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 of convoluted but humble GM lineage. 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 breach 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 the 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 engines 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.
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; 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.
113 CommentsAdd a Comment
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.
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
I just recently bought an 84, i love it, sorry to hear about yours, it really is a souped up gokart lol
bought 1984 new while stationed in Germany. germans would follow me until I parked to inquire what kind of car was this? the 2m4 marking made them think it was italion car. even the police followed me for maybe 3-4 miles in an unmarked car, then blue lighted me, asked me if I had been drinking, made me blow, then asked me to see the engine.
brought it back to the states. it blew a head gasket just over the 24k major warranty period. sneaked it thru a trade for 86 crx si Honda and the two-seat dreams had been full filled and the rest is history.
The talk of fires in the 84s is overblown. My 84 has only caught fire twice, and both times the flames were extinguished rapidly.
Still the Fiero is one of the few cars from the 80s that still looks good today. Yes the Iron Duke is a boat anchor, but nearly any engine GM has ever made can be swapped in. The favorite is the Buick 3800 Supercharged V6 which very much wakes up any Fiero.
ahem. I leased a 1985 Fiero GT (from new) and enjoyed every every single drive for the entire term of the lease. When the lease was completed, I wanted to purchase the car. My husband (acquired during the lease period of the Fiero) would have nothing of a 5 year-old car. The only car he was able to buy me off with was a 1989 Saab Turbo Convertible.
That car was the ABSOLUTE best! Today, 2016, I am looking to pick up an old Fiero. yeah. It was the awesomest car I ever had.
Funny. My wonderful 6 cylinder manual transmission ’85 GT never suffered the ills highlighted in this history of the vehicle. Trust me, as a mid-late ’20-something single woman, I was not exactly spectacular about maintenance. But I never had any of these problems with my Fiero. It ate tires. I may have had to replace the clutch. It was the ultimate driving machine. I LOVED my ’85 Fiero GT.
I too had an ’85 Fiero GT with 4 speed mt. Best car I ever owned. When I sold it there were 62k miles on it and it ran and operated flawless the entire time. I recently purchased an ’85 Se with a V-6 that only had 21k miles. Very fun car to drive.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
I have an 86 SE that has been my favorite car since high school.
I can still start it up and have never had any problems with the engine.
I love that it feels “heavy” on the road because it happens to do really well in snow. It gets really good gas mileage.
I used to race my car with the Honda CRX and I always won. :) My kids love it, even though we now have a Turbo Veloster, they still think my Fiero is a pretty cool little car.
My Dad loved my car so much that he bought two for himself and one for my sister. His was an 84 and an 85 and he had several minor problems with them. My sister’s was an 88 and it didn’t ever have any problems at all. All three are still running other than mine needs it’s second clutch, which is the only thing that has ever went out on it.
It drives me nuts that mechanics have so many bad comments to make about my car. I know they had their problems but my family sure didn’t have any of those problems. It’s too bad because it’s a fun little car to drive.
I’ve actually had people stop and offer my husband money to buy my car. He laughs because he knows I will NEVER sell it!
I guess I got lucky having this little car. Nothing but JOY driving it!
fuel pump went out 1986 I only have 80,000 miles on it need help to fix it.
I’m not able (or qualified) to provide any kind of repair advice, sorry!
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.
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.”
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.
If you have corrections or additional information, feel free to submit them, along with your sources, and I’ll happily consider them.
The drivetrain is not turned around, it is simply moved rearward.
You’re quite right — I’ve amended the text.
The earlier than 88 Fieros also had trailing links that necessitates that allows toe in control on the rear wheels not just the 88s. It is after all as your article says, a Citation turned around backwards. Had to do something with the tie rods so they connected to the frame. My 87 GTs both had and as far as I can remember, my V6 powered 86 SE did also.
Also, rear struts do need lower location. The strut replaces the upper arm of a double wishbone layout, but it still needs either a lower wishbone/control arm or a least one lateral and one trailing link. (With RWD cars, it’s also possible to use the rear halfshafts as lateral links — a Chapman strut.)
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.
Lesabre ( biggest mistake)
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.
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.
When these first came out I thought they had a strong resemblance to the Hot Wheels ‘Jack Rabbit Special’ from 1970
You know, I think you’re right. I imagine that’s a coincidence, but an interesting one.
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
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
I honestly don’t know what the wheel brand is; anyone have any ideas?
Those are Konig wheels on lildevil’s car.
Keep up the the good and interesting info on the Fiero automobiles.
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
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.
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!
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.
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 ???
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 !!!!!
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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 :)
Coolant in the engine bay is not an indicator of a head gasket leak – it is only an indicator of a coolant leak from a failing hose. You will never see the results of a head gasket leak on the OUTSIDE of an engine, only on the inside in sludgy oil or oily coolant. Find a new mechanic.
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.
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.
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.
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!
In 1990 I was sitting in my 66 vette coupe BB/4spd at a red lite a fiero.. gt pulled up next to me and the driver gave me the look. When the light went to green ,off we went. I was impressed with that little burgundy car with the big wing. I am now the owner of an 86 GT and I have to say it is as much fun as the vette and it handles better. A lot better on fuel also. Both cars turn heads . Love both equally and will die with both
I bought my automatic 84 SE for $4k with 22k. Even though it still had that new car smell… It started overheating so I found that I needed a coolant fan controller (located near the driver’s side headlight) and couldn’t easily find one. Got another TRW module and tweaked it. Good right now but will change to a 3800 at some point. Fun car with no regrets. Funny thing is that some people don’t have any idea what it is when they see it. I’m glad I bought it.
Best article on the history of the Fiero I’ve ever read, thanks Aaron for your factual and unbiased insights. You’re the first one to acknowledge the lengthy genesis of the car within GM, going back to the 60s and Corvette prototypes – a connection I also discovered in 2000 in an old 1982 book on Corvettes and professed in a 2009 essay on the Fiero Forum, following an official admission from the former chief engineer of Corvette.
www. fiero. nl/forum/Archives/ Archive-000002/HTML/20090907-1-066200.html
Bought the very first model and paid a premium of about $2000.It was a nightmare. The rear engine was an XCar engine turned backwards. The the mounts for the brackets had been modified, it seemed like with a hacksaw. The mounts kept breaking and I ended up modifying after the engine shifted and caused the car to accelerate.
I remember getting the car in the winter and soon learned that racing out the gears in slippery conditions caused the vehicle to spin out. This happened on the highway at least three times by just accelerating, The lack of power steering really got to me while trying to correct a spin out on an icy overpass. Fighting the steering while it almost broke my fingers.
With all that experience I anticipated the 1989/1990 new improved model and would have gladly paid a premium again. I loved that car
I own an 87 Fiero GT. Absolutely love this car. I have driven,and owned mustangs(which I love), Firebird, Daytona, Dodge Dart,Miata(fun car!!!),Bronco,jeep,Explorer,BMW. My favorite is Fiero. So by 87 the quirks have been worked out enough,so haven’t had the mishap as earlier models. But not all did. Being over 25 years normal maintenance is key. Newer cars can go longer,but if it keeps my Fiero on the road I’ll put whatever it needs more often if necessary. I don’t use it in Winter being in Michigan. Late Spring to early Fall is all I get. Chomping at the bit to get it out!!! I just wish it could have survived longer. Just when they got it right they stopped. Can you imagine what we might have gotten after 88. I think when a car can bring out an instant appeal through look,and then driving experience, they did something right. I just hope that all Fiero owners with all Fiero models will keep them on the road as long as possible. Regardless of what one loves in a vehicle it was a great time in Automotive history. If you love cars we all share in that experience.
Nicely put, I purchased an 87 gt new and drove it for 4 years without a problem .sold it. In 2000 I purchased a 87 gt with 29,500 miles. There are people who make parts for this car that have made it better. I am a big fan Pontiac fieros and love working on my car.
Bought a Red 1984 SE as a Demo from Dealer with 1600km when they came out, cost me almost 11k Canadian. The car was a lot of fun to drive and quite good in the snow. Unfortunately I experienced every known issue with this car. The first was an engine fire, repair cost 5,700.00 and almost a year to get money back from GM. Thereafter the engine went twice, clutch, overheating, electrical problems, fuel pump, many non start problems resulting in the replacement of the clutch safety start switch more times than I can remember. In three and a half years of ownership the car underwent in excess of 13k in repairs. I traded it while still in the garage getting the engine repaired the second time! I traded it on a 1988 Toyota Celica GTS. Over 30 years later and I still have the file folder with all the repair bills . But I guess I never learned my lesson as I own a 2008 Chrysler Crossfire Limited Convertible, a car that shares a similar story.
You are incorrect in stating that power steering was not offered until 1988. I ordered one of the first 1985 Fiero GT models and among the options I chose was Power Steering.
Okay, never mind – please remove my first post, as I am the one who is incorrect. Apparently after 30 years my mind is playing tricks on me and my old GT did not have power steering. I guess with the mid-engine arrangement the steering didn’t feel heavy to me despite the apparent lack of power steering. Hey, Ferrari 308’s didn’t have or need power steering either!
I purchased a few Fiero’s over the years, of which the 84 and 85 SE’s were involved in auto accidents by other drivers. Repairs on those and the 86 GT was very easy and rare. In fact the very good conditioned 86 GT the previous owner was having issues with and sold it to me for cheap and only needed a new fuel filter. Amazingly fun rides considering the little amount I paid for them and the cost to maintain them. Was a shame to see them discontinued.
I owned a 1984 Fiero and really loved this vehicle. The oil leak I found was due to the design of the valve cover which was RTV glued (vs. a gasket) to the top of the head. However the “designer” had about 4-5 perpendicular tabs/spacers intersecting the contact area on the cover. Even the best cleaning and re-RTV sealing oil would weep at these points. SO mark that up to poor design. The lurching was due to the heat off the exhaust and the Thottle Position Sensor getting too much heat. The contacts would get compromised and the engine could not determine how rich to make the fuel mixture…..hence the lurch or bucking. Later a heat shield was part of the recall. But as mentioned a shame that the engine could not have been retooled to run the exhaust out the other side of the engine (aft). Never experienced overheating and took it all over the country on road trips. I wish I could find an ’88 or similar Fiero someday. There was something about the size and driving position of this vehicle that I really liked. No car I have owned since has provided that single thrill of driving.
I have a 85 fiero gt as my first car, and I am 16 as of now. The moment I saw that thing I fell in love with it. My brother bought it first, and then I bought it from him a little cheaper than what he got it for since it’s a family discount. He tried to convince me it was a Ferrari lol. This car gave me no problems except the fuel pump relay that drains my battery and I have to pull fuses. Other than that this car never had trouble starting and never left me on the side of the road. I plan on keeping it forever.
I have owned 4 Fieros and currently drive 88 GT. They are all nice fun cars,
I am on my third Fiero. The first two were destroyed in accidents.
The first accident, I fell asleep behind the wheel. I awoke to the the sound of the undercarriage being ripped away, and then I smashed head on into a huge tree. The passenger compartment held together, and my only complaint was that my shoes got dirty getting out of the car.
The second time a car ran a stop sign and I broadsided it. The passenger side of the other car was destroyed. My car actually vibrated for a good ten minutes after the accident. I remember wishing that my newly purchased Corvette was destroyed instead.
Here’s the kicker: Each car tried to straighten itself after the accident due to the tension in the flexible body panels against the space frame. I’m still convinced the Fiero is the safest car I ever owned.
My third Fiero has a custom body from a kit. Love those cars. Will always own one.
The Fiero is one of a long list of GM projects that were excellent in concept and terrible in execution (at least originally) The problem was often design compromises and the requirement that components come from the existing parts bins. You have discussed the first generation Corvair, Vega aluminum engine, and others. There are also the front wheel drive Toronado, the first generation X cars, the V8 and V6 diesels, the plastic bodied vans, the Cadillac V8-6-4, the original antilock brakes, the whole Saturn experiment, and more.
It was no surprise the GM went bankrupt . . . .
I do also have an article on the Toronado, which I think is in a slightly different category than the early Corvair or Vega. The Toronado was not what Oldsmobile originally had in mind (their initial conception was for a FWD family car that coincidentally would have been about the size of a modern Ford Fusion/Mondeo, Toyota Camry, or Honda Accord), but it worked well enough. As with some of the others you mention, you could certainly question why they bothered, since the practical benefits of FWD in a car like that were at best limited, but the UPP was pretty sound from a mechanical standpoint.
Which antilock brakes are you referring to? GM first offered rear ABS in 1971, about a year and a half after Ford offered a similar Kelsey-Hayes system, although the first automotive ABS was the Jensen FF, with its adaptation of the Dunlop Maxaret aircraft system.
I ended up on this page because I recently saw two Fieros on the street within a few days of each other. The first one I was surprised because I hadn’t seen a running Fiero in years, and then within a few days I saw another. Weird. I had forgotten about Fieros so I got on the ‘net to do some reading about them and ended up here. I was in my mid 20s when Fieros first came out and, although I never owned one, I knew a few people who bought new Fieros over the years. The one I kind of feel sorry for to this day was the secretary at the place I worked in the early ’80s. I was a car enthusiast then (still am) and I subscribed to all of the major car magazines and, as I had a tendency to do, one day I happened to be talking cars and the secretary overheard me. I had mentioned the new Fiero that was in all the mags and was about to debut. She seemed very very interested, so I brought to work my copies of the car mags that had Fiero preview write-ups so she could take them home and read them. I didn’t think much more about it, but then not long after that she shows up in a brand new ’84 Fiero. She and her husband were older (50s) and I think maybe she had wanted a sporty little car her whole life, and she saw that as her chance to finally have one as her daily driver. Anyway, although she never went into detail and certainly never blamed me, she had a lot of trouble with that car and I always felt a little bit responsible. Given the conventional wisdom about GM’s tendency to release half-baked, compromised new models upon the public, if I had known she was that serious about it I might have warned her to never buy a new GM model early in its evolution. Give them a few years to get it right, and then get one right before they kill it.
My first Ferio was an 84 brand-new I put 130,000 miles I loved that car in fact it was my company car. I have a lot of classic cars but the Fiero is my favorite. I now have eight Fieros all of them a little different. 1986 GT with 4.9 V8, 1986 speedster no top this is a sunny day car only, 1986 GT with 3800 SC motor, 1988 Formula only 30,000 miles, 1984 convertible with a super duty 4cyl. 1986 GT kit car with Ferrari body and 3400 motor, 1988 Formula highly modified body with a LT1 corvette motor. 1986 needs to be restored has six cyl. With 170,000 miles still a good looking car. I guess I am a little crazy but love these little cars
I owned a 84 SE, an 86 GT notch back with big wing and rounded nose, and 1988 Formula yellow with V6 and manual tranny.
Loved them and miss them. To this day when I see a cherry one on Ebay I am tempted.
I only had issues with the 84 SE. Couldn’t keep brakes on that thing. Never really understood it. Still a fun ride.
My favorite was the 86GT with V6, this was before the sloped back. They put a big wing/spoiler on it and rounded the nose. I thought I was at Lime Rock in a IMSA car in that thing.
My last was the 88 Formula. As the article states, they had it down cold by then. A formidable sports car. This thing was a beast. I was younger and pretty racey then. Never backed down to anything, most didn’t want to mess with me. QUICK off the line, handled great. If you could shift, you could drive the heck out of it.
The Fiero deserved a better fate but as the article states, it was going to end this way no matter what.
I miss you, my red 86 GT.
Great article – nice to see an unbiased, accurate history of the Fiero/GM. I’ve been a fan of them since they were new – absolutely fell in love with the 86 GT fastback when they came out, and KNEW I would own one. I was crushed when they discontinued the Fiero in 88, as it was my dream car, and I was not in a position to buy a new car until 1989 when I finally had a good job and the $$ to buy what I wanted. I wanted new – (as I knew it would probably be the only time I would EVER purchase new) so I didn’t buy a Fiero. (the DSM Turbo I did get was a GREAT decision, but that’s another story :) It took my another 20 years, but I now own a beautiful 87 GT. She is flawless, easy to work on, and more fun to drive than anything else I have owned. The Fiero gets a bad rap – they are reliable, easy to maintain, and more fun than almost anything on the road, past or present. Anyone who bashes the Fiero, doesn’t KNOW the Fiero. Thank you for a great article :)
My father was on design staff for this car so I remember much of this from a very personal perspective. This is the most accurate history I have seen to date, without all the biases that come from being part of one stake holding party or another. I would add that the politics and power struggles between and across GM division heads played a role in this as well.
I bought a used ’84 in ’87. The “engine fire” was due to a lack of a valve cover gasket. They used RTV instead. It didn’t work. On braking oil would run down the front of the engine, spill on the headers and sometimes ignite. It was mainly an issue as the car was coming up to temperature. I replaced the RTV with an earlier model iron duke gasket and it stopped the leak. Then on a recall service the dealer removed the gasket in favor of some new RTV. When it started leaking I put another gasket in there and fixed it again. Eventually there was a third recall where they replaced my gasket with yet another gasket. It’s no wonder the car had to be designed with as little “management oversight” as possible.
One hot day in 1990 I popped out the sun roof as it was easy to do.after removing it,instead of placing it under the good in is attended location I simply leaned it up against a tree.
Well the sun was hitting the sun roof just right and it was like a giant magnifying glass and it reflected a beam onto the lower part of the driver side door. I’m looking at this super bright circle of light on my door with smoke coming off of it,I go up to it only to realize that it was burning a hole in the door!melted a baseball size hole right through the door! Crazy!!!
Ouch! Did you see the news stories about the London skyscraper that was doing that? (It was about three years ago and I think it’s supposed to have been fixed by now.)
Are you sure there was only turbo build? I work for superior pontiac in Tampa and we had one in the body shop.It was beautiful white and silver. It had an air snorkel on the roof. The turbo was as fast the body man floored it the way we did all the fibrosis and spun out and hit the building and had to put a new nose no it.
Would love to now where it is now.
Wow what a cool write up. My first car was a 85 2m4. It was great. I loved that car. I actually had the buy and bought many more fiero’s. Some of my bud’s still have em’ and stuff 3800 supercharged v6’s in them.
I now own a 77 vette with a 383 in it and a 98 vette.
I consider my 98 vette a big over-grown Fiero.
I still have a softness in my soul for ANY Fier.. 4 banger Iron Duke, 2.8 v6… Muncie.. Getrag… I had the Isuzu 5 speed trans in my first one…
I got over 250,000 miles on my 87, should have put in a new motor, Love that car !!
Viz a viz plastic panels on a steel inner, Renault bought the design for the Espace from Matra; it had a galvanized steel inner monocoque with SMC panels affixed, debuting in 1984. It was strong; a Fiesta XR2 hit my nearside front wing producing a small crack and dislodged the front fibreglass bumper a little; the Fiesta was a write off (B post bent in like a banana). I drove home.
Strength is generally not a problem with that type of construction, although it isn’t necessarily light because the outer panels aren’t stressed, so the inner monocoque has to pick up the slack structurally. (BTW, I took the liberty of fixing a couple of formatting errors in your comment so it would be easier to read.)
Very good article. I own two 1988 Pontiac Fieros and never had any problems with fires. Both cars have less than one hundred thousand miles on them. One standard five speed and the other is automatic with the four cylinder engine. Love these cars and they are so much fun to drive. Wish that Pontiac would still build them.
I just happened upon you article and commend you for going into the politics and tactics of GM concerning the Fiero. I find your reasoning about its demise very convincing.
I retired from GM’s Pontiac division after 40 years, so I am aware of their foibles. I have been a member of the Michigan Fiero Club for over 15 years and currently own a Fiero. I know of the strengths and weaknesses of the cars. Most current owners praise them as practical weekend touring cars considering their interior roominess and comfort. Since so many were produced they will never attain the status of a classic.
Rightly or wrongly GM is embarrassed of these cars even though they are viable transportation decades after their demise.
Was the new suspension for 1988 exclusively for the GT and/or Formula, or did it come on base model 4 bangers, too?
The new suspension layout was standard across the board, but the WS6 package (which included different springs, shocks, anti-roll bars, and bushings) and bigger tires were limited to the Formula and GT. Four-cylinder base Fieros generally outsold the GT by a pretty substantial margin, so standardizing the new layout was important to making the changes financially justifiable (or would have been, had Pontiac not decided to ax the car anyway!), even though the tuning differed between models.
My son has an 85 fiero se. My dad, youmy daughter and I as my son lovingly refers to us as his personal pit crew. My son, 22 loves the fiero hell I love it. I could definitely see a v6 in it but the 4 cylinder is just as good. I love how it drives the way it looks and I love working on it! It’s a great, fun car! I also really like this article I couldn’t put my phone down so informative. Thank you!
I’ve owned an 86 GT for many years now. It is reliable, cheap to work on if necessary, and a blast. I’ve had other 2 seaters, including the 300ZX. The Fiero is the most fun. My adult children kept borrowing it and failing to return it until I finally put my foot down. They never borrowed the Nissan Z. I got the bug and swapped in a 3800 and now it’s a hot rod as well. I will never sell it.
Good article. However, it was still a decision based on politics between divisions. No other car company had two 2-seater product lines. Declining sales of 2 seaters was not exclusive to the Fiero, in the 1980’s and early 90’s all manufacturers were experiencing declining sales of 2 seaters, and even of their 4 passenger cars. Yet those manufacturers that continued production of their 2 seaters, did so with marginal profits or were willing to accept and share the expense of profit-loss throughout their product lines.
By 1988 sales of the corvette c4 had dropped to 20,000 units, and for years after, never exceeded the Fiero’s lowest volume sales in 1988 of 39,000 units. The announcement of The Fieros cancellation in March of 1988, could certainly be argued, contributed to the decline in sales for the 1988 model year. So rather than have the Corvette and Fiero compete amongst each other, even though buyer demographics was different (Fiero buyers were 49% women), one had to go.
I’m not convinced that the Corvette ever maintained a profit during the 80’s or 90’s, the development costs of the C4 and C5, plus the concept exploration costs of the mid-engined corvette must have eaten up all of the profits and more of a 25,000 unit sales figure. As it was the flagship that kept Chevrolet relevant, it certainly got preferential treatment.
So, you are right, the Fiero was destined to be discontinued, just IMO it was based on the politics of it all….of, which money-loser would be sacrificed, the flagship or the upstart. In the end the Fiero was an interestingly engineered product with declining appeal because, it tried to change from a designed-as-a-commuter car to a cobbled together sports car. The potential was there (as its IMSA racing success demonstrated) but the will died at headquarters.
Your article article is probably the most accurate portrayal of what happened to the Fiero, even better than what was documented (about the Fiero) in the book “Comeback…” , author Paul Ingrassia’s account of the big 3 auto companies transgressions during those tumultous times.
Thank you for your honest and forthright portrayal of the Pontiac Fiero., and good luck to GM with the oh-so-much-closer mid engined Corvette.
I don’t know that the mid-engine concept development would have been counted as part of the Corvette’s P&L. Before the Roger Smith era, anyway, Chevrolet had budgets for advanced engineering and advanced styling, and my guess is that a lot of those costs would have gone to those categories. The protracted tenure of the C4 (admittedly with some worthwhile updates) does suggest that it wasn’t a wildly profitable exercise overall, but there’s a significant difference between “not very profitable” and actually losing money. Image-leader or not, the latter would have been very hard to justify; the people who worked on the Corvette were and are very passionate about it, but there were a lot of higher-ranking folks who just did not care about that kind of stuff unless it was making money.
It’s also important to consider the per-car margins, which were certainly higher for the Corvette than for the Fiero. If you make, let’s say, $400 on a Fiero and $1,000 on a ‘Vette, 20,000 of the latter will be worth more than 39,000 of the former. While I don’t have actual unit profit figures for either car, this was definitely an issue for Pontiac. It may have also factored into dealer attitudes, which in some cases can help to decide the fate of a model with so-so numbers. Even if the C4 wasn’t a huge profit-maker in the aggregate, I have to assume that for an individual Chevrolet salesman or dealer, selling a Corvette was a pretty happy day.
Pontiac’s dilemma, common to most affordable sporty cars, was that for the Fiero to be financially worthwhile, they needed to be making money on the base four-cylinder SE, which was the volume seller. Their projections indicated (I think correctly) that that wasn’t going to happen, which presented a tricky dilemma. A lot of the what-if surrounding the Fiero focuses on making it more of a halo car or real sports car — adding a supercharged model, etc. — but that wasn’t necessarily going to make the base car sell better or become more profitable on a unit basis, and without that, there wasn’t really a business case for continuing it.
Regarding the base 4-cylinder Fiero models, why couldn’t Pontiac simply make use of the 84-96 hp 1.8-2.0-litre GM Family II engines used various Pontiac and Buick / etc models during the 80s up to the mid-90s?
It would have in turn allowed for the Fiero to be powered by turbocharged 150-165 hp 1.8-2.0-litre versions of the GM Family II engines, and that is without even mentioning the 150+ hp 2-litre DOHC 20XE / “Red Top” version which powered various European GM models.
Lack of torque would have made the 1.8-liter Family II engine rather anemic in the Fiero, which as mentioned was fairly porky for its day. The 1.8-liter engine in this period had 98 lb-ft of torque while the 2.5-liter used in the base Fiero had 134–135 lb-ft, not an insignificant difference. The 2-liter version split the difference at 118 lb-ft, which might have been tolerable, though not all that sprightly. I don’t think that would have helped unless it were significantly cheaper than the Tech IV, which I doubt.
I don’t think the 20XE was ever certified for U.S. emissions and the introduction of the Quad 4 would have made it seem superfluous in any case.
Robert Sheffield,Jr. AKA: FIERO LOVER
I brought an 84 in 1986 Black, was hit by a train ine1990, the motor was replaced 3 months earlier. Brought a 85 Black in 1990 for $1000 as a work car. With the insurance money brought a semi-new 88 from a couple at my job, In 1992 a crack head broke into my house and took the keys to it, while I’m at work 2nd shift, total it!!! Then brought a 1986 GT Gold. Seen a 1987 GT White so I got it!!! I was single at the time and always had two of those cars. Got married sold the white one in 1995. The gold one gave me overheating problems let it sit awhile then gave it to my daughter’s boyfriend and it was stolen from them in Dallas in 2004. Oh, I gave my niece the 85 when I got the 87 GT. I was 31 then and now 61. THIS IS TH GOD’S HONEST TRUTH!!!! I LOVED THOSE CARS!!!
SIGN FIERO FREAKE!!!!
Oh,yes my 1988 Fiero was Red 5 speed.
I purchased a 1986 Fiero GT in 1985. I had the engine altered with a cam, pistons, larger valves, twin turbos and a racing radiator and inter-cooler in 1990.Had suspension upgraded and redone by a racing shop. I now have 144,000 miles on the car. It has been great, except recently the headlight motors gave out. Had to find used units to install. The cruise control malfunctioned this year. All in all I got more than my money out of my Fiero GT, and it still looks great, inside and out. I call it my baby Vette, and it will keep up with a lot of the expensive sports cars out today. Mid engine sports cars rock!!!!
I had a 1984 Fiero and I loved it. I owned it for three years and never had any major problems with it. I called it my “baby Ferrari”. That car put on the road today, would still look exotic. It was a blast to drive, a head turner, and I enjoyed it. I loved the speakers in the headrests and the way the dash felt like a cockpit. I wish they would bring that car back, the same look. I sometimes think about buying one now but I am too nervous about buying someone’s old car and what problems I’d get. I still have the original brochure and a small poster that came in a car magazine advertising it when it was just released. Really miss that car.
There’s actually an antecedent for moving the X-cars’ drivetrain rearward for the mid-engine Fiero. The Fiat X1/9 used the drivetrain of the 128.
Indeed! Both the Fiero and Toyota MR2 followed the X1/9’s example, the latter somewhat more explicitly.
“…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.”
No, not at all. The engine you’re thinking of is the “half a 389” 194.5 CID slant-four; conceptually identical to the International-KornBinder “half a 304 or 392” 152/196 CID slant-fours. The Pontiac slant-four was used on the Senior Compact (rope drive) Tempest in the very early ’60s.
At this same time, (early ’60s) Chevy sawed two cylinders off their “new generation” 230 six popper to generate the 153 CID upright four-popper for the Chevy II. About a thousand years later, “Pontiac” got credit for re-engineering the 153 into the “Iron Duke” 151. Early 151s could accept the Chevy 153 crankshaft, had the Chevy bellhousing bolt pattern, and had a similar-to-Chevy non-crossflow cylinder head and two-gear cam timing set. Some 200 or so engineering changes later, the Iron Duke became the Tech IV (Or IV Tech, depending). The truth is, GM of Brazil was marketing an upright four popper based on the 153 Chevy II design which changed to the 151 “Iron Duke” bore and stroke dimensions YEARS before Pontiac “invented” and marketed it in the USA.
The Iron Duke was a rough, noisy, under-powered piece of crap. The Vega engine had an excuse–hypereutectic aluminum block, iron cylinder head. The Iron Duke was junk because GM couldn’t find any remaining ways to cut a single nickle out of the production cost.
Adding injury to insult, the Iron Duke had a fascinating tendency to break it’s own cylinder head bolts, in addition to spitting connecting rods out the block.
I was not confusing it with the Tempest engine, which was long, long dead by the time the Iron Duke came around, but I was under the impression that the Iron Duke was (re)developed to share some parts and dimensions with the late Pontiac 301 V-8. (In that sense, my understanding was that the Chevy II engines had a similar relationship with the Chevrolet small block; not that the Nova 153 was half a V-8, because it wasn’t, but that it was designed to share — IIRC — pistons, rods, and some other bits and pieces as well as having certain cylinder architecture similarities.) In any case, I amended the text to “a rather rustic pushrod four of convoluted but humble GM lineage,” which I think is probably a fair description either way.
I have owned many Fiero’s, 2×1984, 2×1985, 3×1986 and 1×1987. They have all had minor problems as with any car. I have also owned many Corvetts. Nothing beats the brute horse power of a Vette, but nothing beats the fun of a Fiero !!!
I wanted one very badly when they came out, but I had to tilt the seat back for tolerable headroom, which made turning the wheel too cumbersome with arms fully extended. I wonder if my spine has compressed in 38 years….
The Solstice was even worse. The windshield frame was at eye level.