Mid-Engine Madness

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Written by Per Schroeder

From the May 2008 issue

Posted in Buyer's Guides

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.

Coastal Comparison

Each brand does have its differences, as well as its own fans and detractors. We wanted to get some unbiased answers, so we arranged a little seat time for a friendly comparison. In one corner we had a 1979 Fiat X1/9; in the other, a Ferrari 308 GTB of the same vintage.

We met with their owners in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, California, and spent some time alongside the Pacific Ocean. Both cars are owned by friends in the industry, and this pair of machines represented better-than-average examples—solid and well-running, but not spoiled concours queens. In other words, perfect drivers.

Our 1979 Fiat X1/9 has benefited from its owner’s vast knowledge of the brand, since Chris Obert’s Fiat Plus is considered one of the top shops for the marque. His car is mostly stock, although some carburetor tweaks help the 1.5-liter engine sing, and grippier Yokohama tires surround Cromodora alloys.

Our 1979 Ferrari 308 GTB belongs to Mike Pierce, the head cheese at Weber parts distributor Pierce Manifolds. This regularly driven car is essentially stock aside from a set of vintage BBS three-piece wheels and modern Dunlop tires.

Ferrari 308: Prancing Horse Goes Mainstream

Ferrari’s first 308-series car was the 1974 Bertone-designed 308 GT4. While the GT4 offered good performance, its styling was met with a less than enthusiastic reception.

This all changed in 1975, when Ferrari introduced the new Pininfarina-designed 308 GTB at the Paris Motor Show. Now the company was cooking.

The new car was an instant success and generated lots of positive press. Not only did the new mid-engine V8 Ferrari perform well, it also looked beautiful—something expected of Ferrari road cars and, in the eyes of many, not delivered by the GT4. Two years later a targa-topped version was added to the line, and this 308 GTS only upped the model’s popularity. (A small bit of trivia: From the time of its launch to the end of production, the open car continually outsold the coupe for the life span of the model.)

And then there was “Magnum, P.I.” When Thomas Magnum roared around Hawaii in a red 308 GTS, people took notice and the brand’s popularity skyrocketed. The Ferrari became the “it” car of the Yuppie generation and the must-have exotic of the ’80s—even if the price tag was out of reach. Seemingly overnight, teenage car enthusiasts added a second poster to their bedroom walls. The Lamborghini Countach had a worthy equal in the 308.

Since that first airing of “Magnum, P.I.” back in 1980, the 308 has gone on to become what is likely the single most recognizable Ferrari road car in history. It also became one of their all-time best-selling models thanks to a popularity that never really waned.

Ferrari wasn’t shy about making changes to their 308 GTS and GTB models, however, and perhaps the biggest involved the body materials. The 1975-’77 GTB featured a Scaglietti-built fiberglass body, where the later cars—both the coupes and open cars—used a steel body matched with an aluminum engine cover and bonnet.

Changes also took place below that engine cover. The GTS and GTB models used four Weber DCNF carburetors through the 1980 model year, when Bosch fuel injection became standard. The injected cars produced less horsepower—205 in the U.S. vs. 240 for the Weber-fed cars—but drivability and emissions improved.

This lack of power was addressed two years later with the introduction of a four-valves-per-cylinder model, the 308 GTSi/GTBi Quattrovalvole. The Quattrovalvole, also known as the 308 QV, was the car that returned performance to the 308. Horsepower was now back up to 230, which brought zero-to-60 times down to 6.1 seconds and raised the top speed back over 150 mph.

The boost in performance helped add some more luster to the car’s halo. With a production life span of 10 years in 308 guise and another four years as the 3.2-liter powered 328, the 308-series Ferrari represents the longest-lived Ferrari design.

While Ferrari has always enjoyed a racing heritage, the 308 wasn’t really part of that lore. A NART 308 GT4 ran at Le Mans in 1974, but retired early with clutch problems. The factory didn’t really support a racing program for the 308 GTB and GTS, although some privateers entered cars in SCCA GT2 competition. Fifteen cars were also built by Michelotto for FIA Group B rally in 1983, and the rally Ferraris earned two wins and a pair of second-place finishes.

We should note that there were some other versions of the 308, although you probably won’t see them for sale here in the States. The 208 GTB/GTS and the 208 GTB/GTS turbo were built to take advantage of an Italian tax break on small displacement cars. They are dog slow—still beautiful, but slow. These two-liter cars occasionally turn up at auction here in the U.S. and despite their rarity, we’d avoid them. Not only are they among the most sluggish Ferraris in history, but finding engine parts is a tough proposition.

Data and Information

Club Scene: Ferrari Club of America

The Ferrari Club of America, the world’s largest club for the marque, boasts a membership of more than 5000. The Ferrari Club in itself can be a great reason to own a Ferrari thanks to its many exclusive events. These range from track days to premiere spectator packages to tours and trips to Europe.

Also included are special Ferrari owner-only company activities such as factory tours, visits to the test track in Maranello, and invitations to pre-launch events for upcoming models—events that are often not even open to the media. The club also has an award-winning quarterly magazine and a monthly newsletter. Membership in the local region is included in the $125 national dues.

Today’s Market

A Ferrari 308 could easily be purchased for $20,000 to $25,000—that is, until last year. These days, you can spend more than $40,000 to get a good 308-series car, with the best examples slowly climbing toward $50k. They should continue to increase in price, keeping pace with the rest of the Ferrari market. That said, if you buy and properly maintain a nice example, you will most likely come out ahead when the time comes to sell.

Keep in mind, though, that these cars cost more to maintain than a Honda does. While not fragile by any means, Ferraris—308 cars included—demand regular services. A 15,000-mile service on a 308 series will run between $2000 and $4000. A belt change, required every 30,000 miles or five years, will cost an additional $3000 to $6000. A gearbox rebuild costs $4500 to $7000, and a clutch replacement will run between $1500 and $2000. On the upside, a well-maintained 308 engine should easily last longer than 100,000 miles and deliver years of enjoyment.

Aftermarket and Modifications

Outside of choosing different wheels and possibly adding a Tubi exhaust, most experts recommend keeping a Ferrari 308 as close to stock as possible. The only thing you do when you modify a 308 is decrease its value. If you do make any changes, keep the stock parts. You’ll be glad you did when the time comes to sell the car.

One exception is the fuse box upgrade from Birdman’s Ferrari Parts. The stock fuse boxes have a plastic housing that can separate. The replacement is made of aluminum and often fixes all the niggling electrical issues found in Ferraris of this era, like dim lights and slow window motors.

That said, these are just cars and as such shouldn’t be treated like members of the royal family. They’re meant to be driven, repaired and maintained by mere mortals. Don’t be afraid to learn your way around the engine compartment—there are online tutorials for many 308 maintenance tasks.

Fiat X1/9: An Exotic for the Masses

Fiat’s offerings in the 1950s and ’60s were successful in bringing the Italian and greater European car-buying public into the modern automotive era, but these cars lacked the size, power and safety to compete in the rapidly enlarging American market. By the early ’70s, tightening safety and emissions regulations meant that Fiat needed a replacement for the aging 850 Coupe and Spider.

The Fiat X1/9 started life as the Autobianchi A112 Runabout, which made the rounds of the 1969 car show circuit. This concept car was created by Marcello Gandini, a stylist for Bertone, and used the 1290cc engine and transmission from the front-wheel-drive Fiat 128, moving the entire package behind the passenger compartment for a mid-engine layout. The car was designed from the ground up to meet proposed U.S. safety specifications—which were later downgraded because only a few imports actually met the DOT’s proposed standards.

By the time the X1/9 reached production in 1972, it had lost the A112 Runabout’s cut-down windshield and C-pillar-mounted headlights. In their place were a full-height windshield, targa roof and conventional pop-up headlamps.

The Fiat X1/9 was in production from 1972 through 1988, with only evolutionary changes marking the passage of years. It was originally released with a 1.3-liter engine coupled with a four-speed transmission. That 75-horsepower engine required heavy use of the driver’s right foot, since keeping those four cylinders in the higher reaches of the tachometer was the key to extracting any performance from the little mill.

Halfway through 1979, Fiat worked on the car’s power deficiencies by increasing the engine’s stroke to yield 1498cc of displacement. Ironically, the larger engine had a little less horsepower, but it also had a much more useable torque curve.

The X1/9 was rebadged as the Bertone X1/9 in 1982, when Fiat was starting to pull out of the U.S. market. The Bertone model gained Bosch fuel injection, which helped power and emissions, but otherwise the car remained nearly unchanged through the rest of its model run, which ended in 1988.

The X1/9 has more than 30 SCCA autocross national championships and numerous road racing crowns to its credit. While the car won Stock-class championships when it was new, its success in the past two decades has been limited to the modified classes for small-bore cars.

The model’s achievements aren’t limited to the asphalt, as X1/9s have even been used for stage rally. Alan Arnold and Teo Mesu campaigned one in SCCA’s ProRally from 1978 to 1983; you can find out more about their efforts at x19rally.com.

Data and Information

Club Scene: Fiat-Lancia Unlimited

The primary enthusiast club for Fiats in the United States is Fiat-Lancia Unlimited, commonly known by the initials FLU. In addition to its online presence, the club has 22 chapters in North America. Founded by Bobb Rayner and Dwight Varnes in 1983, FLU currently has about 600 members who pay $35 annually. As part of their benefits, they receive a subscription to Ricambi, the club’s monthly newsletter, which has classifieds, historical and technical articles and information on FLU events from around the country.

These events include the annual Fiat Freak Out, a weekend event that includes a concours, autocross, scenic drives, swap meets and tech sessions, all topped off with an awards banquet.

Today’s Market

The Fiat X1/9 may not be in the same collector league as the Ferrari 308, but condition still greatly impacts the price. At the low end of the scale, nonrunners and abandoned projects can be found for nearly free. The best examples in the world will fetch about $10,000. The rest of the cars—nice daily drivers and the like—are generally somewhere between $3000 and $6000. Case in point: The car used for this story is for sale with a $6000 asking price.

It’s tough to say if prices will go up, says Andy, our auction editor. There are very few really good ones left, he reasons, leaving only a small pool to choose from. If people start restoring them correctly, he adds, prices could go up.

As far as maintenance goes, the X1/9 isn’t an expensive car to own. A simple tune-up costs about $120 to $200, while $500 should cover a clutch replacement. “Assume a guesstimate at $1500 to $3000,” Chris Obert of Fiats Plus answers when asked how much to budget for an engine rebuild. “We just sold a new factory short block on eBay for $900, so if the core is worn sometimes it’s just cheaper to replace it.”

Aftermarket and Modifications

The Fiat X1/9 has a willing chassis that just begs for an engine to match. You can easily double the car’s horsepower with camshaft and cylinder head work, as well as intake and exhaust modifications.

Underneath, you can upgrade the car’s springs, anti-roll bars and shock absorbers for immediate handling gains. The X1/9 is pretty happy riding on fat 13-inch rims and meaty 185 or 205/60R13 tires. As Chris Obert at FiatPlus admits, it’s easy to cruise many roads in a stock car at 20- to 50-percent faster than the posted limit. Cars with modified suspensions can double that with little effort.

Editorial Privileges

The Fiat X1/9 is a terrific little car that sits up and begs to be driven hard. You can credit the great handling and steering response for this. Even if the Fiat is a bit underpowered, it feels faster than it is.

Thanks to its confidence-inspiring handling, Chris Obert’s car had just enough extra oomph from the engine compartment to easily keep up with the 308 on the twistier roads. The nonthreatening price tag was another plus.

All was not roses with the Fiat, however. We noticed quite a bit of wind noise around the targa top, and considerable high-frequency road noise emanating from the tires and chassis. The X1/9 is not a plush and quiet cruiser.

That’s not really the point of the X1/9, though. It’s a cheap sportster that fits our large frames well. We found plenty of room for our hands and feet, as well as a very easy driving position—not the traditional laid-back Italian style.

The 308 GTB is the whole enchilada—a terrific chassis, great steering and grip. As a result, it’s also a very easy car to drive hard. It offers a nice, comfortable ride—which is counterintuitive, but par for many Ferraris. This car offers great power for a model of its era, and the engine sound is incredible; you know it’s a Ferrari just from hearing it.

Mike Pierce’s 308 is the perfect entry-level Ferrari. It’s beautiful, easy to live with, yet not so perfect that you’d be afraid to drive it regularly.

We found that shifting with the iconic gated shifter was easy, although a firm hand was necessary to guide it home. The offset-right pedal placement and tiny footwell made footwork a pain for those of us with larger-than-average flippers; our tech editor, Per Schroeder, had some difficulty getting his 11.5 4E shoes to actuate a single pedal at a time.

The Ferrari doesn’t necessarily have a bad driving position, but it can require some getting used to. One pleasant surprise is the amount of headroom in the closed-cockpit 308 GTBs. Andy Reid, our auction editor, is 6-foot-4 and says he can fit into these cars.

All of this information is very nice, but if you’re still wondering which one we’d choose, there isn’t really a comparison here: The Ferrari trumps all for style and performance. The X1/9 appeals to the wrencher and racer in us, though. We can imagine all sorts of Fiat-based Frankenstein monsters to cook up in our laboratories without breaking the bank. In the end, getting both cars is clearly the most logical solution.

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Reader comments:

favedave
Nov. 1, 2011 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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