When Our Man Went Driving A Bertone X1/9 And Lived To Tell The Tale

Text: Anamit Sen       Images: Makarand Baokar

Thanks to my line of work, I have had the opportunity to drive/evaluate and photograph many different types of four-wheelers over the years. Of the lot, I have been more enamoured by sports cars, especially the rarer, classic ones.

With special bumpers for the American market, the neat wedge-like look of the Fiat X1/9 was ruined for the later models

One time I landed up in Bhubaneswar, Odisha to cover an ‘auto expo’ only to realise to my disappointment it was only a regional show with nothing really exciting on display.

The new bumpers did not deface the rear that much for the new version; this car though is not the one the author drove, but is the one in Dr Ravi Prakash's collection in Bangaluru

That was until Nabo, who had extended the invitation, informed me that his cousin Julia Patnaik’s ‘Italian sports car’ would be on display, and I would get a chance to drive as well as photograph it at length. Now, that was a different thing altogether!

Not being a car enthusiast, Nabo wasn’t able to tell me the make and model, so I would have to wait until I saw the car and found out for myself.

The side profile of the X1/9 showcases the perfect proportions of a car with the engine amidship

The moment I set my eyes on the ‘flying wedge’ shape, I realised it was a Fiat X1/9, (Icsunonove, as the Italians referred to the model), also known as a ‘Baby Ferrari’! As I got closer to it, I noticed the B-pillar had a stylised ‘b’ on it, which was the badge used by the car’s coachbuilder Bertone.

Marcello Gandini, chief designer at Bertone at the time, designed the X1/9 for Fiat, which Bertone also manufactured for Fiat. However, when Fiat didn’t want to sell the car anymore, and Bertone didn’t want to stop making it, a deal was struck by which the cars would be sold as Bertone X1/9s (this was from 1982).

The “b” logo shows that the car is from after 1982

While the X1/9 started out with 1.3L engines, the Bertones had the 85bhp, 1.5-litre engines and a five-speed gearbox, which had been introduced in 1978 when the car was still badged a Fiat. Being aimed at the American market with its very strict safety standards the result was a rather heavy car!

X1/9 was the internal code of the project but became the model name because it stood for Experimental Design 1, Version 9. However, the first of that series, the Fiat 128 (Design 1, Version 1) was front-wheel-drive while the X1/9 wasn’t. Stylistically speaking, the X1/9 looked similar to the 1969 Autobianchi Runabout, it wasn’t actually.

The B-pillar also features the Bertone badging

To me, the rear light clusters reminded me of the Jaguar XJS while the pop-up headlight were par for the course then. The instruments in the panel were by Veglia Borletti, and included an anti-clockwise tachometer, a speedometer as well as an integrated oil and temperature gauge. All small, in keeping with the overall dimensions of the car, 3.83 metres by 1.57.

Starting the engine, the untweaked motor doesn’t sound brilliant except for a deep exhaust note. Well, the X1/9’s strength is not its engine but actually its very taut handling, the balance afforded by its mid-engined layout, and its stiffness.

The second series X1/9 featured a 1.5L engine mated to a five-speed gearbox, as is obvious from this model designation

The original idea was to go to Bhubaneswar airport and put it through its paces on the runway using Julia ’s influence, but unfortunately, due to unscheduled air traffic, that was not to be. I had to be satisfied with the long but fortunately empty approach road outside the airport.

Jamming my foot down on the accelerator in second gear sent the tacho needle spinning around the counter to 4500rpm and launched us forward, though it was quite unlike any peppy, modern car. The thrill came from the handling of the car as I approached a left hander and I was a bit surprised at how planted the car felt, encouraging me to explore the engine a bit further, shifting at 5000rpm.

The cover over the mid-located engine has a technical look about it

Getting the hang of things, I started enjoying myself until I realised that Julia was trying to tell me to ease off a bit... only one of the tyres was an Italian Pirelli, the others were less capable Indian Dunlops. Also, my enthusiasm had got the temperature gauge inching towards the upper end and most importantly, daylight was fading, and I still needed to get my photography done.

The rear boot is where the space is

So, a bit reluctantly, I handed over to Julia. Photography done, we decide to experience a bit of top-down motoring. I had the hardtop on when I first took the car for a spin and noticed the X1/9 had two large luggage spaces. Wondering where to keep the hardtop, I realised the space in front was actually for storing the removable hard top when not in use.

Back at the hotel afterwards the overall driving experience left a lingering broad smile on my face!



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