The Italian preference of creativity over consistency has not always served the country well. But when it did, it resulted in delightful concepts like the Fiat X1/9.
One of the main reasons for the success of the German car industry has been its preference of evolutionary, thorough product planning over a more impulsive, haphazard approach.
Most Italian automotive brands have chosen a less measured modus operandi, which has resulted in a rather regrettable state of affairs south of the Alps these days. Apart from Ferrari’s careful product planning, it must be considered a bit of a tragedy that a country that still ranks among the cradles of the automobile today cannot boast a single model that’s been steadily developed over decades. Giulia, Panda, 500 and Ghibli may be household names in themselves, but that didn’t result in any of these models being nurtured and perfected over time, like a Golf or 3 series.
But this Italian lack of consistency has a clear upside to it, as well. For what the product planners of Turin and Milan lacked in diligence and - probably - foresight, others made up for with ingenuity and creativity. Which is part of the explanation as to why there were so many cars coming from the Lingotto, Grugliasco and Arese factories that, albeit on occasion deeply flawed, remain highly captivating creations to this day.
The Fiat X1/9 is one such car. It’s idiosyncrasies start with the name, which bears no resemblance with the rest of Fiat’s nomenclature. It is, in fact, Fiat’s internal development code, which was just this once employed to name a production car. This may have been due to the slightly mysterious aura of what could be either a nonsensical alphanumerical combination or a some highly sophisticated code. Or a last minute panic call.
Thankfully, the reasoning behind X1/9’s concept and execution isn’t even remotely as obscure. Designed (rather than merely styled) and built at Bertone, X1/9 is the product an era when Italian coachbuilders played a highly influential role not just in styling, but developing and building niche models on the basis of the Italian car brands’ core models. This process mustn’t be mistaken for the usual type of outsourcing, for it was far too creative and relevant for the Italian automobile for that.
In those days, creating convertibles was exclusively the business of the carrozzerie. Pininfarina built Alfa Spiders and Fiat 124 Spiders at Cambiano, whereas Bertone churned out Fiat 850 Spiders at Grugliasco. A fair arrangement that hit a serious hurdle towards the dawn of the 1970s, when it was feared that the United States, where most cabriolets were destined to be shipped, might ban open-toped automobiles altogether. Pininfarina didn’t have to act immediately, as both the Alfa and Fiat Spider models were still fairly recent at that point. But Bertone wasn’t in as favourable a position, as the end of the line for the little 850 Spider was in sight, and this contract was a rather important one to the expanded Bertone empire.
Such a difficult set of circumstances called for a bit of imaginative resourcefulness, at which the carrozzerie in general, and Bertone in particular, excelled. For simply using the front wheel drive basis of the 850’s successor, the all-new Fiat 128, for a new convertible would have been challenging in itself, given the issues that had arisen on the US market. Not to mention the fact that it was feared that modern production methods might enable Fiat to simply build such a derivative themselves.
Bertone’s owner and managing director, Nuccio Bertone, may not have been a stylist. But he was a creative mind of a different kind. Moreover, he had an excellent instinct fur nurturing talent, as he’d previously proven by hiring outstanding designers, such as Franco Scaglione or a certain kid with a deft hand in wielding the sketching pen by the name of Giorgetto Giugiaro. Bertone’s current prodigy when the (Giugiaro-styled) 850 Spider’s successor was to be conceptualised was Marcello Gandini. And at that point in his stellar career, Gandini certainly liked to play fast and loose with the norms.
The first fruit of this creative process that would eventually result in X1/9 couldn’t have been any more different form Giugiaro’s soft, cute 850 Spider. The Bertone Runabout concept car, unveiled at the 1969 Turin Motorshow and based upon the Autobianchi Primula’s front wheel drive underpinnings, was a sharp, thin sliver of a car, an utterly single-minded shape, which appeared to almost be flipping conventional open-top vehicles the bird. With the Runabout, as he’d do again a few years later with his design of the Lamborghini Countach, Gandini achieved nothing less than a stylistic paradigm shift.
All of which would be interesting in itself, albeit only from a purely visual perspective, if Gandini and Bertone hadn’t been just as brave when it came to turning the Runabout into a production car. For, despite gaining a windshield and about twice the original body volume of the Runabout, the X1/9 is as clean-sheet a car design as they come. Based on a ‘turned around’ version of the Fiat 128’s chassis, it was both mid-engined and rear wheel drive. In short: supercar specification.
At a time when such details were the preserve of serious performance cars, the X1/9 came equipped with pop-up headlamps and a clear graphical silhouette, which lend it more than a faint whiff of pocket-sized supercar style. Its Ralph Nader-friendly targa roof had also previously been unheard of in the Fiat’s price range. So despite its very compact dimensions (which did not entail poor space efficiency) and modest performance figures, the X1/9 was nothing less than a drastic effort at bringing cutting edge forms to the masses. As well as excellent handling, it must be said. Yet again, Fiat proved to be at its best when democratising the automobile.
As with many mould-breakers, X1/9’s shape proved to be neither particularly adaptable (as shown by later facelift efforts) nor timeless, but this was never a car intended to be tastefully elegant and restrained. It was supposed to either excite or rub the wrong way, depending on one’s disposition.
Yet semi-dismissing X1/9 as a one-trick pony doesn’t do it justice. For this is a small, affordable sports car that brought avant-garde forms to the masses and thus proved that modesty needn’t come at the expense of style. It is therefore a peculiarly Italian creation. A fact that’s also highlighted by the car’s shortcomings.
Just as X1/9’s exterior embodies so much of what’s good about the carrozzerie’s golden age output, its cabin similarly exemplifies the malaise of Italian interior design of the 1970s. For despite featuring what appears to be a nod to Fiat’s modernist four rhombi corporate logo (which would only be applied to cars in 1981) on its door cards, the X1/9’s cockpit features little of the flair and none of the attention to detail that informed its exterior. Its four-spoke steering wheel could be interpreted as a diluted stab at Gandini’s penchant for blunt graphics at the time, but both this and the octagonal air vent openings are not good enough to distract from the uninspired, slightly shoddy ambience that’s unfortunately very common among Italianate offerings of that period. It would take Fiat six more years before the Turinese brand eventually unveiled an inspiring interior, with the all-new Ritmo in 1978. It’s a shame the X1/9 never received the kind of interior its body shape so thoroughly deserved.
And it’s equally regrettable that this Fiat never got a proper successor, either. At least not courtesy of the Italians, for it was Mazda that presented the X1/9’s replacement in 1989, in the form of the Miata/Eunos/MX-5 roadster. This happened to be the same year the X1/9’s production finally ended. By that point, it was called Bertone X1/9 and had gained quite a few add-ons that didn’t do its thoroughbred Gandini design many favours. Which doesn’t alter the fact that the clean, soft Mazda fulfilled exactly the same brief as the Fiat had done for so many years, only in a fashion appropriate for the 1990s - and more robustly engineered.
Just as its inception is an example of Italy’s creative might, the X1/9’s diminution from the market it had once dominated yet again explains why, despite such an astounding heritage and engineering and stylistic talent of an enormous pedigree, the Italian automotive industry is mostly seen as struggling, rather than flourishing these days.
Time to take out a clean sheet of paper.
Thanks to Movisti Classic Automobiles for supplying the demonstrator car
© auto-didakt.com, all rights reserved