Collectible Classic: 1974-88 Fiat/Bertone X1/9

So many mid-engine Italian exotics of the 1970s were wedge-shaped--the De Tomaso Pantera, the Maserati Bora, the Lamborghini Countach--that you might think they came from doorstop manufacturers instead of automakers. But Italy's most popular wedge came from lowly Fiat, which placed the drivetrain of its front-wheel-drive 128 behind the seats of a tiny two-seater whose body was designed and built at Nuccio Bertone's studio (which also produced the Countach).

From the moment it was conceived, the rear-wheel-drive X1/9 (say "ex-one-nine") was the antithesis of the contemporary British-style sports car, including Fiat's own 124 Spider; the X1/9 featured a smart targa roof panel, an edgy silhouette, an equally modern interior, and a well-balanced chassis.

Like its more conventional competitors, the X1/9 was no muscle car. The sprint to 60 mph took a modern eternity--about twelve seconds. Speeds exceeding 100 mph were possible. Downhill. Maybe. Early models had a 61-hp, 1.3-liter four-cylinder mated to a four-speed manual, but in 1979, the engine was stroked to 1.5 liters and the gearbox gained another ratio. Fuel injection came onboard in 1980, when output plateaued at 75 hp and 79 lb-ft of torque. When Fiat left the American market after 1983, Bertone took over the sales and full construction of the cars. (The rarer Bertone X1/9s had more standard features and are more desirable today.)

The lack of power and the split identity don't matter much once you turn the 2000-pound Fiat's steering wheel. The placement of the engine, the four-wheel independent suspension, the front and rear antiroll bars, and the light controls help make the car incredibly willing to be flung through corners at astonishing speeds. Journalists at the time called the X1/9 a "baby Ferrari" and compared it with the revered Lotus Elan.

Sound too good to be true? It was. Even when new, these cars were known for their sketchy reliability. Worse yet, finding an X1/9 today without rust can seem harder than finding a Grateful Dead fan who's never inhaled. Shock towers, engine crossmembers, floorboards, windshield cowls, and battery boxes have a particular propensity to oxidize. A laundry list of other common issues can afflict these Fiats, too, so prices may more closely resemble those of flat-screen plasma TVs than classic automobiles.

As with most Italian cars of its era, the X1/9 has subpar interior materials and poor build quality that can detract from an owner's enjoyment. But on the plus side, the two smallish trunks can swallow weekend bags for two, and the front bin was conveniently designed to hold the targa panel. And if you can't find a rust-free X1/9, think positive--it'll save weight.

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VITAL INFO

WHAT TO PAYDrivable X1/9s that require TLC start at about $1000. Nice cars without rust (they do exist) generally cost more than $4500. Twice that should buy you a concours example.

BODY STYLETwo-door targa coupe.

PRODUCTIONAbout 160,000 cars worldwide. Bertone constructed the final 10,000 or so.

WATCH OUT FORRust, especially in the shock towers, in the engine crossmember, and below the battery box. Transmissions and weatherstripping also frequently require attention.

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READ MORE

Fiat X1/9: 1300, 1500, and Abarthby Phil Ward, Motorbooks, $23www.motorbooks.com

Fiat X1/9: Gold Portfolioby R.M. Clarke, Brooklands, $34www.brooklandsbooks.com

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SPARES AND DEALERS

VICK AUTOSPORTS817.572.7793www.vickauto.com

MIDWEST X1/9 FIAT AND BERTONE AUTO SALVAGE614.784.8870www.midwest-x19.com

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CLUBS

X1/9 AUTOMOBILI NORTH AMERICAwww.x19web.org

FIAT-LANCIA UNLIMITEDwww.fiatlanciaunlimited.com

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OUR CHOICEWe'd go for a fuel-injected '81-83 Fiat - sans its big bumpers and without the later Bertones' air-conditioning and power windows.

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