Curbside Classic: 1984 Pontiac Fiero – GM’s Deadly Sin #19 – Give Us Five Years To Get It Almost Right And Then We’ll Kill It

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The real test of a great company is the ability to precisely define the vision for its products and then execute it with the least possible deviation. This is precisely why GM failed; over and over it promised brilliant sparkling Futurama-brand diamonds but delivered coal; never more so than with the 1984 Fiero. What started out as a vision for a high-tech mid-engine sports car with an alloy V6 ended up as an utterly confused and profoundly compromised vehicle, one that positively bristled with bad execution. After five long years of fixes, it finally got close to its original vision. Which of course was the cue for GM to kill it.

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Pontiac had been pining for its own sports car since the sixties, when Pete Estes and John DeLorean shepherded the 1964 XP-833 Banshee to near-production readiness. It was built on a cut-down 1964 A-Body frame and running gear, with a fiberglass body and featured the new SOHC Sprint 230 inch six. But the Banshee was considered too threatening to the Corvette, especially so since there was also a roadster version prototype with a 326 V8. And where a Pontiac 326 fits, a 421 fits equally well. Sorry John; we’re not going there… Except to recycle the idea in 8/10 scale for the Opel GT.

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The idea didn’t never fully went away though, despite the resistance from the 14th floor. In 1978, it reappeared in the vision of a mid-engined sports car, with a high-winding alloy V6 and proper suspension, as conceived by Hulki Alidacti, head of Pontiac’s Advanced Engineering group . But it would have run into the same objections, and now there were CAFE requirements as well. So the Fiero was pitched as a high-efficiency commuter car. And the 14th floor bit, but with a very meager$410 million budget, including production tooling. That was the seed of the Fiero’s undoing right there. If you’re going to commit to a new car, don’t do it half-assed.

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To keep costs down, the Fiero essentially became a kit car. Its innovative space frame and unstressed plastic body panels were a creative solution, and made the Fiero the darling of the plastic surgery business. But wherever else possible, existing components and assemblies were begged and borrowed, like the front suspension straight out of the Chevette.

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GM’s FWD X and J-cars offered the prospect of dropping their whole front suspension/drive train assembly in its new location. Even the steering tie rods were retained, attached rigidly of course. Too bad GM didn’t get really adventurous and offer rear wheel steering on the Fireo. Maybe just as well. But the front-turned-rear suspension never worked very well back there. And the Chevette front suspension wasn’t exactly the cat’s meow either.

The original idea was to use the SOHC 1.8 Brazilian-built Opel-designed four as used in some of the J-cars for maximum efficiency, as well as for its relatively smooth running characteristics. But as the Fireo development progressed (despite the 14th floor pressing the red Stop light a few times along the way), the CAFE regs were not looking so onerous. That, combined with increases in the Fireo’s weight necessitated an increase in power….so what did they reach for? A turbo or HO version of the SOHC 1.8? Nope; the unloved Iron Duke 2.5 four, an engine as agricultural as ever was built in the modern era was given the job of powering the Excitement Division’s new sports commuter car.

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It made all of 92 hp @ 4000 rpm. How’s that for getting the juices flowing? Unfortunately, the Iron Duke brought some serious shortcomings to the Fiero, beyond its modest output and crappy sounds. It leaked oil from the valve cover gasket, which dripped on the exhaust manifold and caused some fires. But the more common reason for a growing rash of fiery Fieros was the result of a mind-bogglingly stupid decision: not enough engine oil capacity.

 

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Three quarts; that’s all it had. Which is one quart less than the same beloved Iron Duke four held as installed in the millions of other GM sedans. Now the usual thing to do when installing an engine from a staid sedan into sports car capable of generating high cornering G-forces (if not during acceleration) is to increase its oil capacity, for rather obvious reasons. The fact that GM sent the Fiero out into the big mean world where folks don’t check their oil very often with a reduced oil capacity of three quarts tells you something about GM that is truly scary. I know it seems like a small detail, but what other car company in the world would have done this? And why?

The results were predictable, especially when it coincided with crappy connecting rods in the Iron Duke: oil gets low, con rod gives and talks a walk through the side of the block, and what little oil is left finds its way onto the hot exhaust manifold. But in typical GM fashion, it got right on it: Not. GM offered repairs to burned cars (when possible), but resisted a recall. It finally succumbed in 1987,  which included retro-fitting a special oversize oil filter that increased capacity to four quarts (along with a re-calibrated dip stick). How hard was that? But a timely recall would have been bad publicity for their new baby.

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Speaking of other companies, Honda unleashed its own”commuter/sporty” two seater in 1983, the CRX. It went about it in a very different way, but the result was a much more complete and satisfying car, as well as a faster one, even if it didn’t have the Fiero’s dramatic looks. It certainly didn’t have the Fiero’s heavy, unassisted steering, despite being FWD. And it most certainly didn’t have its numerous teething problems, fires, and other reliability issues. The CRX was just more fun to drive all-round, never mind own. Mid-engine and all, the Fiero arrived very much compromised by its borrowed suspension, uninspiring steering, so-so brakes and other developmental disabilities.

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And then a year later along came the Toyota MR2, which was exactly what the Fiero should have been: a brilliant go-cart for the street, with a superb little DOHC engine, slick 5 speed stick, perfect reliability. great fuel economy, and…plenty of oil capacity.  Those damned Japanese; they really knew how to rub salt in the wounds and spoil GM’s party, over and over and over……

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Right about now Fiero lovers are boiling over, desperate to point out that their plastic fantastic lover outsold both the CRX and MR2. Of course it did! But that’s a reflection of Americans’ well-known (and never ending) willingness to suspend objectivity for…Excitement ! It’s  a well-known phenomena that was repeated with so many new GM cars during the non-golden era: lots of PR buildup, fluff advance reviews from well-fed and entertained “journalists”, sales have a great first year (the Citation sold 800k in its first year), and then watch the slow-motion train wreck unfold as the thrill quickly wears off. Engine fires are quite exciting, but even they get old after the first couple of hundred.

The CRX and MR2 are the perfect examples of why GM lost such mammoth market share in the eighties. Both of them were absolutely perfect (or as close as any car ever came to being so at the time) right out of the box, unlike any GM car during the long slide downhill. No need for telling folks that big improvements were just around the corner….honest…we’re going to make the Fiero into a reliable Ferrari-killer yet….just wait a bit longer…one more year…please…hang in there…hello; is anyone out there still listening?

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Improvements came along like the slow drip of an IV. The 2.8 L V6 arrived in 1985. An Isuzu-designed five-speed became available for the iron Duke the same year. The V6 would have to wait until 1986 for its five-speed. What’s the big deal about these dammed five speeds anyway? Just because Toyota had been offering them on just about every one of its vehicles since the mid seventies certainly didn’t mean anything to GM. Until it got caught with its pants down, once again.

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The best thing about the Fiero’s space frame was how easy it was to change out the plastic panels. Pontiac started that early on, and every year saw some new visual changes to keep the excitement up. The biggest one was the flying buttress roof, that came in 1986.

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An outfit called Corporate Concepts saw the real potential of the Fiero, and ran with it. Their “Mera” 308-wanna be was offered only through Pontiac dealers, even with genuine Italian Cromodora wheels. But only 247 were sold before a lawsuit from Ferrari ended that gambit. But the Mera only opened the floodgates, and the Fiero has to be the most “kitted” car in modern history, except the VW Beetle, of course.

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And for its final outing in 1988, the Fiero even got a whole new suspension, front and rear! Wow; what a way to bow out, just when it was getting close to what poor Hulki Alidacti had in mind from the beginning. Maybe in a couple more years, the Fiero might have finally had DOHC heads and an alloy engine block….

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It was not to be. From the very healthy 136k sold in 1984, sales melted away each year. And only 26,402 true believers were still around in 1988 to buy the best Fiero by far.

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But loyal Fiero fans abound, and why not? There’s something about an underdog that brings out…fanaticism; even to the point of mounting a vintage chrome Pontiac emblem on the Fiero’s dirt-cheap steering wheel. Now that’s true brand loyalty.

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GM’s Lego-school of interior design didn’t age well, or for that matter, didn’t look so hot from the get-go. You get what you budget for. And GM hamstrung the Fiero from the get-go with an unrealistic development and production budget. Given that the Fiero sold fairly well in its first couple of years, we can assume that GM didn’t actually lose money on the Fiero project. But it takes more than not losing money to sustain a company for the long haul, and the Fiero was just another vehicle with which to burn folks on the GM experience.

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Well, at least Pontiac got the sports car bug out of its system with the Fiero, realizing once and for all that hastily-developed right-brain fart sports cars were just not conducive to its long-term success. Oh, wait a minute

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