Fiat X1/9 Frankenstein: A Rotary-Swapped Hella Sweet Car of the Week

By: Eric Rood Photo Credits: Murilee Martin, Eric Rood, Nick Pon, Phillip Thomas
August 20, 2019

Scope creep. If 24 Hours of Lemons teams don’t know that concept by phrase, they know the reality of it. Projects occasionally take on their own life and suddenly seem out of the creators’ hands. Few Lemons represent that concept as clearly as Italian Stallions’ Mazda rotary-powered Fiat X1/9. Team captain Chris ice described the fantastic mish-mash of parts as “a cascading sequence of poor decisions…each well intentioned. Most [were] driven by copying ideas that worked elsewhere while using used-up or otherwise discarded/cheap components to recreate it.” What could possibly go wrong?

Before catapulting off the deep end, the Italian Stallions ran the X1/9 with its stock engine and transmission. They debuted at Thunderhill way back in 2008 with a surprising 47th place finish (top half) and a shocking 40th-quickest lap. Unfortunately, that race cooked the stock engine’s head gasket, a problem that has befallen several X1/9 attempts at racing. (Also, rollcage and windshield rules weren’t quite the same in Lemons’ early days. We’ve come a long way.)

ITBs FTW

The Italian Stallions, however, are not a team to merely replace bad parts. Nay, they instead upgrade when something breaks [See aforementioned “cascading sequence of poor decisions” comment]. The team rebuilt the 1.5-liter engine, but pitched out the stock carb setup. Instead, Ice scored some Keihin carbs from a Yamaha YZF600. It’s not the first bike-carb setup we’ve seen in Lemons and we sure hope it’s not the last. “The 1.5L fiat motor was worked over to produce an honest, reliable 120 horsepower and we got about 2.5hrs on a tank,” Ice said. “Very drivable.” And good lord did it sound good.

Unfortunately, that kind of power chewed up the stock Fiat transmission.

Like a Formula Mazda Made of Crap

That meant “time to upgrade” and the Italian Stallions weren’t about to commit to half-measures. Having seen how Formula Mazda open-wheel cars are assembled, Ice and company decided to replicate that…using a mid-engined Fiat. Like Formula Mazda, they dug up a Mazda Wankel engine. Theirs is a 12A that they maybe has been bridgeported and fed with a Weber 48 IDA carb. Altogether, Ice figures it makes about 250 horsepower, which is a lot. That output causes more problems than it solves, though. The Wankels last about half as long as the Fiat engines and burn the same amount of fuel in about half the time. While the car goes much quicker, it makes their Fiat X1/9 very unlikely ever to win (not that they care too much about that) because of its incredible thirst.

Formula Mazda cars use a Hewland gearbox in a Porsche case. The Italian Stallions knew that was well out of their price range, but they went with crapcan version of it: the five-speed 901/914 transmission out of a Porsche 914. It’s a pretty robust transmission, but it’s slow to shift, Ice said. If he had it to do again, he would use something else, but the Fiat X1/9’s rear is basically designed around the driveline setup with tons of homebrewed fabrication. Redesigning it requires far too much effort, so the 914 gearbox will stick.

Is That All? That is Not All.

In addition to an adapter plate for the transmission, the team had to make their own axles, engine mounts, transmission mounts, exhaust, and shift linkage. The cable-shifter setup came from a Toyota MR2 and was an incredible undertaking. “We can’t do rod shift because of how our drivetrain lays out,” Ice said. “Converting a Porsche 914 to cable shift is an amazing undertaking in and of itself…It’s a handmade rotary-cam deal, it’s a work of art, and if the maker ever wanted to sell them, that could be a good retirement plan.”

If you’ve ever been around rotary engines, the noise and heat they generate present two of the biggest concerns. Formula Mazda exhaust setup used mufflers filled with lava rock to withstand the rotary’s exhaust temperatures and to give a robust method of sound deadening. “You can’t get them anymore, and if you could, it wouldn’t fit our application,” Ice said. “So we made one, weighs about 35 pounds.”

That setup crams eight feet of custom header pipes and two 24-inch mufflers filled with landscaping rock into what used to be the trunk of the X1/9 (above). The mufflers can also be refilled as the heat and sound intensity breaks up the rock: “It uses dairy/beer-keg bung plugs so you can open and refill from a bag, and then screw the caps back on.”

And about that heat: “Rotaries make an enormous amount of heat and we had the genius idea of putting it in the back of the car where there is the least airflow,” Ice said. “So we have a bunch of pipes and tubes that take fluids from back to front and back again.”

More than an engine swap

Of course, scope creep can’t limit itself just to the engine setup. No, no, no. The Italian Stallions also upgraded the brakes and suspension with parts off other crap. The team started off with the Lemons-standard coilover kit (no-name on eBay). However, the team found the coilovers a bit too stiff to be driveable. Volvo S60 strut inserts came up for dirt cheap (also on eBay), so they customized the strut carriers to house the softer struts. They’re a little tall, so the tops of the struts stick out of the hood. That’s also pretty standard Lemons engineering.

Because brakes are totally exempt, the Stallions went as big as they could on the Fiat X1/9. That meant a set of Wilwood calipers and MazdaSpeed brake rotors, which required some modification for the Fiat 4×98 wheel hubs. But hey, it usually stops in the instances that it’s actually running. For those keeping track at home: That gives the final tally of parts from Mazda, Volvo, Porsche/Volkswagen, and Toyota plus a whole pile of one-off fabrication.

But Does It Work?

Aside from a short interlude to build and race a Fiat 600 with a Moto Guzzi engine—Yes, for real—the X1/9 raced about once a year for the first six years of Lemons. They took a break and returned with the Fiat X1/9 for the first time in five years at the Yokohama 5-Mile Tyre Festival in May 2019 at Thunderhill. They’ve finished in the Top 20 a few times, but they’ve nuked plenty of Mazda rotaries. It is, however, extraordinarily quick and fun. It was the 12th-quickest car at a 2011 race in a very fast California field.

You’ve likely read all of this and thought at least once, “$500 CAR MY ASS!!11!!!!” And you’re probably right, this isn’t a car that cost them $500. However, they aren’t in any hurry to try winning races and in that comes the subjective nature of Lemons BS Inspections: The Italian Stallions aren’t trying to pull a fast one on the judges and they aren’t trying to ruin everyone’s fun. As such, they get a lot of judicial leniency. Put another way: If you spend countless hours engineering something so extraordinary out of discarded crap, nobody cares what you ultimately spent. Especially when it’s something so dang cool (and unreliable).

Hell, we’ll let Chris have the last word on his Fiat X1/9: “It’s overall just a dumb idea but amazing when it works.”

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