Should the Fiat X1/9 ever come up in conversation, what do you imagine would be said? 'Pretty' will likely come up, maybe 'innovative', too, given its transverse, mid-engined layout. No discussion would be complete without mentioning 'rust' either, because the X1/9 is certainly of the era when Italian cars liked to oxidise...
What you probably won't talk about, though, is rallying. Which is a shame, because the story is fascinating. Devised as a replacement for the 124, the X1/9 'prototipo' rally cars showed huge potential in 1974; quick, light and agile, it was described by test driver Giorgio Panta as "easier to drive and faster than a Stratos." The road cars were in development, homologation was due to be completed in February 1975... then at the 11th hour (and 59th minute), Fiat opted to rally the 131 instead. What might have been, eh?
Despite appearances, the car you see here is not one of those prototipos, lacking as it does a roof scoop and, er, the best part of 100hp. However, that doesn't stop this particular X1/9 being one of the most exciting and enjoyable little cars I've ever driven - and as relevant to road driving and motorsport as it's ever been in more than 40 years.
The car currently belongs to DM Classics, who purchased it at auction earlier this year. It had been rallied in France for a few years prior to that, but spent the majority of it life in Italy under the care of Abarth Classiche mechanics. Sold with a new engine and a body mercifully preserved, it was a car Dominic and Marcus of DM said they couldn't pass up when they were made aware of it. With a valid FIA Historic Technical Passport, too, the Fiat is a proper little racer.
Even if it the engine were seized, the entire chassis rotten and the papers missing, it's easy to imagine being totally beguiled by the little Fiat in an auction hall. It's just so pretty, the junior supercar silhouette given some attitude with the motorsport add-ons but not entirely at the expense of the standard car's delicate proportions. The stance is spot on, the details are gorgeous and everything about the X1/9's exterior implores you to get in and drive it. Now. Get in. Drive it, now. Fast.
However, in true 70s (small) supercar fashion, the Fiat is an absolute nightmare to get into. Because as well as the offset (and tremendously cramped) pedals, the long-arm, short-leg driving position and the oddly raked wheel, there's all the racing paraphernalia to deal with as well. So that means harnesses, a roll cage, a new wide-angle rear view mirror that you will bang your head on and plastic windows. That don't really open very far. And it's hot now. Here goes nothing...
Start up procedures are cool, aren't they? By which I mean it's more than just a key twist. For the X1/9 switches must be turned on and buttons pressed before you turn it over (with a bit of throttle) to get the little 1.3 to its surprisingly docile idle. It feels like a race even though you're in the Kent countryside. And it feels even more like a race with a few blips of the throttle, carbs snorting eagerly and angrily with every extra millimetre of travel.
What with being a race car and all (albeit one that now has an MOT, so it can be registered in the UK), the X1/9 is an absolute pain at slow speeds. You know, the ones required for most photography. Of course the steering is heavy, but the clutch is also extremely stiff, the engine isn't much interested below 3,000rpm and the false neutral is incredibly irritating. I stall it. A lot. I swear at it. A lot. Hot, bothered and unsure whether 75hp can really be worth this much hassle, I'm not exactly getting on with the Fiat initially. How about getting out and just looking at it again?
Now you know how the next bit goes: open road, sunshine, rasping engine and a jolly good time had by all. Well, with apologies for following the script to a tee, that's exactly what happened. Freed from the shackles of photography, the X1/9 is just fabulous, as magnificent as it was maddening just a few minutes earlier.
Offered another go in this or a Seven Supersprint, the Caterham wouldn't even get a second glance. Same goes for something like a Cayman GTS or similar. Only once up into 'proper' supercars is there a driving experience that matches the Fiat for involvement, entertainment and sheer joy.
And that's the point about relevance, nearly 45 years after the Fiat was made. You're never going all that fast, but such is the sensory overload - the smell, the fabulous noise, the suede literally coming off in your sweaty palms - that it feels extraordinary. There's grip and there's prodigious turn in (just look at that negative camber) and the most exquisite steering feel; in the same way that every millimetre of throttle elicits a response, so seemingly every tiny extra bit of lock darts those pop up lights a bit closer to the apex. It's alive, incessantly demanding and endlessly rewarding, because it's a challenge. You won't get to grips with a car like this straightaway - so look elsewhere for an on-the-limit analysis - but that's what makes it such fantastic fun. Your heel and toe won't always be spot on, you may well spin it and you'll most definitely stall it, yet when it feels like it's coming together you won't want to drive anything else.
So yes, the Fiat is a rather special little car. It most certainly requires (and will continue to require) some patience, though again very few things that offer instant gratification also endure for the long term. As something to learn, appreciate and enjoy over a good many years as new cars move ever further away from this level of interaction, the little Prototipo replica would surely be an absolute dream.
There's more detail on the X1/9 via the ad here - huge thanks to DM Historics for letting us have a go!