Per Schroeder
Per Schroeder PowerDork
7/1/09 9:12 a.m.

Here’s a trivia question for you: In the early 1970s, which Italian automobile manufacturer seeking to make major inroads into the U.S. market developed a mid-engine sports car blessed with excellent handling to match its sculpted styling? Need a hint? Okay: That styling was penned by a famous design house with many exotics to its credit. Here’s a couple more: A removable targa roof made the sportster fun in the sun, while a glorious howl emanated from an engine sitting crossways just behind the driver.

Think you know the answer? Ferrari’s iconic 308 probably comes to mind first, as it was the quitessential Italian sports car of the era. That’s not the only choice, however. Other car enthusiasts—and not just those of us on the fringe—will conjure up images of the Fiat X1/9.

Both of these cars were lauded as fun machines with stellar handling. Their engines would sing to the redline, and they encouraged their drivers to do it con brio. They made it easy for their piloti to imagine themselves as the heroes of sexy foreign films, with the heel-and-toe downshifts, intake growl, and squall of perfectly stressed tires providing the soundtrack.

These similarities are more surprising once you realize that while they are corporate cousins, at the time Fiat and Ferrari still employed independent design teams and favored different stylists. Yet the two cars occupied remarkably close positions in the market. The Fiat X1/9 often thought of as a “baby Ferrari,” while Prancing Horse snobs turned their noses up at some of the parts-bin widgets found on the 308.

The Pininfarina-designed 308 was not Ferrari’s first attempt at an affordable mainstream sports car. The Dino and later 308 GT4 claimed that honor, although the 308 GTB and GTS were the first ones to make a major splash in the U.S. market. The latter gained household recognition thanks to a starring role in television’s “Magnum, P.I.,” where Tom Selleck was just pretty eye candy on the arm of the hunky 308.

The Bertone-penned X1/9 was Fiat’s even more affordable assault on the sports car market here in the States. While the 308 garnered magazine covers and headlines, the X1/9 gobbled up racing trophies at an alarming rate. The mid-engine Fiat only needed a little tweaking under the hood to become a staple of amateur motorsports. Even now, three and a half decades after the model’s introduction, X1/9s can be seen out on track and lapping the competition.

Whichever one you pictured as the answer to our opening question, the truth remains that either of these cars represents a valid attempt at making a glorious Italian sports car for the rest of us. You just have to figure out which portion of “the rest of us” you actually belong to.

Today, both offer that classic Italian style with the handling that only a mid-engine sports car can deliver. They do this at a bargain price, too. The Ferrari 308-series has suffered from that bane of all mass-produced cars, depreciation, which means you can pick up a solid example for well under the price of a new BMW 3 Series. The Fiat suffers from, well, being a Fiat, meaning that at one point you could buy them all day long for chump change. They’re now getting hard to find, so the value of truly good examples is on the rise, but just $10,000 should still buy you the best X1/9 on the planet.

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11/1/11 9:54 a.m.

The Fiat X-19 is the most wonderfully designed Italian sports car of the 1970s. I was lucky enough to own a 78 (Bertone Signature Edition,#1305 I think), German racing silver with maroon side stripes and fitted luggage). This was during the period when Porsche was selling the 914 and 914 6. A comparison between the two was inevitable since I had two friends who owned both the 4 and a 6. The 914 was faster because of the bigger engines. That (and the name plate)was the only area where the Porsche beat the X/19. I'm 6'2" and the Xer was literally the most comfortable road car I've ever owned. Seating position was a bit odd for the first 3 minutes I owned the car. But I thought nothing of loading it up with enough clothing for an extended tour and putting 10 to 12 hours behind the wheel. The capacity of the front and rear luggage compartments is phenominal. The Targa roof was a breeze to put on. And stowing it in the front trunk did not diminish the luggage space one bit.
Traveling between Long Beach,California and Houston, Texas, I saw 110 mph on the speedo (okay it's Italian and probably optimistic)a number of times and considering it was the 1300cc, I thought that really good. (My 67 Morris Mini Cooper S, an Alpine Ralley car, topped at 105.) I am now on the look out for a 74 to 78 to add to my collection.

I hope this article doesn't spike the price of these exceptional cars any further.

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