Friday, 11 January 2008

Test Drive - Fiat X1/9

The phrase ‘big is beautiful’ is horribly inaccurate. Sure, it’s true in certain cases (the Viaduc de Millau, the Moai of Easter Island, a Michael Jordan three-pointer), but if you follow the tenet exclusively you’ll end up very disappointed. In fact, you’ll almost certainly find yourself in a Cadillac Escalade, listening to Meatloaf and wedging a deep-fried Mars bar between that other Jordan’s mighty knockers. And nobody needs that sort of surreal misery in their life. It’s just not on.

Small things are, of course, far better than big things. Flat-screen tellies are superior to CRT; mobile phones from the noughties make their nineties forebears look hilariously ungainly; Smarties are tastier than Minstrels; Kylie Minogue is hotter than Dannii Minogue. These facts are obvious. Another obvious fact is that Fiat, as a company, rather like making small sports cars. (Good link, eh? Seamless.)

One such example is the lovely old X1/9. Produced from 1972 all the way through to 1989, it must have had some inspired marketing for it to run for seventeen years before anyone in Turin realised that it’s borderline impossible for a fully-grown human to fit inside the thing. But this is not an issue, not really. With cars like this you don’t see problems, you see solutions. Strangely bendy, quasi-crippling solutions.

The X1/9’s trump card is that it is mid-engined, which even my grandma knows is the best possible configuration for a car in terms of balance, grip and handling. It may only have a dinky little 1500cc engine (1300cc on earlier models), but that’s all you need in a diminutive two-seater that weighs approximately as much as a Merc SL’s bootlid. It’s a fizzy, revvy little unit that might not set your pants on fire but works with the car as a holistic package of, well, fun-ness. Cheekiness, if you will. Hell, if you get bored with it, the Uno Turbo engine swaps right in, so there are always options…

Finding yourself in the position to borrow a minty-fresh ’83 model with merely a handful of miles on the clock is a superb position to be in. The example I found myself briefly unleashed with was so straight and clean it was almost worthy of the cliché ‘time-warp’ – right down to the hilarious Italian wiring faults that were undoubtedly present from the moment the little scamp rolled out of the factory. Indicate left, the horn beeps. Drive over a speed-bump, the horn beeps. Pop up the headlights, the horn beeps. It is, without a doubt, the most attention-seeking little reprobate I’ve ever driven.

But again, you don’t mind these foibles. It’s Italian, the electrics are supposed to work in a completely random and sporadic fashion. You barely notice these things anyway, as you’re having too much fun playing with it; it’s like a rambunctious terrier, leaping up at your crotch and yapping relentlessly. It just wants to play. Cocooned in lurid scarlet leather, you’re more than happy to oblige.

If you’re over six feet tall, you’ll have to alter your driving style somewhat. The steering wheel will be pushing into your thighs (your knees straddling your head like a mighty tarantula), so the easiest way to go round corners without chafing yourself is to fully depress both the clutch and the accelerator – this being the only way to get your legs clear. This means that you’re coasting round the corners and revving like a bastard, giving passers-by the embarrassing impression that you’re some Neanderthal twat who’s never driven an automobile before. Most unusual.

So on second thoughts, the X1/9 probably isn’t the car for me. This is a great shame, as I honestly can’t think of a single thing I don’t like about it. (Obviously there are a lot of things physically wrong with it; the aforementioned electrics, the inadequate cooling to the engine, the boot’s proximity to the exhaust meaning that anything you store in there will melt, reverse gear will disintegrate if you try to back it up even the slightest slope and, being Italian, it’ll rust to pieces in no time – but these are mere trivialities.) It’s a car that I’d be very proud to own… but it would do little more than skulk in the garage. I’m just too tall to drive it properly.

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