June 2, 2016
We don't always get what we want. Many 1974 sports car buyers still wanted a Mustang Boss 429 or a Hemi Cuda. What they got instead was a choice between one government mandated, smog controlled, regulation-laden nightmare or another equally pitiful bureaucratmobile.
With that historical scenario in mind, we present a choice common to small sports car buyers of the day. The Fiat X 1/9 or the Ford Mustang II? It wasn't necessarily a good choice, but then, options were limited. I've owned both cars and have thousands of miles in them. I'll tell you of my experiences, then you be the judge.
1974 Fiat X 1/9
There was little to choose between the X 1/9 and the Mustang financially. The base Fiat listed at $4,177 while the four cylinder Mustang coupe started at $4,144.
Despite producing only 63 horsepower (twenty-some less than the Mustang) the lightweight X 1/9 would eat Ford's lunch on a curvy road. Fiat had specialized in under-powered sports cars for decades, while executives at the blue oval were accustomed to selling big V8's and found themselves in uncharted territory.
The Italians won with ease, creating a featherweight, mid-engine two-seater that handled brilliantly. And with horsepower essentially outlawed by the feds, good handling was the only rush of adrenaline still available to American car buyers.
Most X 1/9's – mine included – came with a black dash and console that made the white-on-black gauges difficult to see in daylight. The easily removed targa top, however, was a true delight. The four-speed gearbox was tight for its era, making shifting fun and creating the illusion that the X 1/9 was a much faster car than it really was.
To no one's surprise, the waist-high Fiats felt a bit like a tin can and offered little protection and zero confidence in the event of an accident. But in 1974, sacrificing size and weight was the only legal means of gaining performance.
If you get a chance to drive a Fiat X 1/9, take it. The modern American driver will feel a bit claustrophobic in these Smart Car sized semi-exotics, but the Italians knew how to make a car handle. So brace yourself. You're really gonna enjoy the ride.
Rarely seen today, pristine Fiat X 1/9 models command over $10,000 while run of the mill examples with typically high mileage sell near the car's original 1974 price.
1974 Ford Mustang II
The 1974-78 Mustang II's are the Mustangs that everyone loves to hate. And it's not because they had no power. Few other cars available to American buyers in the mid-seventies had any horsepower, either.
The Mustang II failed because A) its German-made V6 engine option was horribly unreliable, and B) because the legendary first-generation Mustang was an impossible act to follow.
In head to head competition the Mustang II couldn't get through the first turn with a Fiat X 1/9. The Ford's handling was mediocre at best, the underbodies were prone to rust, the engine options were weak and the automatic transmissions had a nasty habit of dying without notice and leaving the operator with only one functional gear… reverse.
Yes, this happened to me. No, I won't admit it in public.
I've owned two 1974 models and, shockingly, liked them both (when they ran). The first was a bright red model in Ghia trim with a white vinyl top; the second was silver with a black vinyl top. Both were equipped with 105 horsepower, 2.8 liter V6 engines.
I wouldn't recommend buying one. If you're dying for a mid-seventies Mustang – and I can't imagine why anyone would be – try opting for a 1976-78 Mustang II Cobra hatchback with a small block 302. It's a somewhat better car.
But for all the Mustang II's weaknesses, I must admit that the car fit like a glove. The interior was ahead of its time with comfortable seats and intelligently designed rear view mirrors that offered an excellent view with virtually no blind spots.
The deep-set gauges were easily read at a glance and included large twin pods for the tachometer and speedometer, with smaller gauges offset to the driver's right for fuel, alternator and temperature.
The distance from the driver's torso to the steering wheel was perfect. Your right hand naturally fell onto the console mounted shifter with absolute precision. With the exception of the ancient, Rolodex-style dash clock embedded in the passenger's side dash, everything about the Mustang II's interior was beautiful, functional and worthy of a much better car.
If I could only have one of these cars again, I would choose the Fiat X 1/9 for its wonderful handling, relative reliability and exotic ambiance.
Yet the Mustang II still brings back fond memories. Its problems originated from the federally-induced mechanical nightmares that afflicted many cars of the era rather than a dereliction of duty by Ford.
On the rare occasions when my Mustang II actually ran, it offered a surprisingly luxurious and enjoyable driving experience for a car of its era.
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN
Driver, Boschett Timepieces/McGunegill Engines/Impact Race Products #33