I am not sure the words I type here will do this car the complete justice it deserves. How does one write about something that has been with them for most of their life and spent countless memories with? Well dear reader, I will try my hardest to convey my thoughts in a concise way for you.
Are you surprised that the “fun” car I have been talking about over the last 12 weeks is a Fiero? Between owning three Rangers and already two Fieros, it is pretty easy to see a trend. If I look back on my life, two-thirds of it has always had a Ranger and a Fiero in it. Between my dad and myself, we have had nine Fieros over the years. This specific Fiero was Fiero #2. After my dad purchased his first one (a 1988 Coupe with the Iron Duke and 5-speed manual), he got the Fiero itch and really wanted one of the desirable ones; either a 1988 GT or a Formula. In the spring of 2003, my dad found this car in a local classified. I remember riding down to Mount Plesant, IA, with him after school one day and driving home in this car. I was 11 at the time and could not see over the dashboard. The car was in really good condition when my dad got it. An older gentleman had purchased it in the early 90s from the first owner and used it as his primary car. He took very good care of it but needed to replace it with something that was easier to get out of.
So what is a 1988 Fiero Formula? The Formula package combined the basic coupe body with the upgraded drivetrain, the Chevy 2.8L V6, and the suspension found in the top-trim GT model. In addition, all Formulas wore “FORMULA” printed on the bottom of each door. Of all the Fiero trims, the Formula was one of the lowest produced. It is not the most desirable Fiero out there (yellow GTs & Indy’s are), but it ranks up on the list of desirable Fiero models. This car was optioned with beechwood (tan) interior (rare), 5-speed manual, power windows, sunroof, upgraded cassette deck, AC, and rear defroster. Having a rear defroster and power windows are two odd features for this car to have. Most Formulas did not have these.
Sometime in the late 2000s, my dad went to work doing a complete restoration on this car. This included the entire frame getting sandblasted and painted and the engine being rebuilt. He kept it pretty stock. When it was done, I remember it being his “nice” car. He always had another Fiero at this time and the Formula (as we call it) was driven on special occasions/most Fridays (Fiero Friday’s). When I got to high school, my dad was a little reluctant to let me drive this, but towards the end of my high school time, I drove the car to school a decent amount. I always really enjoyed driving this car. It was tossable, wanted to rev, and was just so much fun. It always left me with a smile on my face.
The Formula came from the factory wearing medium red metallic paint. Of all the 1988 Fiero colors, this was the third least popular color, with yellow and silver being number one and two. In the fall of 2010, I was driving up to NW Iowa for a college visit when I smoked a deer outside of Cherokee, IA. The damage required a new hood, bumper, fender, and headlight assembly (all spare body panels my dad had at home). My dad took the insurance money and applied it towards a new paint job. The car now wears a two-tone paint job. I like the new look, but someday I would like to restore it to its original paint color. The paint job definitely gives the car a “distinct” look. I have yet to see another Fiero wearing similar paint. This makes my car impossible to hide.
Going into my sophomore year of college, I sold my Firebird to make my tuition payment. Being last minute, I did not have a car to take with me to school. My dad said I could temporarily take the Formula until we figured something out. Well, I “temporarily” had the car for the next three years. During winter months it was parked in my grandma’s garage while I drove the white Ranger. After my quick stint with my girlfriend’s Fiero, the Formula became my permanent car. I really did love having a Fiero at college. None of my friends ever wanted me to drive anywhere (two seatbelts), and it always offered me an escape when I needed to leave campus to clear my mind.
Toward the end of college, I secured an internship in Holland, MI. I had never been to Michigan before and my preconceived notion of Michigan was everything was like Detroit. Boy was I wrong. The Formula took me from Sioux Center, IA, to Holland, MI, that summer. If you have never been to west Michigan before, the summers are like none-other. Between all the parks, coastal towns, and Lake Michigan beaches, I fell hard for west Michigan living. The Fiero was the perfect car to have, as I spent all my free time that summer exploring towns along Michigan’s west coast. Everyone at my work was convinced I was crazy for driving a Fiero from Iowa to Michigan. I soon learned that most Michiganders have no idea where Iowa is (not Idaho). I think that summer I put 6,000+ miles on the car, as I drove back and forth between Iowa and Michigan a bunch. Surprisingly, the Fiero was very reliable that summer and almost stranded me once.
That summer I also spent a lot of my time driving the Fiero to various points of interest in west Michigan to capture the “perfect” photo of the car to submit to the Fiero Store’s annual Fiero calendar. After hundreds of photos, I submitted a handful. At the end of the summer, I was notified that the Fiero would grace the August 2016 page on their annual calendar. When I saw the photo they picked, I was surprised they picked “that” one, but was still excited nevertheless.
After I graduated college, I made the decision to move back to Holland, MI, for my first post-college job. At this point, I did not want to keep driving the Fiero as my primary car. I was ready to upgrade to something that had real cupholders, ABS, airbags, and a usable trunk. This led to the purchase of the Dart. The Fiero was stored for the winter and joined me in the nicer months as my “fun” car. Soon the Fiero started seeing fewer miles put on it as it was relegated to weekend/fun status. The Fiero always provided an escape. I mentioned in an earlier post, that my first job in Holland was only 1.1 miles from my house. If I drove the Formula to work, I somehow managed to turn my commute home into a 15+ mile drive. The Formula has this power where it makes you want to take the very long way home.
Fast forward to the present and the Formula is still my “fun” car. It now has become our “beach” car. My wife and I enjoy taking the sunroof out, putting the windows down, and listening to 80s music as we drive along the coast to our favorite beach. I try to drive it as much as I can, but it does not rack up any serious mileage anymore. Some year between 2016 and 2019, it was driven back to Iowa, where one Christmas weekend, my dad and I pulled the engine out to fix an oil leak. He and I are very efficient at pulling engines out of Fieros. We have it down to a science. Today the car has just a tick over 140,000 miles on it, with 50,000 being post-engine rebuild.
When I tell people I have a Fiero, I always get one of four responses: 1) “A Fiero, what is that?” 2) “Oh, a Fiero, I knew someone who had one.” Followed by all the stories about their friend’s Fiero. 3) “A Fiero, horrible cars, they all caught on fire.” (Not true) Or 4) “A Fiero, AWESOME!” People who know what a Fiero is either love or hate them. My experience with talking to people who do not like them is they are not afraid to tell you that your car is not a good car. Now I have not seen the proper etiquette for talking about other’s cars, but it seems awfully bold and rude to tell someone they have a “bad” car. If I met someone who owned a drivable Yugo, I would be more interested in knowing how they keep the thing on the road all these years later than questioning their purchase decision.
So, what is ownership like? Well, you cannot be afraid to spin a wrench and be prepared to possibly break down on the side of the road here and there. One of the shortcomings of Fieros is their reliability. Things will need fixing, so be prepared to spend some time wrenching. Rock Auto has become a near and dear friend to me in keeping this car on the road. The nice thing with Fieros is they used many common GM parts. Parts are very reasonably priced and available for this car. Only the suspension and body parts are hard to come by. Since high school, I have been stranded on the side of the road five times in this car. Each time has a colorful story. I will share my favorites.
Fiero starters are good for about two to three years before they fail. The starter is located in a poorly thought-out spot that causes them to get heat soaked and fail. The summer I was living in Holland, the starter was on the frits of failing. I ordered a new one, and for some dumb reason, had it shipped to my parent’s house and not my apartment. I thought I would fix it on my next visit to Iowa. As I got closer to the weekend, the starter was behaving worse and worse. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, I pointed the car west and headed for home. I made it to Indiana, where I had to stop for fuel. The car started up fine and I kept going. I had to go to the bathroom really bad and stopped at an I-80 rest stop in western Illinois. I should have left the car running, but I did not. When I got back out to my car, it would not start. I could not get it to start. Crap. Not wanting to drain the battery, I gave up trying to start it. I looked around in hopes another traveler could give me a push. I was the only one at the rest stop. Not to worry, I am sure someone else would be stopping soon, so I decided to wait. Ironically enough, I was rereading Peter Egan’s Side Glances and pulled out my copy, and lost myself in Peter’s car woes to pass the time. After 30 minutes, not a single traveler stopped. “I could be here awhile,” I thought to myself. Nevertheless, I said a prayer, put the key in the ignition, and the car started. I pulled into Iowa City that evening on fumes.
A couple of years ago, on a warm and beautiful summer night, my wife and I were out enjoying the countryside of Michigan. We were on a quiet country road when all of a sudden, the car made a loud “BAM” and started to shake violently. I have never had a tire blow out on me, but I immediately thought one of the rear tires had shredded itself. My other thought was the transmission had maybe failed. I stopped the car and investigated. Not a single drip of fluid was leaking from the vehicle, and all four tires had proper air pressure. What the heck?!?!? I started it up and tried to drive forward. As soon as I touched the brake pedal, the rear wheels locked up and I heard the same noise. I spent more time looking over the car and could not figure out what was wrong. At this point, it was about 9:00 PM on a weeknight. I decided to leave the car and call for a ride home. Conveniently, we had broken down along a river in a very serene and rural setting. I talked to some guys on an ATV and they offered to let me park my car in their boat slip parking just 100′ away. Per usual, one of the guys told me he had a Fiero back in the 80s and loved it. It makes me uneasy abandoning a car like that, but after his story, I had faith it would still be there the next day.
The following day, my buddy and I went out there to trailer the car home. Like the day before, the rear wheels would lock up and make a loud noise when I touched the brakes. Once the car was home, it took me about 5 minutes to figure out the issue, and made me upset I did not catch it the night before. Just like my wife’s CX-5 braking issue, I had lost a bolt holding the brake caliper to the knuckle. The loud noise I heard was the brake caliper dragging on the inside of the wheel. A few minutes later, I had another bolt installed and the issue was resolved.
This past summer, I was driving home from work. I usually take the same route every day. For whatever reason, I decided to take the most random route home. I was driving along and all of a sudden the car backfired and killed the engine. I coasted to a stop right in front of my local Chevy dealership. I got out of the car and popped the decklid to troubleshoot. Thinking, I knew the issue lay in the ignition system. Thinking harder I was 95% confident I knew the problem. I always carry tools in the Fiero and this would be a quick fix. Well turns out my tool bag was currently sitting in the Escape, which was at home. Crap. I called my wife and she came to my rescue with tools. After popping off the distributor cap, I pulled the ignition control module and swapped it with a spare I keep in the car (this issue has stranded me before). Turned the key and she fired right up. Problem solved. I thought it was pretty comical that the Fiero broke down feet away from a Chevy dealership. In my troubleshooting, I witnessed a couple of guys come out of the service center and watched me work. Not once did they offer to help me. Either they were rude, or they were too afraid to work on a Fiero.
With Fieros having the engines behind the driver, I often get asked what is under the front hood. From the factory, they had the radiator, fluid reservoirs, and a spare tire with storage for the sunroof shade. My dad relocated the battery from the back of the car to the front for better weight distribution. As a result, there is now a small storage space where the spare tire once resided. I keep this area filled with random spare parts that I might need for the next
breakdown adventure. The word “frunk” (front trunk) was not a common term until Teslas became popular a few years ago. I like to say I have been using frunk for much longer than Tesla owners.
Driving the Formula, you will quickly discover that there is nothing refined about the car. It is loud, buzzy, and not necessarily easy to drive, but that is part of its charm. The Formula always puts a smile on your face when you drive it. Most car shows are filled with lots of Mustangs, Cameros, Challengers, etc. I like all of those cars, but there are only so many I can look at before I start to get bored. Where is the weird and obscure stuff? The Fiero falls into the weird category and unfortunately, I very rarely ever see another Fiero at a car gathering.
Yes, my Fiero is not the coolest, fastest, reliable, or most impressive car out there. I’m fully aware of the shortcomings of my car. But I still love it. This car means more to me than I can really resonate in words. I have always wanted to get something else (a Miata, a Mustang, maybe a Corvair), but just do not have the time, space, or resources to justify replacing this with something different. I have heard if you want to know how to work on cars, then drive an old car. Well, my Formula has definitely refined my mechanic skills. I am by no means a good mechanic, but I owe my knowledge to this vehicle teaching me how cars work and what it takes to get back on the road. This car is very special to me, and I am glad to be a steward of it.
This marks the end of my COAL series. It has been an absolute delight to write each story. I really owe a huge thank you to my father. If it were not for his love for everything automotive, I would not have found this passion. My father’s car stories are more colorful than mine (he’s on 60+ cars in 58 years) but writing this series was a good exercise for him and me as we tried to piece together pieces of my automotive past. I am still young, so I know that there will be many more cars in my lifetime. Maybe those stories will grace these pages again someday. Thank you to everyone for the wonderful comments. The CC community is a very close-knit group. Happy driving everyone.
That’s a good looking Fiero, I wouldn’t repaint it. The color scheme reminds me a bit of the A-team Corvette. Such a late v6 Fiero must be a lot more fun to drive than the earlier 4 banger. I have had the same engine in my Firebird, first a 3.1 now a 3.4. They lack top end power but under 4000 rpm they’re lively engines, especially with all emission controls removed.
Do the later ones still have Chevette suspension and brake parts or did they change that by that time?
Per usually for GM, they got the Fiero right just before they killed it. 1988 was a one-year-only for the Fieros, as they had a completely different front and rear suspension from the previous years. This set up really improved the cars driving characteristics.
…and as to why GM would invest in new suspension and steering for one year only, they didn’t, at least not intentionally. The ’88 Fiero was meant to be a transitional model, shoring up flagging sales by updating the bumper styling and previewing other improvements to come with the second-gen Fiero then in late development and expected to launch for the ’90 model year. Alas, this gambit failed to boost sales as much as hoped, and GM instead axed the Fiero as unprofitable.
Yes you can find pics online of the 89/90 Fieros that were planned (and they look cool!)
Supposedly Quad4 powered, I can only imagine how fun they would have been with up to DOUBLE the HP of the early 2.5L versions!
What a great COAL series.
” … I am by no means a good mechanic … “
Well, if you can drop a car’s motor (which seems more logical than pulling a motor) and rebuild it, in my opinion, you are a real mechanic.
( I recall watching a mechanic “drop” the engine of my 1964 Beetle in a similar manner in what I think was just a few minutes.)
Fieros were not in my experience history, so your stories filled up that gap nicely.
I especially like reading about the warm relationship between you and your father. Such good relationships between parents and children are not universal, so yours is to be celebrated.
I predict (and hope for) a few more COAL addendums from Fierorunner as additional vehicles come into his life.
Thank you RLPlaut! Your comments are some of my favorite!! I really enjoyed your series as well!
I agree with RLPlaut, you’ve solved quite a few problems on this Fiero, and those critical thinking skills are what makes a good mechanic, in my opinion. You’ll get the experience as time goes on if you stick with older cars. Your humility will help you, as well, because cars seem to sense overconfidence and react accordingly. 🙂
Of all the Fieros, I think the ’88 Formula is my favorite. For some reason, I like them in red, but your factory color is really nice, too. If you end up repainting it some day, I’ll put in a vote for the factory paint scheme and decals. On the other hand, repainting a car is a great way to not drive the car again for years, so I’d enjoy it as-is for as long as I could.
Some of the earliest photos I took after I started writing here were of Fieros, but I never wrote anything about them because I didn’t think I had anything to say. As one with zero experience with these, I have been glad to read about yours and the part they have played in your life.
I have never been one of those people who hone in on a particular model to love and nurture, so I admire one who becomes the one to give multiple examples the care and affection they deserve. Could there be a more perfect western Michigan beach car? I think not!
Thank you for your COAL series, fierorunner! My Fiero was an ’84, bought used and sold in 1992.
True story: One day I drove my daughter to a scenic waterfall so she could use her new camera. We returned from our long hike to find I’d left the keys in the ignition of my locked car. This was before I had a cellphone, so I supposed I’d have to walk a mile to the nearest house and use their telephone to call my wife, who would not be amused.
My daughter said, “Can we get in through the sunroof?” It was a warm day and I’d left the glass sunroof tilted open.
I said, “I doubt Pontiac’s finest engineers designed a sunroof that anyone could unlatch from the outside.” “You mean like this?” A minute later she’d climbed through the sunroof (she was a pre-teen then, more nimble than now) and rescued my keys.
Thanks for a great series. Here’s a pic of the Fiero I won at the Society of Automotive Engineers convention one year. Not quite as enjoyable as yours. A project car for some day.
This is one Michigander who knows where Iowa is. Lived in Quad Cities for a while and have also van camped out at Lake Manawa. I remember a poster of stacked corn stalks that said “Ski Dubuque.” You are very correct in that SE Michigan is a world apart from West Michigan. And then there’s the UP state of mind.
Here’s one built, to inspire you. 🙂
Thanks for an excellent COAL series. Among other things you’ve certainly increased my appreciation for the Fiero, thanks to you and your dad’s dedication. And as others have pointed out, you are lucky to have such a good rapport with him.
Your COALs show that almost any car, even in the ‘80’s, can have strengths that compensate for flaws, especially as you get familiar with the latter and know how to deal with them. I really liked my Vega and kept it for several years after I had “better” cars. And if my life’s priorities had been a bit different in the early 80’s when I sold my Vega, I might have kept it or bought others. By the time that interested me again 20 years later they were pretty much unavailable without V8 swaps or were total rust-buckets.
As with so many CC posts, your final Fiero story reminded me of a long-forgotten encounter. I too had a Ranger, and some of the interesting cars I got to drive in the ‘80’s were a result of trading with folks who wanted to borrow my Ranger for hauling stuff. These included a 1st gen Integra, a Porsche 928, a Fox 5.0 Mustang GT and a Fiero Formula. White, 5 speed, it felt very fast and had great cornering grip. The interior felt too cozy for me though, compared to my SuperCab Ranger or even the Alfa Spider I had owned, which had the benefit of being able to put the top down. Thanks for a great COAL series!
A very well-mannered and wise statement indeed. Another way of saying this is that there’s no accounting for taste and I’ve always found that in matters of taste it is ALWAYS more interesting trying to find out what’s in another person’s mind and what motivates them to do what they do than it is to simply talk about myself…which is what telling someone MY opinion about their car would be.
Throughout your series, I have consistently enjoyed your enthusiasm for and knowledge of cars that I might not have wanted to own myself and/or know relatively little about. You’ve told me things I never knew about Fieros. Thank you.
Congratulations on the conclusion (for now) of your COAL series. Let this be just the beginning of many more articles to come!
🙂❤️🙂❤️ I’m really going to miss reading these on Saturdays! – the sister
Great COAL series – thank you. Your loyalty to a few models pays big dividends in both knowing how to diagnose and wrench problems, but also in knowing what parts and tools to carry and where to source parts, which is very handy when owning a curbside classic.
As one who owned back to back Fieros in the late 1980’s up to 2000, this was an especially enjoyable read! My first Fiero in ’88 was am 86 red Fiero SE V6, 4 speed. I traded her in at a Pontiac dealer back in 91 for an 86 black Fiero GT V6 and 4 speed. That GT had the nice subwoofer on the passenger side, along with the GM cassette player with graphic equalizer.
The Fiero for me remains one of my most favorite, most reliable of cars. Nothing could beat that 2.8 V6 rumble, except for maybe putting the passenger side window down and hearing the air intake noise coming from the side air intake vent just a foot away from your ears. Or that high interior shifter console; the first time sitting in one, it felt like I sat down into a race car!
While your Fieros had a penchant for eating starters, mine never did. But mine were prone to failure of the oxygen sensor. Spark plug changes were doable by sitting in the engine compartment storage, your rear end posted on top of the rear taillamp panel, working by touch and feel on those most forward three plugs.
Whenever I see a Fiero or read of one, I smile. They bring back nothing but great memories. I mourn the loss of Pontiac; of GTO’s, Grand Prix SJ’s, OHC-6 cammer motors, The Judge, the Trans Am, of engined turned dashboards. Fieros and G8’s and Solstice. Of DeLorean, Jim Wangers, Herb Adams.
Fierorunner: I’ve enjoyed reading about your history with the Fiero. Although I’ve never had the opportunity to see one up close/in person, I’ve always admired the ’88 model. Being 6’4″, I wondered about how I’d fit in one (I’m sure you can offer some insight on that!) Good luck on your continued journeys! 🙂
I’m 6’5 and drove a ’86 back in the late ’90s, oddly enough also handed down to me by my dad who bought it from the original owner in ’87. The leg room in these cars is phenomenal. If you’re long in the torso with short legs, you may not fit but these cars are pretty much tailor-made for long-legged folks like me.
I’d love to get another but prices for nice ones have gone high enough that it probably won’t happen.
Great read! I started off with Fiero GTs in my youth – maroon 87, yellow 86.5 and white 88 (with the alloys color matched for a whiteout look). My 88 Formula, I’ve had the longest, more than half my life. A silver 5-spd (with power windows LOL), I’ve been told it is one of only about 200 made.
It does get old trying to explain that not all of them catch fire, etc.
I still want a 3800 in one someday.
Yours looks great with the GT front!
It is very disheartening that everyone always brings up the fire issues…such a small number of them caught fire!
We owned and enjoyed our 84 Fiero for 30 years. It was a car that required amateur mechanic skills, perseverance, and TLC. Great fun. Miss it… but now we enjoy older antique cars. Less finicky too.
Loved reading your story.
Lovely piece on long term ownership of a car that is often unfairly put down. I’ve never even seen a Fiero in my life so gaining insight into living with one has been great.
Super series, and I hope we get to see more from you in the years to come!
I bought mine when I was a senior in high school in 1990. It’s a 1986. Had it repainted in 2000, put it in storage right after the repaint and got it back out about 5 years ago, drive it very little but I love it! Yours is sharp, I like the paint scheme.