Little wedge for a lot of fun. Fiat vs. Toyota and Reliant. Top bargain sports cars. X1/9 vs. MR2 vs. SS1 Bargain basement sports wedges. Malcolm Thorne recalls the high points of set-square design with a trio of outstanding sports cars from Reliant, Fiat and Toyota that are now classic bargains. Photography Tony Baker.
Reliant Scimitar SS1 Clockwise, from above: there’s hardly a curve in the cabin but the seats are really supportive; pop-ups give a modern-day Frogeye look; engine well back for fine handling balance; 1.3 CVH eager but lacks power.
The X1/9, of course, had been around since 1972. Largely and inexplicably ignored by its Torinese parent – from 1982 it was even stripped of its Fiat badging, marketed instead as a Bertone – it nonetheless survived where its mainstream rivals faltered. It was joined in ’1984 by the Toyota, an up-to-the-minute reinterpretation from the Far East that took the same idea and refined it. And if all this foreign mid-engined machinery was a bit too avant-garde for you, our trio of ’80s wedges concludes with a home-grown roadster in the traditional idiom: front engined, rear drive, with a folding hood and none of this semienclosed targa-type business. The Scimitar, like its headgear, was as traditional as a cloth cap.
Launched at the NEC in 1984 – the car you see here, chassis number one, was the star of the Reliant stand – the SS1’s genes may have adhered to a tried and tested formula, but the shape was an eye-catching departure from the Scimitars of yore. An uncompromising effort from the hand of Giovanni Michelotti – the Reliant would be his final project – the car was an amalgam of swage lines and sharp edges, an explosion of angles that could have come from a Futurist painting. Over the years, the SS1’s detractors have damned it as ugly – Reliant MD Ritchie Spencer once admitted that it “isn’t to everyone’s taste” – but stop a minute and look a little closer. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s hugely characterful – an aesthetic ying to an MX-5’s neat but copycat yang. ‘It has aspects that are sufficiently unusual to raise some eyebrows,’ said Autocar, ‘but is unlikely to be mistaken for anything else.’ Amen.
In keeping with the Tamworth tradition, the Scimitar featured a plastic body over a fabricated steel chassis, but there’s less glassfibre than you might expect. The nose and wings were made from deformable injection-moulded polyurethane – as employed on the Porsche 928’s curvaceous extremities – while the bonnet was constructed from a sandwich of strong but lightweight polyurethane foam and glassfibre. The 928 influences can be seen in the design of the pop-up headlights, too, but there would be no thunderous V8 for the SS1 – even if the stillborn William Towns-styled, US-market SS2 of 1988 was intended to receive such a powerplant.
Toyota MR2 Clockwise: Toyota turned the X1/9 idea into a GTI; versatile 16-valve twink powered front- and reardrive machinery; 14in slot alloy rims were all the rage in the ’80s; well-equipped, superbly appointed cabin.
Instead, the Small Sports 1 initially offered 69bhp 1296cc and 96bhp 1597cc Ford CVH engines that aimed it at the Midget/Spitfire owner looking for affordable fun rather than outright pace. For greater thrills, the injected 1.8-litre turbo unit from the Nissan Silvia joined the line-up in 1986, its 135bhp equating to 0-60 in 7.2 secs and a top speed of 125mph. Whichever motor you plumped for, independent trailing arms at the rear and double wishbones up front kept things on the straight and narrow. If the option of a Japanese powerplant raised eyebrows among fans of traditional roadsters, it was a pragmatic choice. The Nissan motor combined excellent output with rear-wheel-drive compatibility in a world where front-drive had become the norm. To those who had grown up on a diet of MGs and Triumphs, though, the Toyota MR2 must have seemed bewildering.
The car was first seen in prototype form at the 1983 Tokyo show, badged as the SV-3. A dramatic angular design peppered with aggressive vents and aero addenda, like the European sports cars of yesteryear it relied on a cocktail of mainstream mechanicals to create an exciting conveyance that was far more than the sum of its parts.
Unlike its British forebears, however, oil leaks and iron-age engineering were not on the menu. Powered by an injected 1587cc ‘four’ mounted transversely behind the cockpit, the Toyota’s 122bhp 4A-GE 16-valve twin-cam was mated to a slick five-speed transmission. The chassis featured MacPherson struts all round, plus disc brakes at each corner, and was honed by Lotus’ Roger Becker, with further input from racing legend Dan Gurney. The result was a fast, freerevving machine that delighted those yuppies who couldn’t stretch to a Porsche.
The Toyota went on sale in Japan nine months after its Tokyo debut – by which time it was badged as the MR2, for Midships Runabout Two-seater – and had arrived on these shores by the following spring. In France, it became the MR, the importer having decided that merdeux might not be the best sobriquet available.
Initially available as a fixed head, it was promoted to the ranks of fresh-air sportsters in 1986, when the T-bar joined the line-up. Featuring removable glass panels of the type that had long been employed on the Corvette and Pontiac Firebird, the Toyota could be converted from a snug and watertight coupé in a matter of seconds. In many respects, the MR2 was an updated version of the Fiat, and it displays much evidence of the Japanese ethos of improving upon existing ideas. It could be described as an X1/9 Mk2: a bit more powerful, a bit faster, a bit bigger and with a bit more aggression to its styling. Mimicry, of course, is the greatest form of flattery, and it is something that the Fiat readily invites.
Fiat X1/9 road test Clockwise: stylish cabin, with clear dash and funky mottled trim; Gran Finale sports Nuccio’s signature; K&N filter is this car’s only deviation from stock; Bertone lines have been copied but never bettered.
The brainchild of Bertone, the dart-like Italian is a gorgeous little thing. It is by far the oldest design here – the profile having been previewed as the Runabout concept at Turin in ’69 – and to me it is the prettiest. It wasn’t the first production car to offer the handling benefits of mid-engineering to the impecunious, but it was arguably the first successful mass-market attempt.
Designed to comply with draconian US crash regulations, the Fiat was blessed with an immensely strong steel monocoque with a removable rigid roof panel in place of the folding hoods that were the norm. Initially offered with a 1290cc ‘four’ – the front-drive mechanicals from the 128 saloon were cleverly transposed to sit behind the driver and passenger – the X1/9 received a useful power boost in October 1978, when the Strada’s 1498cc unit took over the baton. Like its Japanese rival, the Italian features MacPherson struts and disc brakes all round.
Climb down into ‘our’ X1/9 – a last-of-the-line Gran Finale – and the first thing that strikes you is the fabric on the seats and door trims, which seems to have been inspired by a contemporary nightclub. The Fiat was always a keen follower of fashion, and over the course of its career was offered with some startling soft furnishings, ranging from a multicoloured deckchair pattern to eye-popping hide. Trim aside, the overall sensation is of workmanlike openplan airiness. The B-pillar-cum-rollover hoop is close behind you, but the car feels spacious and roomy, with excellent ergonomics. There’s a Ferrari-esque feel to it, too, akin to a 1980s Mondial, a corollary of the low ‘transmission tunnel’ and simple, angular dashboard panel.