Fiat Bertone X1/9

When I was at school, we learned about alkali metals. For those of you who spent your chemistry lessons asleep, those are the ones that react with water to create a sizzling fizz like indoor fireworks. Of course, under Communism, kids never got to see this, but at the school I went to we were allowed, with an enormous amount of supervision, to drop a sliver of sodium or lithium into a dish and watch the sparks; if the teacher was feeling especially generous he'd drop a nugget of potassium into a specially-shielded pool, to be greeted with an impressive bang and equally loud shrieks from the girls.

It's those sorts of experiments that remain in the mind years after we finish our schooling; we might not remember the theory behind it all, or the real-world applications of such knowledge, but we carry with us for decades afterwards the memory of the light and the acrid smoke, the fire alarms going off and the standing around outside while the atmosphere in the laboratory clears.

The more radical the experiment, the bigger the bang. It was with that notion in mind that Fiat dropped a particularly metallic object into the motoring pool at the end of 1972, with a flash so big it took 17 years to fade out. That experiment was Fiat's X1/9, the biggest-selling mid-engined sports car of all time.

The year as a whole was filled with experiments; the Turin-based automaker had already released the rolling-skate Fiat 126 and the urban cruiser Fiat 132 at car shows that summer but, like the more dramatic of presenters, had left its most potent metal until last. The X1/9 was unveiled in an independent ceremony at Fiat's race circuit in Sicily, where motoring journalists from all over the globe were given the chance to get their own hands on the experimental little sportster.

In Fiat's Periodic Table of cars, the X1/9 was something of an oddity. At the time, many European manufacturers were still in two minds over whether the engine should go in the front or the back, although the consensus was still for sports cars to have the powerplant in the nose, dangling ponderously over the front wheels. But when asked to design a new sports car to replace Fiat's aging 850 Spider, bodymaker Bertone came up with something spectacular. By ripping out the guts of a Fiat 128 and turning them back-to-front, they were able to position the engine behind the drivers seats, delivering power to the rear and creating as near to 50/50 weight balancing as possible.

This was unlike anything else Fiat was making at the time, which is possibly why it maintained its development moniker all the way through into production. Most of the manufacturer's stable was made of traditional three-box saloons, supplemented by the occasional derived sportster and tiny city-cars with air-cooled engines snuggled into the boot. The idea of a series sports car in the same class as the Porsche 914 was a massive leap for the manufacturer, and it's easy to see why finding a name inside the traditional numbering sequence would be at least difficult, and at most, inappropriate.

The X1 moniker was Fiat's internal designation for concept cars, with the X1/1 becoming the Fiat 128 to which this radical new sports car owed its internals. And like Italian kisses, X came swiftly after X, with three more concepts achieving production in just three years: the Autobianchi A112 (X1/2), the executive Fiat 130 (X1/3) and the Fiat 127 (X1/4). And that's not including the Lancia MonteCarlo; another X project that was delayed for fear that it would step on its little brother's toes. X1/8, as the Lancia was known, would be pushed back to X1/20 and ultimately released into the Lancia Beta family, where it remains a cousin of the Lancia Trevi.

Coming from such a potent group, one would expect the X1/9 to have an explosive personality; indeed, contemporary reviews often called it "the baby Ferrari", and journalists enthused about its direct and responsive handling and sideways cornering. And yet, the X1/9 didn't prove to yield the smoke and flash one would have expected from a company used to making lightweight motors. Sitting that far down in the elemental table, the X1/9 was one heavy metal.

American nervousness about crash protection had escalated in the late Sixties, and a new series of safety regulations were introduced to bring down fatalities. Bertone, knowing how important American sales would be, pulled out all the stops to reinforce the frame of the targa-topped car, stiffening it all round without compromising the exquisite styling. They did such a good job that only one other car (the Volvo 144) passed the safety regulations, and when the Americans realised that none of their own fat floppy motors qualified, they dropped the standard at just the wrong time. The X1/9 entered the ring at 900kg, pushed along by a 75hp 1300cc engine; much better than the Saab Sonett but still rather weak for a sports car, and strangled to death by US emissions regulations that brought its power down to a feeble 66hp.

It took the chemists at Fiat five more years to get the mix right, with a bigger engine added no earlier than 1978, and even then only upping the power to 85hp. Part of this was due to the production agreement; Bertone moulded the shells on one side of Turin, then shipped them across the city for them to be stuffed with whatever engines and gearboxes Fiat had left over from their 128 production line. When that was replaced by the Fiat Strada/Ritmo, the X1/9 got their engines too, being such an parts-bin model that it even shares its headlights with the Fiat 126. In 1981, Fiat got bored with this arrangement, and threatened to pull the plug on the whole concept, but Bertone stepped in and agreed to take over assembly at their smaller factory. In that way, the X1/9 was able to last all through the Eighties without the Fiat nametag, but with a five-speed gearbox to compensate.

It's one of those Bertone models that we find parked out on a spring afternoon in Warsaw, just the way an X1/9 should be; with the paintwork gleaming and the top down. And while its Bertone badge is rather subtly placed on the C-pillar rather the boot, it flagrantly displays its yellow plates front and back, superfluously, since this car is a recognisable classic from any angle. It's only marring is the enormous deck of the front spoiler; another hangover from American safety regulations from a nation that proved itself completely incapable of making, or even accepting, a car this pretty.

The bang may not quite be as big as was hoped, but experiments go, it certainly got the girls squealing, and when you get right down to it, that's all that really matters.