Kill Your Darlings: The Birth and Death of the Pontiac Fiero

Launched in 1983, the Pontiac Fiero promised to be a good-looking, affordable mid-engine sports car introducing exciting new techniques in production and design. Alas, it became one of GM’s great disasters: overweight and underpowered, tarnished by alarming reports of reliability problems and engine fires. By 1988, more power, better looks, and a $30 million new suspension brought the Fiero closer to its original promise — just in time for the corporation to bring down the ax. This week, we look at the origins and history of the Fiero and the reasons for its sad fate.

1987 Pontiac Fiero badge

WAIL OF THE BANSHEE

There was a discussion on The Truth About Cars recently about why General Motors always seems to kill its most interesting models just after it finally gets them right. The pattern is familiar: The company rolls out a new, exciting product to great fanfare, only to have said product turn out to be seriously flawed. After the company finally fixes most or all of the flaws, it decides to cancel the product anyway, leaving aggrieved fans and puzzled observers scratching their heads. There are many examples of this sad tendency, notably including the Chevrolet Corvair and Cadillac Allanté, but the poster child is the Pontiac Fiero.

The Fiero had an extraordinarily long gestation period. The idea of a cheap, plastic-bodied Pontiac sports car goes back 20 years or more, beginning with a 1964 prototype called XP-833, later known as the Pontiac Banshee. The Banshee was the brainchild of E.M. (Pete) Estes, then Pontiac’s general manager, and John Z. DeLorean, then the division’s chief engineer. Both Estes and DeLorean had joined Pontiac back in 1956 under the auspices of general manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen. They had spent the ensuing eight years reinventing Pontiac as GM’s excitement division with considerable success. By 1964, however, they were faced with a dilemma. Although Pontiac had some fast, good-looking products, particularly the GTO, even its sportiest models were big, five- and six-passenger cars. Pontiac had nothing resembling Chevrolet’s Corvette Sting Ray or, more significantly, the new Ford Mustang. The Mustang was then beginning a concerted assault on the youth market that Pontiac had so assiduously cultivated and represented a serious threat.

In response, DeLorean ordered Bill Collins, then assistant chief engineer for chassis engineering, to develop a compact sports car as a potential Mustang rival. To keep costs down, it was to use a fiberglass body and share about 80% of its components with other Pontiac models. The resultant XP-833/Banshee looked something like a scaled-down Corvette or the later Opel GT, an aggressive little two-seater powered by Pontiac’s new overhead-cam six. The Banshee was intended to have a reasonable starting price of around $2,500, which would put it within $100 of a V8 Mustang.

Although DeLorean and Estes made a strong case for producing the Banshee, GM’s senior management, which had to approve all new models, said no. The corporation’s leadership had little enthusiasm for sporty cars and even less for two-seaters, which they thought too limited in appeal to justify the investment. Even the Corvette, then was selling better than ever, was a distinctly marginal item as far as the corporation was concerned. GM leadership had no interest in building another plastic-bodied sports car, which they assumed — probably not unreasonably — would only cannibalize sales of the more expensive Sting Ray.

The Banshee project ultimately came to nothing. Estes was promoted to run Chevrolet and DeLorean, who succeeded Estes as head of Pontiac, had to content himself with the midsize GTO and the F-body Firebird, based on Chevrolet’s new Camaro.

By early 1969, DeLorean had followed Estes and Knudsen to Chevrolet and the image they built for Pontiac began to wither. As we discussed in our recent article on the GTO, Knudsen, Estes, and DeLorean’s willingness to play fast and loose with GM’s conservative corporate policy was the root of Pontiac’s success in the sixties. By contrast, their successors, Jim McDonald and Martin Caserio, were more concerned with cost controls, internal politics, and complying with new federal regulations. Alex Mair, who replaced Caserio in October 1975, approved a few image builders like the short-lived Can Am, but most were not successful. Pontiac quickly slipped back toward its pre-Knudsen obscurity.

THE COMMUTER SPORTS CAR

In 1978, Pontiac’s Advanced Engineering group, headed by Turkish-born Hulki Aldikacti, again proposed an inexpensive plastic-bodied sports car, analogous to the long-defunct Banshee concept. The proposal added a new wrinkle: a mid-engine drivetrain, something that was becoming virtually de rigueur for serious sports cars.

New general manager Robert Stempel and chief engineer Robert Dorn, an ex-racer, both liked the idea, but they were not confident about its prospects. The corporation had previously rejected proposals for a mid-engine Corvette and with ever-increasing federal emissions and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, new sports cars were not on the menu. Bob Dorn pointed out, however, that if the two-seater could be built cheaply with a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, it could help Pontiac meet its CAFE targets.

Late that year, Stempel and Dorn presented the idea to senior management, presenting the mid-engined model not as a sports car, but as a cheap, two-seat commuter vehicle capable of returning up to 50 miles to the gallon (4.7 L/100 km). The stratagem worked and the project, known as the P-car, received preliminary approval — ironically, from Pete Estes, who had become president of General Motors in September 1974. Bob Dorn assigned Hulki Aldikacti as the P-car’s project manager and chief engineer and told him to proceed.

THE ART OF COMPROMISE

Effective as it was, the sleight of hand involved in the P-car’s approval was something of a devil’s bargain. The total budget for the program was set at only $410 million including plant retooling, a very modest sum for an all-new model even then.

With such a limited budget, Aldikacti decided his best bet was to sequester the P-car from the normal Pontiac organization. Most of the engineering development was done at an outside firm, Engineering Technology Ltd. (ENTECH) of Troy, Michigan. The design of the P-car, meanwhile, went not to John Schinella’s Pontiac Two studio, but to the Advanced Design Three studio, then run by Ron Hill. Keeping the P-car out of the normal development channels allowed Aldikacti to control costs and limit bureaucratic delays and interference. Less happily, it also reflected the project’s marginal status within the division.

The budget quickly squelched any ambitions Aldikacti had of making the P-car America’s answer to the Ferrari Dino. Developing a unique engine, for example, would have exceeded the project’s total budget as well as pushing the P-car over its target price. Aldikacti had little choice but to use existing components drawn from GM’s parts bin.

The corporation’s principal objection to mid-engine design was that it required a rear transaxle and independent rear suspension, both of which were expensive. In 1978, however, GM was readying a new crop of low-cost, front-wheel-drive X-cars (the Chevy Citation/Pontiac Phoenix, et al) for the 1980 model year. Aldikacti and the engineers at ENTECH realized that they could use the MacPherson strut front suspension and transaxle from the X-cars in the rear of the P-car with fairly minor modifications. The P-car’s front suspension, meanwhile, was borrowed from the subcompact Chevrolet Chevette. This kludge of existing pieces was cheap, if far from ideal.

Aldikacti had dreams of a high-revving, all-aluminum V6, but the budget and the ambitious fuel economy target made that impossible. Early on, the P-car was intended to have a 1.8 L (112 cu. in.) four, probably the GM 122 engine later used in the 1982 J-cars (Chevrolet Cavalier/Cadillac Cimarron/et al). Later, when the project budget shrank even further, the fuel economy target was relaxed and the 1.8 L was replaced by the familiar 2,471 cc (151 cu. in.) Iron Duke, a rather rustic pushrod four derived from Pontiac’s venerable V8. The Iron Duke was slow-revving, heavy, noisy, and underpowered, but, like the parts-bin suspension, it was cheap and available.

1987 Pontiac Fiero engine cover
The 1987-88 Pontiac Fiero’s Iron Duke engine got extensive modifications, boosting power from 92 to 98 hp (68 to 73 kW). Despite the cooling vents atop the engine cover, the radiator is in front. The long coolant lines are vulnerable to air bubbles and the system needs to be bled properly any time coolant is added or changed.

The idea of recycling familiar components was not necessarily a bad one, but GM’s parts bin at the time was not exactly cutting edge. A five-speed transaxle, for example, would have benefited both performance and fuel economy, but GM didn’t have one, so the P-car initially had to make do with the X-car’s four-speed manual and three-speed automatic.

THE PLASTIC P-CAR

A critical part of the P-car concept was its plastic body, something with which Aldikacti had been intrigued for some time. Since the early fifties, plastic had seemed like the material of the future: lightweight, immune to rust, resistant to dings and dents, and able to form complex shapes that were difficult to achieve in metal. More importantly, as far as the P-car was concerned, plastic molds were vastly cheaper than the tooling for steel body panels, making plastic far more affordable for low-volume products.

Unfortunately, plastic bodies also presented a number of problems. While plastic panels are lighter than steel, they aren’t as strong and getting adequate rigidity is therefore challenging. Lotus had used a full fiberglass monocoque for its Elite sports cars, but they were disturbingly flimsy for everyday use. The Corvette and the later Lotus Europa relied on a heavy platform frame for structural support, but even then, their rigidity was not impressive. Furthermore, Plastic didn’t hold paint very well and the fit and finish of plastic body panels left much to be desired.

Aldikacti was aware of these issues, but he couldn’t afford to sacrifice the cost savings of bodying the P-car in plastic rather than steel. ENTECH and Pontiac ultimately developed a novel “space frame” concept for the P-car’s structure, a welded steel unibody with bolt-on plastic panels. In concept, it was comparable to the old Citroën DS and Rover P6, both of which were also unibody designs with unstressed body panels (albeit in steel, not plastic). Pontiac broke new ground, however, with the engineering process. In a brainstorming session with his manufacturing people, Aldikacti concocted a unique “drill and mill” process to rigidly affix body mounts to the unitary structure, allowing the plastic panels to be attached with great precision.

The space frame was very rigid, incorporating a wide, stiff central spine that contained the car’s 10.2-gallon (38.6-liter) fuel tank. As with the driveshaft tunnel of the 1958 Ford Thunderbird (which served a similar structural function), the spine extended up into the cabin, where the stylists disguised it with a tall center console. The frame’s wide outer sills, meanwhile, incorporated passages for the coolant lines, which connected the engine to the nose-mounted radiator. The engine and transaxle were carried on a rubber-isolated cradle mounted behind the passenger compartment.

The P-car’s plastic body panels, which Pontiac dubbed Enduraflex, actually used four different types of plastic. The door skins, front fenders, and lower rear fenders were stiff reinforced reaction-injection-molded urethane (RIM) while the front and rear fascias were softer non-reinforced RIM. The roof, hood, engine cover, and the upper part of the rear fenders were sheet molding compound (SMC) and the rocker panels were thermoplastic olefin (TPO). All panels were primered and painted much like a steel body.

One interesting facet of the space frame design was that the panels could be unbolted and replaced fairly easily; Pontiac later claimed that all exterior panels could be removed and replaced in only five hours. Aside from simplifying collision repair, it later made the P-car a favorite of kit car builders, who could easily design new panels to fit the existing mounts.

Although there were early hopes that the space frame and plastic panels would keep the P-car’s weight under 2,000 pounds (907 kg), the complete structure ended up just as heavy as — if not heavier than — a similarly sized all-steel monocoque. In its favor, the P-car’s structure was quite strong; it later scored very well in both National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash tests in 1984.

1987 Pontiac Fiero wheel
Although they’re puny by today’s standards, the Pontiac Fiero’s original-equipment 215/60R-14 Goodyear Eagle GTs were generous by the standards of their day. Fieros had good cornering grip, although the steering was very heavy. Power steering was developed late in the 1988 model year, but only a handful of Fieros were built with it before the model was canceled.

THE FIRST HURDLE

Ron Hill’s styling team submitted their proposal to Aldikacti in late September 1979. Although the designers originally wanted a sleek “bubbleback” roof (not unlike that of the later Buick Reatta), the large glass area was deemed too heavy and too expensive. They eventually settled for a simpler notchback with a pronounced wedge shape in profile.

The normal procedure would have been to submit the engineering proposal and the full-size clay model for management approval, but Aldikacti knew that the P-car project was still in a very tenuous position. He decided that the best way to ensure its survival was to have ENTECH build a drivable prototype, even though this breech of protocol put him over budget.

Aldikacti and Bob Stempel presented the running prototype to the Engineering Policy Group in April 1980. As Aldikacti hoped, having a car they could see and touch made a strong impression on senior management. He received production approval for the 1982 model year and the approved design was transferred to Jack Schinella’s Pontiac Two studio to be made production-ready. By the end of June, it appeared that GM was finally going to build a mid-engine car.

1987 Pontiac Fiero side
When the basic Pontiac Fiero design went to John Schinella’s Pontiac studio in early 1980, they raked the windshield further and pushed the cabin forward to emphasize the wedge shape. An unusual touch is incorporating the side marker lights and door handles into the rub strip, which also serves to separate the different plastics used in the top and bottom halves of the rear fenders. All Fieros ride the same 93.4-inch (2,372mm) wheelbase, although overall length varies depending on the model and year.

STOP/START

Despite that initial approval, the P-car was very nearly stillborn. GM had a terrible year in 1980, with car and truck sales plummeting 26%; the corporation posted a $750 million loss for the year. It was a bad time for “fringe” models.

In the fall of 1980, Aldikacti was ordered to halt work on the P-car. Well aware that putting a project “on hold” was one of the corporation’s favorite tactics for killing something without actually canceling it, Aldikacti decided to ignore the order and keep working. He subsequently ignored two other orders to stop work on the project. That kind of insubordination is seldom good for an engineer’s career, but Aldikacti found a supporter in new general manager Bill Hoglund, who replaced Bob Stempel in October 1980. Hoglund protected the project from cancellation, but he was not able to save the P-car’s entire budget, which was slashed from $410 million to a meager $300 million.

One upside was that Hoglund backed away from the dubious notion of the P-car as an economical commuter vehicle. The original 50-mpg target was unrealistic in any case, and with the X-cars and J-cars coming on the market, the P-car’s fuel economy was less critical. Hoglund was also interested in reviving Pontiac’s sporty image and had no problem with promoting the two-seater as a sports car. He okayed the development of a V6 engine package and an improved suspension, although neither would be ready at the car’s introduction. Hoglund also approved a plan to develop a racing version for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA)’s GTU class.

1987 Pontiac Fiero front 3q
While the later GT models, with their 2,828 cc (173 cu. in.) V6, were the best performers, many Pontiac Fiero buyers opted for the base notchback models, which were as much as $5,000 cheaper. This 1987 base model started at $8,299, compared to $13,489 for a Fiero GT.

Hoglund eventually obtained renewed production approval by convincing senior management that he could sell 100,000 units a year of the P-car. It was not a realistic goal and it would come back to haunt the car later, but as with the program’s other compromises, the tactic worked. In May 1982, the corporation approved the P-car for the 1984 model year.

The P-car was originally intended to be called the Pontiac Pegasus and its emblem depicted a winged horse, designed by stylist Jon Albert. The Pontiac sales organization rejected that name, however, on the dubious grounds that people wouldn’t know how to pronounce it. Bruce MacDonald, Pontiac’s director of public relations, ultimately came up with the name Fiero, which became the P-car’s official name.

Fiero production was assigned to a shuttered factory in the GM manufacturing complex in Pontiac, Michigan. Because the Fiero was an all-new, low-volume product, Hoglund decided it would be a good opportunity to explore new approaches to production. He hired W. Edwards Deming, the manufacturing consultant who had done so much to rebuild Japan’s postwar industry, as an adviser for the new plant. At Deming’s suggestion, the Fiero plant adopted a team-oriented organizational approach more akin to Japanese automakers’ than Detroit’s usual M.O. It gave the Fiero line workers far more involvement in the process than was customary for an American automaker and it promised both higher quality control and a new level of trust between labor and management, both of which had been long been weak spots for GM.

In all, the Pontiac Fiero was shaping up to be the most exciting car the division had offered in years — not only an interesting product, but a new way of making cars.

1987 Pontiac Fiero rear 3q
Although it looks sleek, the Pontiac Fiero notchback’s drag coefficient is an unimpressive 0.377, a product in part of the upright angle of the rear window. Until 1987, the Fiero’s rear suspension was the MacPherson strut layout of the X-car, with the now-superfluous tie rods simply fixed to the engine cradle. The 1988 suspension was all-new, retaining coil-over shock absorbers, but with a trailing link, a lower control arms, and a toe control link for each rear wheel.

THE 1984 PONTIAC FIERO: FLAWED PRODIGY

The Pontiac Fiero went into production in the spring of 1983 and made its public debut on September 22 as a 1984 model. As intended, it was very keenly priced; the base model started at $7,999, about the price of a well-equipped Plymouth Horizon or Volkswagen Rabbit. The plusher SE model had a base price of $9,599, comparable to the Honda Prelude and about $600 cheaper than a Volkswagen Scirocco. Sexy, economical — with an EPA combined fuel economy of 31 mpg (7.6 L / 100 km) — and made in America, the Fiero made a strong first impression. Its assembly quality also seemed above average.

Beyond its good looks and attractive price, the Fiero’s virtues were more modest. It handled well, but Car and Driver‘s September 1983 review complained that it felt surprisingly cumbersome and heavy-footed. Although the Fiero’s front wheels carried only 43.5% of its static weight, its unassisted steering was uncomfortably heavy, which made low-speed maneuvers a chore. The ride was stiff and the Fiero could be nervous and darty even in relaxed cruising. Although it had four-wheel disc brakes, their balance was poor and they tended to lock up unpredictably.

The Fiero also wasn’t very fast. Despite its displacement, the Iron Duke — now fitted with Rochester throttle-body fuel injection and christened Tech IV — produced an unimpressive 92 hp (68 kW). In December 1983, Car and Driver clocked a four-speed Pontiac Fiero SE from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in an uninspiring 11.3 seconds, reaching a top speed of 105 mph (169 km/h). That was in the same realm as the Scirocco, Prelude, or other modestly priced coupes, but hardly in keeping with the Fiero’s racy looks.

The root of the problem was that the Fiero was quite heavy. Thanks to the bulky space frame, cast-iron engine, and parts-bin components, a well-equipped Fiero SE tipped the scales at a portly 2,580 lb (1,170 kg), significantly more than most rivals.

As if to provide a case in point, the Honda Civic CRX debuted around the time the Fiero went on sale. The CRX was a two-seat commuter car of precisely the sort Bob Stempel and Bob Dorn had once convinced GM management the Fiero would be. On paper, the CRX was far less sophisticated: Its four-cylinder engine was mounted in front, driving the front wheels; it had neither independent rear suspension nor four-wheel disc brakes; and it used modest 13-inch wheels, far skinnier than the Fiero’s fat Goodyear GTs. Despite that and despite spotting the Pontiac at least 16 horsepower (12 kW), the CRX was quicker than the Fiero, matched its top speed, and nearly matched its cornering grip, while being considerably more pleasant to drive. To add insult to injury, the comparatively boxy, upright CRX had a drag coefficient of only 0.33, more than 10% slipperier than the low-slung Fiero. The main reason for the CRX’s performance edge was simple: it weighed some 760 lb (345 kg) less than the Fiero.

1988 Pontiac Fiero Formula interior
The Pontiac Fiero’s interior design was done by the Pontiac Two studio, which tried to give it a certain family resemblance to other contemporary Pontiacs. It’s fairly roomy for the car’s modest dimensions, although the dashboard design is one of the Fiero’s most dated aspects. Note the high center tunnel. On manual-transmission cars, its height complicates shifting, although that’s irrelevant with automatic cars like this 1988 Formula. (Photo © 2006 Jonrev; released to the public domain by the photographer)

Bill Hoglund and Hulki Aldikacti assured the press that the Fiero would soon be available with a V6 and that they were working on an improved suspension (which eventually appeared) and a weight-reduction program (which did not). Still, the superior performance of the CRX suggested the limitations of Aldikacti’s approach. In his determination to preserve the Fiero’s mid-engine layout, plastic body, and other features, he had had to accept compromises that chipped away at its virtues as a car.

THEREIN LIES THE RUB

Fortunately for Pontiac, the public was more impressed with the Fiero’s looks than dissuaded by its dynamic shortcomings. First-year sales were 136,840, far better than the CRX and impressive for a two-seater of any stripe. For a while, Pontiac had three shifts running at Fiero factory and production still fell short of early demand. Unfortunately, this eroded the division’s willingness to make the dynamic changes the Fiero needed. With brisk sales, it didn’t seem urgent and any significant redesign would have resulted in production delays and lost sales.

For 1985, the Fiero got the promised V6 engine, the 2,828 cc (173 cu. in.) L44, also found in the Pontiac 6000 STE sedan, making 140 hp (104 kW). There was also a new GT model, with different front and rear fascias and a WS6 sport suspension. The four-cylinder engine got a new five-speed manual transmission, licensed from the Japanese manufacturer Isuzu. The five-speed wasn’t strong enough for the V6’s torque, but even with the four-speed gearbox, the V6 improved the Fiero’s performance significantly. With the V6, the Fiero was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little over 8 seconds and a top speed of 125 mph (201 km/h), much more creditable performance. Unfortunately, the Fiero’s other deficiencies remained and the new engine added new ones, including significantly greater fuel consumption that taxed the Fiero’s small fuel tank. (The 1987-88 models belatedly got a larger, 12-gallon (45.4-liter) tank.)

The additions did not keep Fiero sales from falling significantly in its second year. That drop shouldn’t have been a surprise, particularly considering that the Fiero was not a very practical car. Many of the buyers who were attracted by the styling and who could live with its limited passenger and cargo space had already bought one the first year. Furthermore, the Fiero had a formidable new rival in 1985: Toyota’s MR2. The MR2 was very similar to the Fiero in concept and mission — a mid-engine sporty car based in large part on the underpinnings of the FWD Corolla — but the Toyota was somewhat smaller, about 200 lbs (90 kg) lighter, and had 20 horsepower (15 kW) more than the four-cylinder Pontiac. The MR2 wasn’t as quick as the V6 Fiero, but it was about $800 cheaper and most testers found it more enjoyable to drive. Once the MR2 went on sale, Fiero sales dipped to 76,371. That was still better than either the MR2 or CRX and about as good as Datsun’s popular two-seat Z car had done in its best years, but it set off alarm bells in GM’s executive offices.

Things were a little better for 1986, thanks to the introduction of a new Fiero GT model with a sleek fastback profile. It was arguably the best-looking Fiero, eliminating some of the stubby look that characterized the notchback. Although the still-optional V6 was down to 135 hp (101 kW) this year, it could be ordered with a new five-speed Getrag gearbox. Total sale climbed to 83,974; more than decent, all things considered, but still below GM’s unrealistic expectations.

1987 Pontiac Fiero GT front 3q
The fastback Pontiac Fiero GT, introduced in 1986, had a longer nose and a different roofline than the base Fiero as well as the WS6 suspension with 15-inch wheels. It’s 165.8 inches (4,211 mm) long, 5.1 inches (130 mm) longer overall than the notchback, and its drag coefficient is somewhat better as well. (Photo © 2009 Dave Saunders; used with permission)

BURNING QUESTIONS

By the start of the 1986 model year, there were growing concerns about the Fiero’s reliability. The engines ran hot even under normal conditions and overheating was a problem. Worse, the shallow sump of the Fiero’s Iron Duke engine had a labeled capacity of only 3 quarts (2.8 L) of oil and the engine was prone to oil leaks. Many 1984-85 Iron Dukes had also weak connecting rods, thanks to casting problems at GM’s Saginaw foundry division.

More alarming were the reports of engine fires. In October 1983, two Fieros caught fire during test drives at the GM proving grounds — one in front of Hulki Aldikacti himself. By the end of 1985, GM had received 112 reports of engine fires, mostly in 1984 models. The problem was typically a side effect of the oil leakage, which allowed oil to drip onto the hot exhaust manifold, although a faulty radiator hose spraying coolant onto the exhaust pipes caused one of the test track fires. A broken connecting rod could also start a fire among the other havoc it wreaked.

A redesign of the Fiero’s engine bay largely mitigated the problem for subsequent model years, but GM was reluctant to order a recall, which they knew would bring a great deal of negative publicity. According to Joseph White and Paul Ingrassia, Pontiac generally treated engine fires as warranty repairs, requiring customers to sign nondisclosure agreements to receive compensation. The number of reported fires continued to mount and by the summer of 1986, the NHTSA began an investigation. GM tried to minimize the concerns and shift blame to owners, but the NHTSA eventually forced Pontiac to recall all 1984s to modify the engine bay. Apparently hoping to make the announcement as quietly as possible, GM issued the recall notice on the evening before Thanksgiving 1987.

THE 1988 PONTIAC FIERO: LAST HURRAH

By the 1987 model year, stories about engine fires and broken connecting rods were starting to hurt the Fiero’s reputation. Although a Super Duty Fiero won the IMSA Manufacturer’s Cup that year, sales fell to 46,581. In January, GM laid off 1,200 workers at the Fiero plant.

The long-promised new suspension finally appeared for 1988. The new layout, which cost Pontiac a reported $30 million, significantly revised the front suspension geometry, replacing the parts-bin pieces of the original car with a new double-wishbone front suspension and a completely new rear suspension with trailing links, lower control arms, toe control links and, on some models, a rear anti-roll bar. The revised suspension also included bigger vented disc brakes, providing better stopping power. With the new suspension, the Fiero rode and handled better, although it was still nervous in a straight line and the steering remained heavy; Pontiac considered electro-hydraulic power assistance as a possible future option.

Whatever the suspension’s dynamic benefits, it did not improve sales. Fiero sales for 1988 were the lowest to date: only 39,571. At the same time, GM was in the throes of Roger Smith’s dramatic and ill-fated upheaval of its organizational structure. Starting in 1984, Smith had stripped the individual divisions of their former autonomy, combining them into two super-groups, Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada and Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac. The reorganization led to widespread layoffs, a breakdown in internal communications, and the loss of a great deal of accumulated knowledge and experience. Bill Hoglund, who had defended the Pontiac Fiero during its gestation, was replaced in July 1984 by J. Michael Losh, a finance man whose directive was to reduce costs and eliminate “redundancies.”

Late in 1987, shortly after the recall announcement, Losh ordered a review of the Fiero program. The report was grim: Thanks in part to high warranty costs, Pontiac was losing more than $2,000 on each base-model Fiero. The more-expensive models were still profitable, but Losh decided that wasn’t enough, particularly since the recall was going to depress sales even further. Moreover, the Fiero was simply getting old, a handicap in a crowded, highly competitive, fashion-driven market segment.

Many at the division were still optimistic about the Fiero’s future. Pontiac had built a single prototype ’89, powered by a turbocharged V6 and the division had provisional approval for a 1990 redesign that would replace the Iron Duke with the DOHC Quad 4, a noisy but potent engine capable of 190 hp (142 kW) or more. There was talk of a convertible and a handful of 1988 models were built with power steering, which probably would have been more widely available for the 1989 model year.

1987 Pontiac Fiero GT rear 3q
The later Pontiac Fiero GT’s longer “flying buttress” sail panels make it look a little like some later mid-engine Ferraris. In 1987, the Michigan firm Corporate Concepts took the Ferrari resemblance to extremes with the Mera, a body kit that made the Fiero look a great deal like a Ferrari 308GTB. Some were even sold through Pontiac dealerships, which ultimately provoked threatening letters from Ferrari North America. (Photo © 2009 Dave Saunders; used with permission)

The UAW lobbied to save the Fiero, hoping to preserve the Pontiac plant’s unique production system. Losh told the union he would think it over, but it was already too late. On March 1, 1988, Pontiac announced that the Fiero would be discontinued at the end of the 1988 model year.

ALL OVER BUT THE CRYING

Pontiac had not actually lost money on the Fiero program, but the division projected losses of more than $20 million between 1988 and 1995 if the car continued, mostly because they expected the sports car market to shrink dramatically in the early nineties. Another factor was the $30 million Pontiac had spent on the new suspension, which tipped the Fiero’s balance sheet in an unfavorable direction. The irony was profound: When the Fiero was selling well, Pontiac was reluctant to spend money to change it; once they did make changes, the cost of those improvements helped to sign its death warrant.

The elephant in the room, of course, was the recall, which by 1990 had grown to include every Fiero Pontiac had built. Outside of a few individuals like Aldikacti and Hoglund, corporate interest in the car had never been strong; it was too much of a niche item. Now, it was in danger of becoming an embarrassment.

Pontiac’s pessimism about the sports car market in the nineties turned out to be well-founded. A recession early in the decade, combined with higher prices and rising insurance premiums, caused sales of most two-seat sports cars to drop precipitously. By the late nineties, the Honda CRX, Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7, and Nissan 300ZX were all dead or gone from the U.S. market. Toyota’s sleeker, faster second-generation MR2, launched in 1991, sold only 21,580 units in the States in five model years and was dropped from the U.S. lineup after 1995. In that climate, it seems unlikely that even a vastly improved second-generation Fiero would have fared much better.

There was one exception to that gloomy picture: A year after the Fiero’s demise, Mazda unveiled its new MX-5 Miata roadster, which proved to be a great success and remains one of the world’s best-selling two-seaters. Some Pontiac executives lamented the loss of the mooted Fiero convertible, realizing that they could have had some of the Miata’s business.

Although GM had a long history of pioneering and then abandoning novel technologies, the plastic body techniques developed for the Pontiac Fiero did not go to waste. GM later used the same approach for its early U-body minivans (the Chevrolet Lumina APV, Pontiac Trans Sport, and Oldsmobile Silhouette), the Saturn, and the fourth-generation Camaro and Firebird. As with the Fiero, the plastic body panels didn’t make the cars any lighter, but they did reduce tooling costs and customers appreciated their dent resistance — particularly on the Saturn, where it became a signature feature.

The manufacturing strategies Hoglund and Deming introduced at the Fiero plant, however, were quickly discarded. Admittedly, the Fiero hadn’t been a ringing endorsement for that approach, although most of the car’s problems were design- or materials-related rather than assembly issues; in fact, the Fiero plant consistently received some of GM’s highest quality ratings. Nevertheless, whatever goodwill the Fiero had developed between management and the union was soon lost.

CORONER’S REPORT

From a sales standpoint, Pontiac didn’t suffer from the demise of the Fiero. Total sales for 1989 rose almost 120,000 units. Pontiac retained the No. 3 sales position in most years until the mid-nineties. A redesigned Fiero might have had value as a publicity and traffic generator, particularly for younger buyers who increasingly saw the Firebird as a dinosaur, but Pontiac was doing well enough with the pseudo-BMW styling of its popular Grand Am. The division didn’t necessarily need a car like the Fiero, and the money it would have cost to keep the Fiero current was probably best spent elsewhere.

On the other hand, the same rationale was used to justify the cancellation of the Firebird in 2001 and the noveau GTO in 2006. Each of those decisions chipped away a little more at the increasingly slim divide between Pontiac and Chevrolet — or, for that matter, Buick and Saturn. The result of that erosion was all too apparent in GM’s brush with bankruptcy and Pontiac’s eventual demise.

Pontiac’s last fling at the two-seat sports car market was the Solstice, launched in 2005 as a 2006 model. Like the Fiero, the Solstice was good-looking, overweight, and somewhat flawed (albeit not as seriously as the early Fiero). Like the Fiero, the Solstice didn’t get an engine worthy of its looks until the second year of production, with the arrival of the turbocharged Solstice GXP. And, like the Fiero, it sold well at first, but once the initial demand was sated, sales quickly dried up. Production ended this past July at the end of the 2009 model year.

The obvious temptation with the Fiero is to talk wistfully about what it could have been if GM hadn’t made a mess of it from the beginning. We think the Fiero’s history really defies that sort of speculation. In all honesty, if Hulki Aldikacti had “done it right” from the beginning (for example, insisting on V6 or turbo engine or a suspension not cobbled together from economy-car bits), it’s very unlikely that the Fiero would have made it to production at all. True, it would have helped if Pontiac had avoided the reliability issues, but even without those problems, the general pattern of the Fiero’s sales decline probably would have been similar and its ultimate fate the same.

Surviving Fieros remained popular for many years with kit car builders and engine swappers. Not only does the Fiero lend itself to custom bodywork, the surprisingly commodious engine bay can swallow a fascinating variety of alternative powerplants. Even in stock form, a well-sorted, late-model GT remains an attractive and reasonably entertaining toy for enthusiasts with Lamborghini tastes and a Michelob budget. Many cars have had far worse requiems than that.

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources on the development of the Pontiac Fiero included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Don Keefe, “Department X: The 1964 OHC-6 Banshee Coupe,” High Performance Pontiac November 2001, pp. 38-41; Paul Lienert, “Farewell, Fiero,” Barry Winfield, “Fiero Flying,” and the Q&As with Hulki Aldikacti and J. Michael Losh in Automobile Vol. 3, No. 4 (July 1988), pp. 94–101; Joseph White and Paul Ingrassia, Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry (New York: Simon & Schuster: 1995); and Gary Witzenburg, Fiero: Pontiac’s Potent Mid Engine Sports Car (New York: HP Books, Inc., 1986).

Additional information came from Rich Ceppos, “Pontiac Fiero 2M4 SE, Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 6 (December 1983), pp. 61–65, “Pontiac Fiero GT,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 8 (February 1986), p. 82–86, and “Preview Test: Toyota MR2,” Car and Driver Vol. 30, No. 8 (February 1985), reprinted in Toyota MR2 1984–1988, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1989), pp. 18–21; Rich Ceppos, et al, “The Best-Handling American Car Is…,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 11 (May 1984), pp. 35–45; Jim Dunne, “Pontiac Fiero: First driving report on GM’s revolutionary two-seater,” Popular Science Vol. 223, No. 3 (September 1983), pp. 86–87, 146; Jim Dunne and Jack Keebler, “Two-seater challenge: Toyota MR2 vs. Pontiac Fiero GT and Mazda RX-7,” Popular Science Vol. 226, No. 6 (June 1985), pp. 25–27; “Engineering the New Cars,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 164, No. 10 (October 1987), pp. 135–142; Michael Lamm, “Its Beauty Is Under the Skin,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 162, No. 2 (February 1985), pp. 89, 144; Jean Lindamood, “Forging the Fiero: The pride of Pontiac design,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1983), pp. 55–58; Don Sherman and Csaba Csere, “Pontiac Fiero 2M4: Lighting a pilot under burning desire,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1983), pp. 48–53; John Stein, “Sports Cars for the Real World,” Automobile Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 1987), reprinted in Honda CRX 1983-1987, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books, 1988), pp. 86–97; Tony Swan, “Twos for the Money,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 165, No. 4 (April 1988), pp. 53–57; Rich Taylor, “No Back Seat for Performance,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 162, No. 7 (July 1985), pp. 80–83, 122–123; Jonathan Thompson, “Introduction: Japan’s First Mid-Engine Sports Car,” and “Toyota MR2,” Road & Track Vol. 36, No. 3 (November 1984), reprinted in Toyota MR2 1984–1988, pp. 6–13; and Toyota Motor Corporation, “News from Toyota: Toyota Releases Sporty Personal Car: Toyota MR2″ [press release], 8 June 1984.

This article’s title was suggested by a popular expression originally coined by screenwriter and novelist William Goldman in his 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade.


57 Comments

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  1. Since I own two of these cars, I’ll admit to some personal bias; but I’ll have to thank Aaron Severson for such an insightful, accurate and UNbiased handling of the Fiero story. Most writers seem to do nothing but take misinformed cheap shots at them, while a (very) few others blindly glorify them. Thanks again, Aaron- well done!

  2. I really enjoyed the report. I love the cars looks but remember them as being a lot of problems. If GM knew of fires for Gods sake do not put a car into production. That shows you their arrogance and look at them today. It truly is a shame. I always wanted a fiero but am not mechanically inclined at all so for me that dream will never be. I only want put the key in and go and I am afraid that owning a car that is 20 something years old -that will not happen. If they were trouble when new imagine them now. I know 2 people who owned them in the 80’s and they were always in for service(Mainly electrical and overheating) If one is mechanically inclined maybe but not for me.[color=aqua][/color][color=blue][/color][size=medium][/size] What a shame.

    1. I had a 1984 Fiero bought it from a doctors son it only had 12,000 miles on it ..It looked brand new when I bought it in "88." I loved it I felt so cool driving around in that sleek little sports car..I only had one problem I had to take it into the dealer because the fuel injection had to be replaced because it kept jerking and dying on me in traffic after I had driven it for about 30 minutes..After that problem was corrected I had no problems for two yrs until I was driving in a heavy down pour and all of a sudden the car hydroplaned and slung me into a telephone pole where I basically ate the dash..Needless to say my beautiful little sports car was a totaled out mess..I would love to have it back even though it is not very practical for me now that I am older..My dad however hated it he said it was nothing but a souped up go-cart lol

  3. I think the report is very thorough. I have owned my 1985 Fiero since new and I have driven it over 105,000 miles. I won’t deny that the design included much compromise, and that there were some quality issues; however my particular Fiero has been the second most reliable car that I have ever owned. Repairs have been minor. This is particularly impressive when you consider that the first 50,000 miles were accumulated in the first two years of ownership, and the next 40,000 in the next eight years. I cringe when I read desciptions that paint Fieros as unreliable and prone to problems. In all fairness, the Fiero problems were highly publicized. Other cars also had similar problems but very few wrote about those problems. Engine failures in BMW’s come to mind, but most people never knew because for some reason the media wasn’t interested in crucifying BMW over their failure. By comparison, the media gleefully wrote about Fiero problems.

    1. Well, I think part of the media frenzy, as with Toyota now, is that the Fiero’s engine fires represented a safety hazard, as well as a reliability issue. By contrast, things like the Toyota engine-sludge issue or BMW’s Nikasil block failure problems, while expensive and potentially embarrassing, didn’t have a lot of headline value. The fact that GM was so reluctant to admit the problem didn’t help, of course.

      Having design flaws, or even known reliability issues, doesn’t mean that every car is going to break down. I’ve been hearing from Vega fans who point out that their cars managed to avoid many of the type’s publicized problems — in the same way, I suppose, that not everyone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day ends up with lung cancer.

      Aside from the fires, probably the most serious reliability issue with the Fiero was the Tech IV/Iron Duke’s connecting rods. A high percentage of them had metallurgical flaws, of which both Pontiac and the Saginaw foundry were well aware. According to Ingrassia and White, Pontiac had trouble getting it resolved because fixing it would have required shutting down the line. Again, not every Fiero had bad con rods, and not all the bad ones failed, but the percentage was very high (more than 30%, according to one source), and it made Pontiac management extremely alarmed, for obvious reasons!

      1. Regarding the connecting rods / engine fires… The connecting rods were a major cause of those fires. When the rods would let go, they’d ventilate the front of the block, and all the vital fluids would pour out right on top of the catalytic converter. 6000s and other GM cars also had the Iron Duke, but they weren’t “famous” for engine fires. Largely because their catalysts were under the floor, far behind the engine and out of harm’s way.
        But thanks for a good, informative, unbiased article. Those of us who love these cars appreciate it.

  4. I am on my 2nd Fiero since 2000. I fell in love with them, and God willing, I will always have at least one running. No one even knows what they are on the road anymore. Kids with their soupcan mufflers want to race simply because it looks fast. I have the 2.5, so they would waste me. It gets solid gas mileage (34-38) and it is a dream to work on and customize. I have an 86 SE and 86 Coupe. I am chomping at the bit for the warm weather to stay, because the love affair begins every spring.

    1. i have a 85 fiero gt and i love it i have hadr young kids want to race me to and i have raced them and i always win but the engine in it is a 96 buick supper charger v6 and i have always won it shows old school is always better than new school

  5. Hi, i have an 87 gt over here in the uk and even though its now 23 years old! It still looks great,I have owned camaros,corvettes and worse of all a jeep 2.5 diesal sport(yugh). Bad move on GM’s part a good car killed off just as they got it right.

  6. I walked into a Pontiac showroom and a salesman who knew me came up and said, “Here’s what you need.” pointing to a Fiero.
    “I had one a long time ago.” I replied. “My dog chewed the wheels off it.”

  7. This was the most comprehensive article I’ve read on the Fiero to date. I actually found it while reading a similar article about the DeLorean.

    I do agree with most of what other Fiero owners on here have said. Despite the “ready for the junkyard” condition I got the car in in 1995, the V6 was very reliable and problems were not anything any decent shadetree mechanic couldn’t take care of. It was my daily driver for 6 years and went on many 400+ mile trips.

    Since then the car has undergone a 400HP V8 transplant and a lower and stiffer suspension with Koni shocks. The car drives exactly like it should have in the first place. It handles great at high speeds and is incredible in the corners now. The straight line twitchiness is still there since the steering has always been TOO easy to turn at high speeds so it take a very steady grip, but at least the modified suspension gives it a much more confident and safer feel.

  8. Wow! There are so many inaccuracies with this article that if I were to discuss each false statement, my discussion would be longer than this article. Do not believe everything you read, particularly in this article.

    1. If you have corrections or additional information, feel free to submit them, along with your sources, and I’ll happily consider them.

  9. I had a 1986 fiero 4cyl iron duke. I loved the thing and drove it to work every day with joy. I think it had 50K miles on it before I traded it in on a 1997 honda civic. The Civic gets 40 miles per gallon. The only reasons I traded the Fiero was because the engine began to make piston slapping noise and my wife complained about the stiff suspension which hurt her back on long drives.

    I was looking through Fiero articles on the internet for a conversion instruction to an electric motor because the body and suspension was and is well designed. I loved that little car. I found several electric drive solutions on the internet. Maybe it would be fun to drive again with only an electrical system to deal with.

  10. I sold Chevrolets (90’s)for for years and it did not take to notice their propensity to introduce a car with all of the appropriate fanfare and then when problems started showing up, correct them and essentially have decent vehicle after 1 or 2 years. I do believe that GM is responsible for American’s fears of buying a first year model. Just think of the cars that GM finally got right and then let them die.

    Chevette
    Celebrity
    Impala
    Cavalier
    Cutlass
    Grand Prix
    Bonneville
    Park Avenue
    Lesabre ( biggest mistake)
    Century
    Lumina
    Corsica, for the first 2 years you could get a Corsica with a bench fron seat and column shifter which allowed it to carry six people and in the 3rd year they went to bucket seats with a console and, guess what….Gone in 4 years.
    Berreta
    Don’t get me started on GEO….

    I have never been able to understand their thoughts on ridding the planet of all these models and maybe someone should find out.

  11. I absolutely love this car. Looks like new due to the non metallic body, runs great, the fires were few and limited to the 4 cylinder but muvh publicized, GM made a mistake in disconinuint the Fiero, but on the other hand why have a competitor to the Corvette when the cost and prrofit margin are so much higher for the ‘vette. If you have a nice Fiero you are lucky, hang on to it

  12. Those Fieros which have survived to this late date have had their flaws discovered and fixed but back in 1985 and 1986, they were horrific. I remember when buying an Acura Integra in 1986 my salesman mentioned that he’d left Pontiac to sell Acuras. In 1986, it was a very open question if people would buy expensive Japanese cars, so he was gambling. I asked him wy he’d left the security of GM, and he told me it was because of the Fiero…the dealership had (he said) dozens of them out back, all with blown engines. He was starting to hide to avoid angry customers, and one day he realized he couldn’t make a living if he had to hide from customers.

    Too bad it took GM so long to finally get them right. Their reputation was gone by then.

  13. My job at GM was to monitor the crash safety of the vehicle products and assist in te design of better components. I did a search of all the Fiero crashes in the US and the occupant injury history. Those crashes that were in the Michigan area were personally investigated. The findings were that the Fireo was safest car GM was manufacturing. The latest crashworthiness innovations were used, but the primary cause of the result was the occupant packaging. The small compartment space produced nearly the same effect as a lap & shld belt. It was a passive interior.

  14. i just bought a 1986 fiero about a year ago and i love this car where i live you cant really wind cars out to there max speed so this is a great zippy little car for me. I have owned a 91(305ci) and 86 (350ci) firebird, 85 (2.2L) daytona turbo, 89 (302ci) mustang, and 2 95 honda civics all std shift and none of them ran or handled as good as my 86 fiero so i really love this car

  15. I bought this car brand spanking new, and have never driven it in the winter. I must say it has been an awesome car, and have never had anything serious wrong.
    It has just over 100,000 km on it!
    It does need a new head liner, windsails?, and seats, due to wear and tear, but really has been awesome!
    Heather

  16. First off I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Probably the most comprehensive, consise piece I’ve seen written on the Fiero. Excellent job to the author! I owned a 1988 Fiero Formula. I enjoyed the car but my goodness was it expensive to repair! It didn’t help that when I bought it, it had a cracked exhaust manifold, front and real main seals were leaking, which saturated the clutch and yep, meant the clutch had to be replaced. It’s weird, but I still really liked that car! Even with all of its ‘worts’, I thought it was a good looking little car. Just wish GM would have spent the money to make it great, but as the author pointed out, that may have killed it off before it ever reached the market.

  17. Fine article, however, I am surprised that it does not include any discussion on what was planned to be a late intro four wheel steer system.

  18. I have owned 3 fieros, 1984, 1986 GT and 1988 GT. All have been trouble free. Very reliable cars. The 88 GT is the only one I have now which I bought in 1990. 95K miles on the engine and still running strong, all stock. The suspension is the only thing I wish I could fix, it’s getting old just like me!

    LOS

  19. I have a 88 Formula I purchased Mar. 2002 with 52,325 actual miles on it. red/grey interior a/t. I have just gone over 155k on the 2.8, and still runs strong. the best perfomer I’ve ever owned. timing chain replaced at 125k, i alt replaced, and now on my second a/c comp. flex plate replaced at 140k. first starter replaced last summer. still have thee original muffer, but I run the GT style stainless exhaust tips from Mr. Rodney Pitman. just got repainted Dec.2012 with the new Pontiac 2 seater Red, which is so near my original red , didn’t have to do door jams. I love this page, really enjoyed reading it. my future project for my Formula, Is to swap in a 3800 s/c, change the colors in and out, and go with 16 inch wheels.

    1. Just an update: I have a new set of Charger GT tires, and all wheel alignment since last post. I have just turned 169k on my Formula, and still runs like a scalded cat. I still retain the original muffler, but I have noticed something I need to have done; and that is replace the valve seals. whenever I start up, and after sitting awhile I smoke. but I don’t add oil between 3000k oil changes. Also, I need to redo my headliner, and sunroof outer seal as well. I’ve been thinking about going 16 inch rims, I like the rims on Lildevil GT. can you tell me what name brand he has? keep up the good work guys I love this site.

  20. I HAVE A 1988 FIERO FORMULA,I HAVE OWNED IT SINCE 1994 BOUGHT IT FOR 2,500,IN FLORIDA,DROVE IT FOR A WHILE AND THEN MARRIED IN 2000,CAR SAT FOR 12 YEARS .NOW DIVORCED I HAVE TAKEN OUT OF MY GARAGE AND WORKED ON IT PAINTED AND THE CAR IS LIKE NEW. NOW I TAKE IT TO CAR SHOWS AND PEOPLE JUST CANT. BELIEVE ITS 26 YEARS OLD AND IT LOOKS LIKE O YES V6 AND 22 CITY AND 38 HIGHWAY

  21. Someone wrote: “I just don’t understand their thinking”. That’s because there is no true logic behind their decision to kill this sweet car. It was pure politics. Fear. Jealousy. Seems like Chevrolet just couldn’t have it that the little Pontiac steals the show in puncto style, class, beauty, drivability and performance.

    I read that Pontiac made a V8 mule and test drove it on Chevy’s test track and prompt broke the Corvettes record. That probably finally sealed the Fieros fate. Just read user reviews of the Fiero on the net. It’s eye opening.

  22. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. I bought an ’84 SE in Nov. 84. Got t-boned and totaled at 112k. Never used oil so I stopped checking. Once I heard the clacking noises a engine makes when it get too low. Added three quarts. Got lazy (forgetful actually) once and discovered I had put 10K miles on between changes. Towards the end I abused the little thing. NEVER responded to any recall notices. Figured I had over 60k by then so if it was going to burn up it would have. Then bought an ’87 automatic at auction. Abused it till it died for want of antifreeze (didn’t know you had to “burp” the car when replacing coolant. One day after hard driving I had to respond to a page and call in to work. Car never cooled down once I started down the road again. Radiator split. Mel adding water till I got the 95+ miles home. Scrapped it. Bought an ’88 GT with 37K for under 7 grand in ’05. Wasn’t going to drive it much and didn’t until I hit a deer in 2010. Car survived, deer died. LeBra hides the damage. Now it has 138K. Getting lazy again with oil changes. She’s still fun to drive but not in rain or snow. I’ve spun it twice without incident (lucky!!!). Will drive it ’til it blows up. Then I have to decide if I want another ’88. The enthusiasts think they’re worth more than they are. Reserves too high. Most I’ve seen don’t sell as a result. Not paying $12-16K for any Fiero. Love ‘em but not that much!

  23. A humorous definition of a camel; “A horse designed by a committee”, The Fiero seems a prime example of this.
    Seems to me almost like GM tipped over some parts bins and said “Hey, lets make a car out of this”.

    Judging by your articles on behind the scenes at the Big Three it’s a marvel that any of them are still in business at all.
    I can only infer that Toyota, Mercedes Benz, Honda, BMW, name any car maker, must have their own behind the scenes issues as well.

    Claud.

  24. I bought a 1987 Burgundy GT 5 spd w/Tan Interior. New, the car cost 13k. Still have it in the garage with 21k orig mi. one driver and owner car, never seen rain or never sat in the sun. Always in the garage covered…wonder if it is desireable ???

  25. purchased my 1986 fiero GT from a neighbor on a whim for 300 buxx !! put new seats and driver side window in it..a set of deep dish dayton rems i had on it…people went crazy!! mind u ..i got a smokin white 1993 corvette..but i get a whole lotta compliments on that fiero…with offers to buy it too…had it sice 2004….still got it now…itz been fun…i luvvitt !!!!!

  26. Owned a lot of cars & trucks. This summer i Got an gold 86gt 4speed with 80 000km neer mint. Favorite car i have had. 30mpg. Avr. O-60 6.8/7.1! Suspension is the week link. À lot of haters Useally are not preveous oweners. I know i love mine!!!

  27. I have owned these cars since i bought my firstone in1988. I now own a 88 gt with t tops that I have completly restored to like new condition and only has 60 k miles and a 88 formula that will be completly custom when im finished. They have been completly reliable and very easy to work on for most things. Gm did make a mistake in killing this car off but im glad I have mine and wont ever gi ve them up.

  28. Ray and Joe both have Fieros. They both like their Fieros. They think Fieros are super sweet and super in general. One wants a turbo Fiero and the other one wants a turbo Fiero. If Fieros came originally with a turbo, they probably would of caught fire alot more, yeah that’s fun. Anyways, Hi he’s Joe! Ray likes fiberglass.

  29. Lord Farquaad owns a fiero. His real name is Joe Filbin. He told me that owning a fiero is the closest thing to love that he has ever experienced. If thats true then i say everyone needs to get a fiero. If not…then F the police.

  30. personally i have always loved ahe feiro gt. i have owned 3 feiro se!s. now i am searching all over the u.s. for one. i think i may have my exact model and color red,5 speed trans 6 cyl t tops . i am presantly working a deal its in chicago and i am in cleveland. but i am tuff and i will work it out. any comments or help would be helpfull thanks.

  31. Loved the article.

    One quick thing, Matra was doing a space frame unibody with attached panels with the Bagheera. 1973 was the first model year. The Murena was also produced that way. They glued the panels on however (AFAIK).

  32. I bought a 1986 v6 2.8 last year in 2013 and the looks i get is priceless. Where ever i go , at a gas station or mall i get asked about it.I love this driving this four speed manual car. So fun to drive.it has never been driven in winter and i cant wait for spring to take it out again. Fiero rule.

  33. I found the article informative, for the historical background. I use my 88 as my daily driver.I bought it 5 years ago with 125,000 and now have 170,000. I find it easy to maintain since it is the base model with the "Iron Duke" and 5 speed. It seems most repair shops do not understand the details such as special cooling system "burping" and GM front end alignment requirements. I also have had some shops just say they will not work on it, that’s just an indication of their arrogance as far as I am concerned. There is still a great following and as long as we have them and the specialists, I will never get rid of it. the only factory options on the car were cruise control and air. As far as a long distance cruiser, I have done 8 hour drives and it is very comfortable. I am also 6’2" and easily fit.

  34. What a lovely article. Someone has put into focused perspective the rise and fall of this great symbol of 80’s American style & engineering. It’s true the Fiero had outsold it’s useful life and Pontiac was right to cancel it.

    I had 2 of these, a red 88 SE and a gold 87 GT. The steering was heavy on the SE but I never noticed any performance issues on the fastback at all, except that I had a tendency to drive it too fast. I could and did throw it into 25 mph hairpins at well over 80 and it never broke free or even came close. It would just squat down on those big 215 / 60’s and ask "is that it"? Thank you Mr. Severs on.

  35. Loved the article, well written. I was one of the original owners. My neighbor’s Father owned a Pontiac dealership so I got one of the very early cars. People would stop me everywhere asking about it. I had that car (along with my 1978 Formula Firebird) for nearly a decade. Recently, my 16 year old Son was able to purchase a 1985 Fiero SE from its original owner (as his first car). So once again I have a Fiero in the driveway. All said, I loved mine and never had any problems with it.

  36. A good friend had an 84 that I drove on several occasions. Things I loved about the car included the fact that it stuck to the road like glue and the stereo speakers were in the headrest of the seat. Earlier someone mentioned the V8 underdevelopment for the Fiero specifically. When the numbers were crunched they realized that it would go much faster than it’s fancier, more expensive big brother the Corvette. It wouldn’t do to have a bastard child outshine their flagship car. It was like a disease, kill it before it spreads. I’ll miss it though. Wish I had one.

    1. Pontiac was toying with the idea of a turbo V-6 if the Fiero continued (and the Quad 4), but I have a hard time seeing them offering a V-8 as a factory option. (If someone has specific evidence to the contrary, of course, I’ll be happy to consider that.)

      I think it’s important to emphasize here was that the primary reasons Pontiac killed the Fiero when they did were (a) that they were losing money on it and (b) that they anticipated that the coupe/sports car market was going to get a lot worse before it got better, which was exactly what happened. All of the changes Pontiac was contemplating would have cost more (on top of the cost of modifying the cabin to comply with the 1990 passive restraint rules) and would likely have doomed the Fiero anyway.

      There’s an obvious comparison to be drawn here between the Fiero and Japanese sports coupes of the late ’80s and early ’90s like the second-generation (SW20) Toyota MR2. A lot of those cars were very slick, very sophisticated, and often pretty attractive, but they ended up pricing themselves out of a declining market. Granted, Pontiac didn’t also have the burden of a strong yen driving up prices, but let’s say Pontiac had cut loose the money for a major facelift, airbags, and the Quad 4 and optional turbo V-6. How many people in 1990–91 would have paid $20K for even the ultimate Fiero? Probably not enough, which is why Pontiac threw in the towel.

      One of the reasons GM has tended to be protective of the Corvette is not simply that it’s the flagship, but that while it’s a niche product, it’s been a fairly consistently profitable one that has managed to remain so even through eras where every other sporty car is dying a grim and depressing death. Given how easy it is for sporty cars and sports cars to become money pits for their manufacturers (and sometimes their owners, but that’s another matter), that’s no small thing.

      1. One persistent rumor I heard prior to and after the Fiero’s death is that the turbo V6 was expected to meet Corvette performance at a far lower price, which would steal customers from the higher margin model. Growing up in Detroit these rumors came from parents, siblings, relatives, etc. who worked for the big three, so their rumors tended to be somewhat less fanciful than the V8 rumor mentioned – but if true this would be another reason for GM to have killed it off.

        1. There was talk of a turbo V-6, and I’ve heard the rumors also. Here’s my take:

          It’s not implausible that a Fiero with a turbocharged V-6 would have been in sight of an L98 Corvette in terms of straight-line performance. The 3.1-liter turbo V-6 from the Grand Prix Turbo would have provided a power-to-weight ratio comparable to the U.S.-spec Toyota MR2 Turbo with more torque, so sub-6-second 0-60 times would probably have been feasible — not terribly far off an L98. On the other hand, both the 1987 Buick GNX and the 1989 Pontiac 20th Anniversary Trans Am were as quick as if not quicker than an L98, so I don’t know how worried GM brass really were about outgunning the Corvette.

          Of course, you could argue that the GNX and Trans Am were not the same kind of car as the Corvette and were less likely to be seen as real rivals than the Fiero might have been. I’ll buy that, but if that was a concern, all GM management would have had to do was veto the option: "Sorry, no V-6 turbo." It’s not like Pontiac would have offered ONLY a turbo V-6, which would have been too expensive, too thirsty, and too difficult to insure for a lot of people. Also, the Fiero was supposed to get the Quad 4, presumably with about the same power as in the Grand Am (i.e., 160 hp with automatic, 180 hp with manual), so Pontiac would still have had a more powerful engine to brag about.

          So, while are there parts of the rumor that are true, probably true, or at least plausible, I think the idea that the Fiero was killed to protect the Corvette is farfetched. I’m inclined to view it as a particular sort of conspiracy theory fueled by equal parts fanboy dedication, disappointment, and wishful thinking.

          1. My 1985 fiero v-6 beat two different motorcycles from 0-80 mph. I am very good at speed shifting and attribute that to helping beat the motorcycles.

  37. I purchased an 85 GT in red off of a guy who was the original owner. Only 60k on the car at the time of purchase, and I’ve put 25k on since I’ve owned it. It is a lot of fun to drive and handling improved drastically with just two pairs of 17inch rims and good summer only tires.

    It never gets driven in winter and it is always kept in a garage. However, it seems my first major problem has occurred, which looks to be a head gasket leak. Coolant in the engine bay is always a good indicator of that. I’ll be changing the gaskets and doing what needs to be done, but at times like this it is hard not to consider swapping a 3.8l SC motor in there :)

  38. Very well written article and some very good comments made! I purchased an 85 GT back in 90 and loved the car even with the repair costs. The car had style and speed and was noticed by all. I sold it because of family life and regret it all the time. I’m thinking about getting another now that the family is getting older.

  39. I bought a used 85 back in 87. Red and Silver, awesome car. Fast forward to 2014. I just bought a 85 for $300. The panels are rough, I am struggling with the engine a bit but it is almost there. The sub-frame is fantastic shape, the rest can be fixed. I am having a blast restoring this car. Rough now but it will be a great car again.

  40. I bought my red fiero gt bran new in 87. If I had a buck every time
    someone said one fine,bitching,sweet looking ride I would be rich.I still own her today and will till the day I die.

  41. I am the original owner of a 1985 Fiero GT, 4 sp manual, with 248,000 miles. Fun car to drive except in heavy stop and go traffic because the clutch is stiff. No major issues, just replacing clutches, batteries, the radiator, brakes, tires, and seals on the sunroof. Still runs great. Drove it in a blizzard in 1989, but haven’t taken it out in much snow for about 10 years. Still looks great, though some of the red color on the hood has faded from sitting in the sun. Still love this car!

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