This is a car that wants one thing from you, and one thing only: To go faster. To press a little harder on that curved accelerator pedal. Come on, come on, come on! the engine sings over your shoulder, rasping through its four velocity stacks, snarling out of the four tips of its Monza exhaust, rewarding the slightest twitch of your right ankle with an immediate surge of power.
Who can resist such temptation? Thankfully, the traffic threading its way through New York’s Westchester County on the Bronx River Parkway is light this afternoon. Slow-moving Ford Explorer hogging the passing lane? No problem–a gentle squeeze of the accelerator, a twitch of the fat steering wheel, and, just like that, the Ford disappears in the rearview mirror. As quickly as it’s thought of, it’s done.
Ron Gallo’s 1979 Fiat X1/9 is a tantalizing look at the performance potential of Turin’s targa-topped wedge, an exploration of the possibilities that Fiat and the car’s builder, Bertone, chose not to exploit. Introduced in the U.S. in 1973 as the successor to the 850 Spider, the radically new X1/9 was a mild-mannered sports car, one whose mid-engine balance and go-kart handling helped enthusiasts accept the fact that its 1,290cc engine made just 66.5 horsepower in U.S. trim.
Accept, perhaps, but not overlook. When Road & Track surveyed the X1/9 owners among its readers in 1977, the number one complaint, voiced by 49 percent of those who responded, was the lack of power. Emissions controls had sucked another six horsepower out of the 1,300 by the time Fiat responded with a 1,498cc version of the inline-four from the Ritmo (Strada to us) that made–ta da!–67 horsepower. (Fuel injection finally came along in late 1980, bringing the output to 75 horsepower.) No wonder so many owners resorted to all the tuning tricks and bolt-on speed parts they could afford.
Ron had owned a 1978 X1/9 back in the 1980s, and one of his performance tweaks was the installation of a big set of carburetors: a pair of Weber 40 DCNF two-barrels. He later sold the car, but kept the Webers and their Pierce intake manifold, figuring–rightly, as it turned out–that they might come in handy one day if he ever owned another.
That day came last year. His son, Ron Jr., had been complaining for years that Ron had sold off all of his hobby cars, such as his V-6 powered Ford Fiesta Shogun, America’s answer to Renault’s R5-based Turbo 2. “He suggested that we buy a [Toyota] MR2, and so I said to him, ‘Why don’t we get an X1/9?’ I had these carburetors in the basement for 25 years. His first question was, ‘What’s an X1/9?’, and his second question was, ‘You expect me to drive a car with 75 horsepower?’ Because he’s a modern-day guy. He drives a Sentra SE-R that has some kick to it. I said, ‘Let’s put the Webers on it,’ and he said okay. And then one thing led to another.”
If you’ve tried locating a clean Fiat X1/9 lately, you’ll appreciate Ron’s good luck in finding one so quickly. The car, a 1979 model in carbureted, 1,498cc trim, was being advertised on an online sales site; it was being sold for the widow of the original owner by a friend. It had not been driven in years, and the blue paint had turned chalky, but it was complete, rust-free and in decent condition.
Let’s start our tour of the modifications with the engine. It’s a stroked, 1,803cc version built up from the third-generation Fiat SOHC 1,581cc block, originally designed as a 1,115cc engine by Aurelio Lampredi in the early 1960s. Its maximum output is 155 horsepower at 6,200 RPM, which isn’t going to knock anyone’s hat off in this day of 250-horsepower minivans. But it’s the seamless and immediate way this engine produces its power, and its abundant torque, that make this engine such a brilliant performer. “The symmetry of torque to horsepower is key with any good builder,” Ron says. “Torque lifts the car, and then hands the baton over to the horsepower without any giant change in the dynamics of the engine.” It’s a beautiful piece of machinery, too, jewel-like with its softly polished velocity stacks and powdercoated matte red cam cover, a slice of four-cylinder exotica. If Ferrari had built a four-cylinder road car in the 1970s, this is what its engine would have looked like.
There are other ways to give the X1/9 more motivation; among the more popular are substituting the Lancia Beta’s transverse version of Fiat’s DOHC, 1,800cc four, or Honda’s modern DOHC, iVTEC K20A four. Ron never seriously considered these ideas, because to him, it was important that the car remain all X1/9. “Chuck Beck of Beck Speedster fame [the co-builder of the Shogun] always told me, ‘When you modify the car, always protect the brand.’ So I wanted to keep it a Fiat single overhead cam, with a Fiat Abarth twist,” he says.
Ron consulted his longtime friend (and former X1/9 owner) Steve Mastroianni at Auto Turismo Sport in New Milford, Connecticut. “He said, ‘The problem is that if you put Webers on that car, you’re just going to turn it into a giant fuel pump. You’re going to want to think about a bigger cam, and then you need to think about bigger valves to handle the cam, and then you need to think about porting and polishing it, to improve the flow, and then, of course, you’ve got to put a header on it.'” ATS would play the lead role in the car’s construction, carrying out the suspension work, the engine installation and the restoration of the engine bay. “Stevie and his guys at ATS were the perfect group to help create, install and tune this project,” Ron says. “Their many years of Ferrari and Abarth experience was necessary to make this X a great car.”
A search for someone who could supply a reworked cylinder head led Ron to David Komar, a successful racer of Fiats and Yugos who runs a shop in Slovenia. Wanting more torque from the finished engine, Ron asked David about building a 1,600cc block, a common step up from stock. “Most guys who go to 1,600 are starting at 1,300, so they can justify the money. [Starting with a 1,500], it’s a lot of potatoes just to get another 100cc,” Ron says. “So I said to Komar, ‘Listen, I don’t know if I want to spend the money for just 100cc.'” That’s when David proposed what many X1/9 fans believe is impossible: Stretching the 1,500cc block to 1,800cc.
“He said, ‘I’ll give you a full race motor, streetable, with Teflon-coated short-skirt pistons, custom rods, custom crankshaft, the whole magilla.’ And I said, ‘How much?’, and he told me, and I said, ‘Wow.’ And I asked him, ‘How many have you built?’, and he said, ‘None.’ And he said, ‘You’ll see, it’ll be a great motor.’ So we did it. His word was good enough for me.”
The exact process to get to 1,800cc is David’s trade secret, Ron says, but the trick is to begin with a European version of the 1,581cc block, which has a 13mm higher deck and a relocated main oil galley and auxiliary shaft, compared with the North American block. The bore was opened up by 1mm, to 87mm; combined with a 76mm stroke (versus 63.9mm stock), it results in a displacement of 1,803cc. The block simply drops in place, needing no alteration of the mounts or anything else.
All of the components that went back into the cast-iron block were chosen for lightness and balance. The crankshaft is custom-made; it’s lighter than the stock version, and has smaller, dual counterweights where the factory version used single counterweights. The pistons, made to order in Europe, have the skimpiest of skirts, and weigh just 388 grams apiece, nearly 200 grams less than stock. The custom connecting rods are both lighter and stronger than the originals. Combining it all with a flywheel shaved from 17 pounds to 11 results in an engine with greatly reduced rotating mass–in other words, one that’s willing to spin up quickly.
David shaped the combustion chambers for better gas flow, and installed 39.5mm intake valves and 37mm exhaust valves in place of the 36mm and 33mm originals. He specified the grind for the camshaft, and set up the valve timing before the engine left his shop. A Bosch distributor from a federal-spec Fiat Strada is driven off the end of the cam, for that Abarth/Ferrari look. One of the more remarkable features of the engine is its ability to run on 93-octane gas in spite of its 11:1 compression ratio. Although Ron was concerned about detonation, there’s been none. “Komar said, ‘I will make your head in such a way where it flows properly, so that there’s no hot spots in the head, which cause your pre-ignition,'” he says.
“I am very satisfied with the results, considering that I was limited by many factors–one of them low-octane benzene in [the] USA,” David tells us in an e-mail. “Especially, I was happy with [the] dyno graph, and [the] high torque at low revs. It is [the] first Fiat SOHC of this cubic capacity which I made–before I made a lot of 1,116, 1,300, 1,500, 1,600 racing or street race engines of this kind. [The] Fiat SOHC engine is [a] very good engine; I never see big problems with these engines, [they’re] very good for modifications, but the best is [the] 1,116cc engine (my favorite), which was also made first of all versions.
“It is true that the Fiat SOHC will always have a special place in my heart,” David continues, “but I am not limited only to Fiat. All engines are pieces of human art–we, people like me, are here to take out of them the best [that’s] possible.”
David had specified a racing clutch, but changed his mind when he learned that the dyno results had exceeded his projections. Ron got in touch with Robin Yates of Superior Friction in San Jose, California, who built a new clutch for the car. “He interviews you and takes all the details about what you’re driving and what you’re going to do, and you send him your cores and he builds you a clutch,” Ron says. “He built me the most wonderful clutch. I’ve got to tell you–the thing is as smooth as silk, and yet when I drive it hard, and I mean I’ve pushed it, and she bites every time–not even the hint of a slip. She’s just wonderful. The man is as much a genius with clutches as Komar is with engines.”
After an unsatisfying experiment with a close-ratio gearbox with straight-cut gears, Ron returned to the factory-spec five-speed. The differential was changed from 4.08:1 gears to a set of taller 3.59:1 Fiat Strada gears.
The car’s handling and braking were not overlooked. On the recommendation of Matt Brannon from Midwest Bayless, Ron chose Wilwood four-piston front calipers in place of the originals, and substituted larger brake discs from the Pininfarina Azzura Spider. That required going up a size in wheels: The 14-inch alloys were provided by Performance Wheel, and shod in BFGoodrich radials for a proper vintage appearance. We can testify to how powerful, and linear, the brakes are.
The suspension is by KYB struts, with the addition of a 7/8-inch Adecco front anti-roll bar from Midwest Bayless, properly located with adapter brackets machined by Mark Plaia of Plaia Design Services and sold by C. Obert & Co. Stiffer springs, from International Auto Parts, lowered the car’s ride height by 1.5 inches. The strut towers were strengthened with stainless-steel doublers, also made by Plaia. “The strut towers are a little thin, because Fiat didn’t make these cars for hard driving, and therefore they went with thinner steel in the strut towers, and they would flex,” Ron says. Added strut tower braces further shore things up.
The paint, you might be surprised to learn, is original. Ron brought it back from its badly oxidized state with something called Formula 113, a one-step wax/sealant sold by Wax Daddy of Yonkers, New York. (Ron is a true believer in the product, and we can testify that the paint had a beautiful shine, almost like a recent basecoat-clearcoat respray.) The original interior needed nothing but cleaning.
What are Ron’s plans for the car? He’s done his share of racing, including having driven his father’s Ferraris and 1964 2-Litre Abarth at Lime Rock Park many times, but he has no interest in competing with his Fiat. “Nah–I don’t need to race,” he says. “I just want to have an enjoyable street car, and show car.” He’s planning to bring it to Fiat Lancia Unlimited’s national meet, the Fiat Freak Out, in Nashville, Tennessee, this July, and he and Ron Jr. hope to bring the car out West in 2012.
“The dilemma about the X1/9 is that Fiat never made a performance version, so it needs so much. But it just responds so well to modifications,” Ron says. “With the assistance of X1/9 specialist Bernice Loui and the rest of the team, we made a great car. Everyone is very satisfied.”
It’s evident that this very special X1/9 did not come cheap, and Ron is reluctant to talk about the price. “Let’s just say it was more money than I planned on spending,” he says. “But to me, it was worth every penny.” To drive it is to believe.
Specifications: 1979 Fiat X1/9
Engine — 1,803cc (87mm x 76mm bore and stroke), 11.0:1 compression ratio, two Weber 40 DCNF carburetors, 155hp at 6,200 RPM, 149-lbs.ft. of torque at 5,500 RPM
Gearbox — Five-speed manual, stock ratios
Suspension — Front, MacPherson struts, lower lateral links, coil springs, anti-roll bar; rear, Chapman struts, lower A-arms and adjustable links, coil springs
Dimensions — Length, 156.3 inches; wheelbase, 86.7 inches; weight, 2,120 pounds
Power-to-weight ratio — 13.68 lbs/hp
The X1/9 Chronicles
By Bernice Loui
Why should any car enthusiast or historian care about the X1/9?
It is a very significant sports car design. It came to being after Nuccio Bertone finished the Lamborghini Miura and was asked for a replacement for the aging Fiat 850 Spider. Bertone was a forward thinking visionary who understood well the benefits and possible direction of mid-engine sports cars in the future. He knew the front engine, rear-wheel-drive or rear engine, rear-wheel-drive chassis layout had limited performance potential, and that the real future of sports cars lay in mid-engine designs. Everything that was learned by the designers of the Miura at Bertone was used on the X1/9.
The X1/9 came from some of the best Italian car designers of that era. Giuseppe Puleo designed the chassis; he also designed the chassis for the Lancia Stratos. Marcello Gandini designed the body; he also designed the Miura and the Stratos. Gian Paolo Dallara, with test driver Michael Parkes, went on to produce a very effective sports racer using the X1/9 chassis, which gained him enough racing success and reputation to launch his race car design company.
While the X1/9–based on the Bertone/Autobianchi A112 Runabout concept of 1969–was not the first car to use a front-wheel-drive engine and transaxle moved to the mid-engine configuration, it was the first mass-produced, mid-engine sports car of its type. Critics damned the mid-engine layout as space inefficient, but the designers at Bertone proved them wrong. With a storage compartment front and rear, the spare tire behind the passenger (on LHD versions) and targa top storage in the front, it was a high water mark for mid-engine car design. Its packaging remains the standard for every small, transverse-mid-engine car to this day: the Toyota MR-2, MGF, Lotus Elise and Exige, Pontiac Fiero and others.
Beyond the packaging problem, chassis dynamics of a mid-engine car are difficult to tame for a production road car. This is where Puleo, Dante Giacosa–Fiat’s director of engineering–and the rest of the X1/9 design team went to work. Their small, mid-engine chassis was well ahead of its time. Independent rear suspension for production cars was the marketing fashion at the time, and the X1/9 was gifted with a setup similar to that used on the Lotus Elan, featuring good camber control, a low dynamic roll center and good wheel toe control. This helped tame the inherent mid-engine tail twitch.
The X1/9 was born during the era of proposed U.S. Experimental Safety Vehicle crash safety regulations. Under these proposals, which never materialized, cars would have to provide passenger protection in a 50 MPH frontal barrier crash and an 80 MPH rollover. During this era, only two cars passed these proposed requirements: the Volvo 240 series, and the X1/9. Puleo used the experience and knowledge gained from working on the design of the Lancia Stratos to help the X1/9 meet these proposed tests. The rollover requirement is the main reason why the X1/9 is a targa top, not a convertible.
The X1/9 did not come into production easily; the mid-engine design proposed by Nuccio Bertone was initially rejected by most of Fiat management, who wanted a front-wheel-drive sports car. Bertone finally appealed to Giovanni Agnelli, then head of Fiat, who liked Bertone’s proposal. He ordered the design to be produced initially by Fiat, with chassis and bodywork constructed by Bertone. Fiat management grumbled at this order from Agnelli, and made sure this design never developed in the ways it should have. This is one of the many reasons why the X1/9 was never really developed during its long production life or had a factory race program.
The X1/9 was a significant source of revenue for Bertone during its entire production life, from 1972 to late 1988. During the economic troubles of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Italy, the X1/9 kept Bertone’s lira flow running. If not for the X1/9, Bertone could have perished. Bertone’s financial troubles today are related to their stalled, low-production facility, which once built the X1/9, the Alfa Romeo Montreal, the Fiat Dino and various Lamborghinis, among others.
There was a program to produce a Fiat/Abarth twin-cam-powered X1/9 early in its production. This variant was to be the X1/9 Stradale, a homologated street version of the Abarth rally car. Bertone made production plans for this car, making fiberglass and aluminum body panels for the 400 cars needed for FIA homologation. At the last moment, Fiat stopped the X1/9 rally car program, resulting in all the X1/9 Stradale parts being scrapped.
For today’s enthusiasts, the X1/9 chassis is an extremely good design that is ready for significant increases of power. One of the most significant factors in the driving experience is chassis behavior, how the chassis feels to its driver. It is easy enough to increase the power from the stock engine, but many times, the chassis is simply not designed for a significant increase of power, resulting in a mongrel car with bad road manners.
The X1/9 makes a very good race car. It was the X1/9 that helped put Dallara into the race car business. Examples of how an X1/9 can be made into an effective and successful race car to this day include Matt Brannon’s H and F production SCCA racers, Chris Obert & Mark Plaia’s Dallara replica (which almost always takes top time of the day at autocross events), Bob Boing’s 1985 national winner in SCCA F production, Kim Baker’s 24 Hours of Nelson showroom stock class winners and our “Italian Stallions” 24 Hours of LeMons racer. Di Fulvio Racing, Graversen Autoteknik and six-time national SCCA class DSP winner Steve Hoelscher and others have successfully campaigned the X1/9.
Contrary to common car myth, FIAT does not deserve its “Fix It Again Tony” reputation. This reputation came from owner neglect, incompetent service work done by various service individuals or dealerships and poor quality replacement parts often used due to the low market value of Fiat cars. Once the required scheduled maintenance items typically found in many X1/9s that come on to the car market have been properly addressed, the X1/9 can be a reliable, economical, safe, practical, FUN daily transportation.
As for the rust myth, similar cars from that era were equally attacked by the problem of rust. What should be understood about the X1/9 and rust is that Bertone evolved and changed the corrosion protection of the bodies over the X1/9’s production life. Early cars were more susceptible to rust; mid-1980s production 1,500cc/five-speed cars were protected with everything from electrically applied primer-sealer to wax injection to several coats of quality paint.
Given this historical significance of the X1/9, it is an under-recognized and underappreciated classic sports car that has influenced sports car design to this day.
Bernice Loui, a design engineer/scientist working in California’s Silicon Valley, has been an X1/9 owner since the lat 1970s. She’s the primary technical person behind the X1/9 raced by the Italian Stallions, one of the most successful teams in the 24 Hours of LeMons series, and has owned a dozen or so X1/9s over the years