Fierce. Wild. Very Proud.
All translations of the word “fiero” into Spanish and Italian respectively. A flicker of hope for the General Motors giant during the mid to late 1980’s. The Pontiac Fiero ignited its fiery beginning with a lot of potential, but ultimately fell quite short.
The Fiero began as a 1978 concept that was sold as a two-seater commuter car (who needs those) that was meant to help out GM by increasing the fuel economy average of the company and reach a market for consumers who wanted a Corvette, but couldn’t afford it or its fuel economy. Like most promising ideas that manifest in the auto development center of GM, once the overlords took control, the project was doomed.
The Fiero was approved after a fully driveable prototype was delivered six months after GM showed interest in the project in 1979. GM executives approved the production with a $400m budget (about half the budget normally given to brand new models), which meant the Fiero team, led by the genius named Hulki Aldikacti, was already fighting with both arms tied behind their backs
It is sad that GM gave the Fiero team just enough rope to hang themselves with, because the initial design for the Fiero was a “performance for the everyman” car. Arguably, that title was originally owned by the Pontiac Firebird, but due to the malaise era of cars and the lack of sports car competition, it hit its stride in the late 1970’s. That means the Firebird was bumped up a tier and kept as the cheaper version of the Trans Am.
Now, there may be many who laugh at associating “Fiero” with performance, but it’s time to take a trip with the Ghost of Christmas Past to see what could have been. The Fiero was designed to look European, featuring many styling cues from a Ferrari Mondial and a Porsche 924. They gave it non-american styled pop-up headlights and a sharp, wedge shape. The production team also took similar pages from the Porsche 912/914 and the Toyota MR2 book and placed the engine bay in the middle of the car, allowing for optimal weight displacement. The Fiero’s body panels were made from fiberglass, in order to reduce weight. The suspension was a one-off, smaller design of the double A-arm that was utilized in the Corvette of the era, which arguably allowed for very good handling and weight balance while driving. The engineers even began designing a small, performance focused, aluminum V6 engine, however General Motors executives were too scared about the possible encroachment on their flagship performance car, the Corvette. So, in GM fashion, the Fiero production team had to deal with the 4 cylinder “Iron Duke” engine which ultimately killed the Fiero before it could even stretch its wings.
Riddled with bureaucratic production delays such as having two separate engineer teams, one working on design while the other simultaneously work on production, did not help the poor Fiero’s case. By 1983, deadlines were fastly approaching, and corners began to be cut in order for the first generation Fiero to hit the streets by 1984. All of this meant that the car’s debut did not go over too well.
The initial release of the Fiero was well received, specifically from a design standpoint. The Fiero was the face of GM and Pontiacs “excitement” image that grew into its branding and peaked its sales during the 1990’s. A lot of the features, as mentioned before, also created excitement for what could be a fun, sporty, affordable car. In order to breath life into its new performance, GM made the Fiero the official pace car for the Indianapolis 500. However, this was short lived, as the 1984 model began with a plague of issues.
Though it was a mid-engine car, the radiator was placed in the front like a conventional car. This mean that the cooling pipes ran along the entire length of the car to the mid-mounted engine. Due to the time it took for circulating coolant, a thermostat set to too high of a temperature, and a misunderstanding in maintenance procedures, the 4 cylinder Iron Duke was prone to overheating quite often under normal driving conditions. Not to overshadow the cooling issue, but the Fiero had another claim to fame; the Iron Duke would spontaneously combust while its owner was driving to work! So, unfortunately, many owners of the new Pontiac ended up with molten pieces of metal and fiberglass in the parking lot, leading a reputation the poor Fiero could not shake.
These two major issues, along with misguided perceptions such as safety issues (people in the 1980s thought fiberglass would mean the car was unsafe, when actually it was the safest in its category during the time period) the Fiero had a bad name, much like the Ford Pinto with its combustible gas tank. However, General Motors did try to cast a lifeline to the car in 1986, with plans for a newer, modern look and a V6 engine with a muncie (or Isuzu based) 5-speed gearbox!
The Fiero GT, with its V6 engine and manual gearbox was really a game changer for an American auto manufacturer. A true mid-engine sports car that could run pack with its European and Japanese rivals.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. By 1988, GM pulled the plug when sales figures after the face lift of the second generation. The little Fiero couldn’t shake the reputation of its’ own fiery doom.
The sad thing is, had the car been given an extra year in development and if GM had the forethought not to give it the “Iron Duke” treatment, the car could have potentially been a cornerstone in the Pontiac lineup going into the 1990s. Now, despite its death, a lot of credit has been given to the Fiero, many of the design and production principles learned during the project were used to greater benefit the 1990s Pontiac Grand Am, Grand Prix, and Firebird/Trans Am models. Who knows, maybe it could have given a few more years of life to Pontiac had it been done right in the first place.
Now, the Fiero may be gone, but it isn’t dead. GM likes its “parts bin” approach to manufacturing and thanks to some forward thinking from the team, this car was designed with just enough space to squeeze in almost any GM derived V8 engine, from the Chevy small block to the Cadillac Northstar. A company called Archie is famous among Fiero enthusiasts for building conversion kits and dropping Corvette LS series engines into the small engine bay, creating nothing but amazing power in a lightweight, decently balanced road machine. The Fiero can live out what it was meant to be, an American take on a European sports car.
The car is perfect for the modern gear head on a budget, because most examples are easily obtainable for less than $5K, the GM sourced parts are plentiful for most of the systems in the car, and they are still relatively easy to find. It is surprising to see that these gems aren’t more popular in the automotive scene other than a few that show up to car shows as a novelty. Maybe it’s time for the Fiero to rise from the ashes once more.