The history of four world-leading Italian motoring brands
From the most emblematic models to the most successful, revolutionary people, and the most significant events, this section illustrates and celebrates the cornerstones of Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and Abarth.
An audacious microcar prototype anticipated a vision of mobility that would only really see the light of day forty years later. At the Turin Motor Show in 1974, the Fiat X 1/23 made its debut, a compact two-seater electric car perfect for getting around in the city traffic.
The 1970s were crucial for the automotive industry all over the world. The oil crisis upset the plans of the car manufacturers, encouraging research into alternative technologies so that they would be ready if the oil were sooner or later to run out.
In this context, Fiat presented a futuristic car at the Turin Motor Show in 1974, alongside the new 131 sedan. The prototype was not only innovative because it featured an alternative fuel system which, at least to move, did not require fossil fuels, but also because it offered a futuristic vision of urban mobility well in advance of what would occur many years later: it was the Fiat X 1/23.
It was a very small car, a city car straight from the drawing board of Gian Paolo Boano at the Fiat Centro Stile and it traced the lines of a prototype developed in 1972. Its most significant revolutionary aspect compared to the previous prototype lay in its electric motor. At just over two and a half metres long, the car was able to offer two comfortable seats and was powered by an electric motor with a voltage regulator at the front, counterbalanced by the batteries positioned at the rear. On the exterior, the car's eye-catching bumpers and side protectors in rubber echoed the studies carried out a few years earlier on prototypes in the Fiat ESV (Experimental Safety Vehicle),family, in which the protective bars on the doors and the protruding rubber bumpers, together with the reinforcements in the front and rear parts of the chassis, were designed to increase car safety.
Shaped like a perfect, very short wedge, the Fiat X 1/23 proved to be a city car with futuristic lines and a particular focus on safety, in which the overall dimensions of the accessories were reduced without neglecting the on-board comfort. In fact, quite the contrary. For the first time on such a small car there was an effective air conditioning system, necessary because the front windows were fixed while only the rear deflectors opened like a compass.
The ingenuity of the design transformed the Fiat X 1/23 prototype into a laboratory car that the Turin-based company used to experiment with different battery technologies.
In order to better understand the historical moment in which the Fiat X 1/23 was created, we should remember that electronic technology, as we know it today, did not yet exist. Thermionic valves had just been replaced by transistors in radios, the miniaturization of discreet electronic components was in its infancy and integrated circuits were only just being tested in the medical and military fields. Electronics, which now forms the basis of all cars and especially 100% electric cars, had not yet been applied in car manufacturing back then.
It should also be remembered that battery technology was in its infancy and the entire automotive world used lead-based accumulators, which were so heavy and bulky that the only electric vehicles that existed, also at prototype level, were generally large in size. So, it is no coincidence that in the same period Fiat also experimented with electric traction in two vans based on 900 T and Fiat 242.
The idea of concentrating a significant weight and size inside a car that was smaller than the city cars of the time was considered a huge gamble on the one hand, but aroused even more interest on the other. In fact, the challenge taken up by Fiat focused precisely on using the X 1/23 to work in close contact with battery manufacturers, and try out innovative technologies that were capable of increasing the performances, especially in terms of range, compared to others of the same weight and size.
Built with lead-acid batteries, the Fiat X 1/23 was equipped by the Fiat Centro Ricerche with nickel-zinc batteries produced by the American company Yardney, able to ensure a particularly favourable ratio between weight and Watt/hour. An interesting article that appeared in "Illustrato" - the Fiat house organ - in 1979 stated that conventional lead-acid batteries delivered 35 Wh/kg while nickel-zinc batteries could reach 70-90 Wh/kg. With these innovative accumulators, in fact, the range of the Fiat X 1/23 reached 70 kilometres.
As always, it is the cost/benefit ratio that determines the future of a technology, and while experiments on batteries were still following their own rocky road which, until then had led to the use of lithium-based accumulators, the manufacturer from Turin designed and began production in 1990 of the Fiat Panda Elettra, the first electric car mass-produced by a major international car maker. 1992 saw the birth of the Fiat Cinquecento Elettra followed, in 1998, by the Seicento Elettra.
Developing the idea of the X 1/23, in the years that followed Fiat proposed various concept cars developed around the theme of urban mobility with electric traction: in 1993 the Fiat Downtown, a compact three-seater with two electric motors in the wheel hubs; in 1995 the Fiat ZIC (Zero Impact Car) created with the use of information technology in collaboration with the National Research Agency (CNR) and the European Design Institute (IED) and in 1996 the VANZIC and ZICSTR evolutions, which perfected the ZIC prototype by introducing the concept of a "range extender", a small internal combustion engine capable of producing electricity autonomously. Finally, in 2008, the Fiat Centro Ricerche coordinated a pool of companies and universities - including Turin Politecnico, IAAD and IED - to design the Fiat Phylla, which featured lithium ion batteries.
As we might have guessed, however, the idea of a Fiat city car with electric drive would see the light of day with the 2010 presentation in the States of the 500 BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) concept car designed for the American market, which would go into production in 2012 under the name 500e to be sold in California. This would be the forerunner of the New 500 launched in 2020, which is currently one of the best-selling electric cars, and not only in Italy. Today the Fiat X 1/23 prototype is kept in the "Eco and sustainable" area of the Heritage HUB in Turin.
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