seats – none last very well. Unsurprisingly, replacement interior trim has been unavailable for years, which is why a costly retrim is the only long-term solution.
Electrical problems are common, with the headlight relays and diodes often failing. The same goes for the electric windows – and if the glass is raised and lowered by hand instead (as most are), the operating cables can break. Repairs to the windows are a real pain... Modified electrics are particularly likely to cause grief, so check for anything having been spliced into the system. Another weak spot is the alternator; it’s a poor-quality Marelli unit that’s positioned to pick up water and dirt all too easily. The result is complete failure, but Bosch and Lucas alternatives are available; they’re much more reliable.
The X1/9 represents a great buy if you rate driving fun above practicality. It’s unusual, great value and running costs are manageable too. But if you’re not to rue the day you bought your sporty Fiat, you need to track down a really good example, and that’s not as easy as you might think.