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.
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 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.
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 unit-bodied 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 enthusiast magazines like Car and Driver 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.
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 V6 had too much torque for the five-speed to handle, 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 credible 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.
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. Writers Joseph White and Paul Ingrassia allege that Pontiac instead treated engine fires as warranty repairs and required customers to sign nondisclosure agreements before receiving 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 redundant staff.
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.
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.
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 nouveau 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.
In 2010, we licensed a version of this article to Jalopnik. However, Jalopnik had no connection with the original article.
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; Gary S. Vasilash, “How the Pontiac Fiero Helped Save the North American Steel Industry, Automotive Design and Production, 1 January 1999, www.autofieldguide. com, accessed 23 October 2009; Jim Wangers, “Who Killed Pontiac? Those who misunderstood the image!” GeeTo Tiger! 2 June 2009, www.geetotiger. com/Killed.htm, accessed 8 July 2009; Joseph White and Paul Ingrassia, Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry (New York: Simon & Schuster: 1995); Gary Witzenburg, Fiero: Pontiac’s Potent Mid Engine Sports Car (New York: HP Books, Inc., 1986); and J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980).
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., ca. 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, England: 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.