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.
There is a rarely trodden land that lies between the conventional two-seaters that croaked their last as the 1970s drew to a close and the revolution that took place when Mazda reintroduced the concept with the MX-5 of 1989. The ’80s may be remembered as the age of front-drive tintops but, although the old boys had been pensioned off, the bottom drawer of the sports car cupboard was not entirely bare during the decade of decadence. Representing Italy, Japan and Great Britain, the Fiat X1/9, Toyota MR2 and Scimitar SS1 may not be ’80s icons such as the GTIs and XRs, but they deserve their place in the limelight – not least because today all three are unbeatable value for money.
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.
Twist the key to crank over the transverse four-pot, and as it catches the car hardly sounds like a fire-breathing monster. Wind the revcounter needle around the dial, though, and the motor wakes up, a sparkling fizz of excitement illuminating your senses. It’s not especially fast but the X1/9 really comes alive as you press on. Flicking through the twists and turns, this Bertone wedge is a joy, its rasping exhaust gurgling on the overrun, the beautifully weighted and precise steering goading you to make the most of the drive. Benign and beautiful, the Italian really is a great little car.
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Unfairly maligned Reliant seems neatly styled in this company, while the Toyota looks like a pumped-up evolution of the brilliant Fiat’s Bertone template.
Settle into the SS1’s softly sprung and remarkably comfortable seats and your immediate thought is of an ’80s motor show: grey fabric abounds, the red piping as emblematic of the era as VHS top-loaders and privatisation of the nation’s utilities. After the X1/9, the ambience is noticeably less mass-market, more cottage industry. Details such as the curiously angled, forward-raked gearlever mean the car feels as if it has been screwed together by enthusiastic amateurs rather than a vast conglomerate, which of course is true. At launch Reliant talked of selling some 2000 Scimitars a year, a figure that most volume manufacturers could easily have built in a day. Sadly, a mere 1507 found buyers before the revised SST took over six years later.
But if the SS1 was produced by a cash-strapped niche manufacturer, don’t let that mislead you into thinking it is half-arsed. Yes, it was built on a shoestring and the separate chassis reminds you of its presence thanks to a soundtrack of creaks and rattles, but this underdog has an eager charm that is guaranteed to send you in search of empty roads and damp roundabouts.
Compared to the X1/9, this Scimitar’s 1.3-litre Ford unit is a bit underwhelming in poke and song, but the Reliant combines fine steering with a sweet-handling playful chassis and will gladly take as much power as you care to throw at it. The 1800Ti doubled the 1300’s output, and there are competition cars out there putting 300bhpplus through the rear wheels, which vindicates the soundness of the design. In the context of our trio, the SS1 is not fast but you’ll understand the appeal if you’ve ever wagged a Spridget’s tail.
After the back-to-basics Reliant, the Toyota feels as if it’s from another era. There’s a level of solidity and integrity to the Japanese car that the English machine (and, to a lesser extent, the X1/9) cannot approach, although in fairness the MR2 was much pricier when new. There is an aura of the bespoke, too. It’s all very Star Wars, from the joystick-like gearlever to the ingenious switchgear or the eyeball vents that aim cooling air at your crotch. You can picture an army of youthful imagineers coming up with this cabin.
The Toyota is a bigger, taller car than the X1/9, yet for all the effort that’s gone into it the MR2 feels less airy than the Fiat, never mind the fully open Scimitar. The top of the windscreen pillar sits much closer to your forelock than in the Italian, and with the roof panels removed the opening to the sky is far smaller. Combine such details with the bulky ‘transmission tunnel’ that separates driver from passenger and, subjectively at least, the result is of a more claustrophobic cabin. Don’t let that put you off, though.
From the moment you turn the key the MR2 ensnares you. Everything is exactly right: steering, suspension, brakes, engine and gearbox all feel perfectly at one. Everything is slick, welloiled and delightfully balanced. It makes a lovely noise as you gun it through the gears, turns in with aplomb and entertains like the best of them. It’s hard to believe that the design is more than 30 years old. Objectively, it is the best of the bunch, and by quite some margin.
But classics are not about objectivity. Each of these cars sought to tempt buyers away from hot hatchbacks, but they are three very different propositions. The SS1 is uncompromisingly old-fashioned and left-field, daring you to stand defiant of the crowd. In the run-up to our shoot, it was this machine that most intrigued me. At the other end of the scale, the Toyota is far more sophisticated: deceptively easy-going when you’re feeling lazy and yet blessed with impressive pace and pin-sharp responses when you want to have fun. Somewhere between the two lies the X1/9. In one sense, it lacks the polished brilliance of the Toyota, and on the other it can’t match the happy-go-lucky spirit of the traditionalist Reliant. Yet somehow it is the car that captivated me the most. Whichever gets your vote, though, one thing is certain: you’ll be hardpressed to have more fun for the money.
Thanks to the X1/9 Owners’ Club (www.x1-9ownersclub.org.uk), MR2 Mk1 Club (www.mr2mk1club.com), Reliant Sabre & Scimitar Owners’ Club (www.scimitarweb.co.uk)
THE OWNER RELIANT SCIMITAR SS1 Andy King
“My father owned GTEs for years and my brother had an SS1, so it was a foregone conclusion that I would have one! My first SS1, which I still have, was my 18th birthday present in 2012. In my first five months, I took it to the Le Mans Classic, Silverstone Classic, CarFest, plus a charity event at Prescott and several local shows, covering 2200 miles in total. Because of its historical significance, Number One rarely goes on the open road but luckily we have several others. The club is really friendly with a great forum and every August we have a sporting weekend at Curborough.”
TECHNICAL DATA FILE RELIANT SCIMITAR SS1
Sold/number built 1984-’1990/1507
Construction fabricated steel chassis, plastic/glassfibre body
Engine iron-block, alloy-head 1296cc sohc ‘four’, Weber twin-choke carburettor
Max power 69 bhp @ 6000rpm
Max torque 74lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones rear semi-trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
Length 12ft 9in (3886mm)
Width 5ft 2 ¼ in (1581mm)
Height 4ft ¾ in (1238mm)
Wheelbase 7ft (2134mm)
Weight 1850lb (839kg)
0-60mph 12.7 secs
Top speed 100mph
Price new £7495
Price now (2017 UK) £2-4000
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
1 Chassis corrosion on non-galvanised cars: side rails, jacking points, B-post base and rear trailing-arm mounting tube. All turbo models and later CVH cars were galvanised.
2 Carefully inspect front wishbones for cracks: later ones were strengthened, and early ones should be modified.
3 Confirm that CVH engine has had regular oil changes by looking inside the rocker cover.
4 Cracked differential mounts on early nongalv cars. It’s not a common fault, but listen for a clunk when pulling away or braking. The SS uses an unstressed Ford 7in diff and unequal-length driveshafts with CVs.
5 Listen for exhaust blowing on turbo models,because it’s awkward to remove.
THE OWNER TOYOTA MR2 Mk1 Jonathan Hunt
“I courted my wife with an early MR2 during the late ’80s, and once took two friends to Newquay – one in the middle with his head sticking out of the sunroof! I bought ‘Joyce’ (after the first owner) in 2014. It was in good order with no rust, and the workshop that had looked after it since new vouched for the condition. I used a polisher to restore the dull paintwork. It runs like new, but there was an annoying rumble from the front that turned out to be a worn steering rack bush, which was changed just in time for this shoot. I tend to pootle about nowadays, but red-lining in every gear is such fun.”
TECHNICAL DATA FILE TOYOTA MR2 Mk1
Sold/number built 1984-’1989/166,104
Construction steel monocoque
Engine iron-block, alloy-head 1587cc dohc 16-valve ‘four’, electronic fuel injection
Max power 122bhp @ 6600rpm
Max torque 105lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheels
Suspension independent, at front by triangulated lower links rear transverse and trailing links;
MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar f/r
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes discs all round, with servo
Length 12ft 10 ½ in (3924mm)
Width 5ft 5 ½ in (1664mm)
Height 4ft 1 ¼ in (1264mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 1in (2320mm)
Weight 2317lb (1051kg)
0-60mph 7.7 secs
Top speed 124mph
Price new £11,559
Price now £2-7000
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
1 Rust is the main enemy. It will be visible around the arches, notably the rear ones, but some rust traps are hidden behind side skirts, plastic liners and the front bumper covering.
2 Head gaskets can fail due to over-diluted antifreeze in the system, so look for a creamy sludge in the coolant cap which is the telltale.
3 Establish when the cambelt was last replaced – it should be at 60k miles or every five years. If it does fail, the design of the head means that the engine won’t be damaged.
4 At high mileages, fifth gear can jump out during acceleration/deceleration. A rebuild or a second-hand transmission will be needed.
5 T-bar roof seals have a tendency to leak,so feel around the cabin for damp.
THE OWNER FIAT/BERTONE X1/9 Andy Rowley
“My introduction was a Corgi model in the 1970s, then a mate bought a real one. When I found out how inexpensive they were to buy and run I had to have one. I bought my friend’s car, intending to keep it for six months, but 20-odd years later I still have an X1/9! The urge to go and have a burn is still there – the main thing is the handling. I’ve owned this one since 2002. I do 1000- 1500 miles a year in the summer and have taken it all over the country – you can fit a weekend’s camping gear in it. Apart from cooling issues when I bought it, traced to a silted-up radiator, it has been very reliable.”
TECHNICAL DATA FILE FIAT/BERTONE X1/9
Sold/number built 1972-’1989/180,000
Construction steel monocoque
Engine iron-block, alloy-head 1498cc sohc ‘four’, twin-choke Weber carburettor
Max power 85bhp @ 6000rpm
Max torque 87lb ft @ 3200rpm
Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheels
Suspension independent all round, by MacPherson struts
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes discs all round
Length 13ft ¼ in (3969mm)
Width 5ft 1 ¾ in (1568mm)
Height 3ft 10 ½ in (1181mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 2 ¾ in (2203mm)
Weight 2010lb (912kg)
0-60mph 10.8 secs
Top speed 110mph
Price new £8208
Price now £3-9000 (1500); £4-10,000 (1300)
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
1 Engines are bulletproof, so bodywork is the greatest consideration – and panels are virtually impossible to get hold of.
2 Rot in ’screen surround can be terminal. You can weld in a replacement – if you can find a decent one – but it’s not for the faint-hearted!
3 Triple-skinned rear suspension towers can rot from the inside. Check from within the engine bay and under the rear wheelarches, which can also rot virtually anywhere.
4 Sills need to be carefully inspected because of the monocoque design. Look for corrosion around door rubbers and seatbelt mounts.
5 Door alignment will indicate the trueness of the shell. They can drop slightly, but if they don’t shut nicely, ask yourself why.