Pontiac’s mid-engine Fiero was one of my favorite automotive discoveries immediately after my family’s return to the United States after a year of living abroad. I honestly don’t remember if that final, long, transatlantic flight had landed in New York, or if it flew directly into Detroit Metro. At the point of departure from Europe (Paris, if I remember correctly) in late summer of 1984, I was a ball of excitement at the prospect of being back home in Flint, Michigan with friends, family, my toys, the local McDonald’s, and a whole bunch of cool stories to tell about my fourth grade year spent living in my paternal grandfather’s ancestral village in upcountry Liberia. I was perhaps just as excited to see cars on the road from familiar brands like Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler, versus the likes of Peugeot, Vauxhall, and Opel.
In upcountry Liberia, c. early 1984, months away from seeing my first Fiero.
Many members of my extended family were right there at the jet bridge waiting for us to deboard (remember when that was allowed?), and my maternal grandfather had his multi-piece VHS video camera and recorder ready to catch the moment. When I rewatched that footage years later as an adult, my eyes went straight to the new, black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that was on display in the airport right where we had deboarded. It was like one of the most all-American of performance cars, a Trans Am, was personally welcoming me back to the good, old U.S. of A. and familiar automotive dreams.
On the night ride to my grandparents’ farmhouse from the airport, I remember being exhausted but also unable to keep my eyes closed, as I strained them looking for any trace of a new model that had first appeared while my family had been away. I remember seeing a beautiful Chrysler G-Body coupe (Dodge Daytona or Chrysler Laser) for the first time as it passed us on the expressway, and that memory gives me goosebumps to this day. For this reason, a Daytona or Laser had always been on my short list when researching my first deliberate car purchase (versus the family ’84 Ford Tempo that had later been passed down to me).
I write all of this to set up the fact that the first time I encountered a Fiero (which I had originally mispronounced “Fire-O” until corrected by my classmates) was a big deal. Fiero production had actually started the previous August, in 1983, probably immediately after my family had departed for our yearlong stint overseas, so I had missed the stateside introduction of this model that was, by the time I had first seen it, old news. Whatever. It was new to me, and quite exotic to my eyes.
I didn’t and still don’t think of the original notchback shape as being drop-dead gorgeous, but there was something about its wedge-shaped profile, low stance, short length, and mid-engine configuration that made it look somehow wicked and more exciting than its styling would suggest at first glance. I fell in love, and subsequently owned a couple of Fiero scale model kits – one of which I butchered, and the other which is still unassembled in its original box. (Perhaps in my retirement, if and when that happens, I’ll attempt to put that one together.)
I was on a walk home from a beachside park in the neighborhood north of mine this past September when I spotted this example. I will always swoon when I see a running Fiero, and even if I’m generally introverted, my enthusiasm for cars has often hijacked my reserved side. When I saw open windows, I had to wave a greeting at the intersection and ask the driver if it was a first-year ’84, which he confirmed. He was smiling and friendly, seeming to bask a little in the adoration his new purchase (there was a temporary tag out back) was netting from some stranger on the sidewalk. His lady friend in the passenger seat, however, didn’t seem entirely thrilled with the extra attention.
As a high school senior, fall 1991. Flint, Michigan.
I kind of understand. I have been in situations before when I was trying to be low key in some scenario where someone in my party or the person next to me was calling attention to my general direction when I did not particularly want to be noticed. What I did wonder, though, is whether she didn’t want to be noticed in general, or didn’t want to be noticed in this car. An ’84 Fiero is now thirty-six (I can’t even) years old, and judging by the looks of the occupants of this one, this car is probably a decade or so older than both of them. And maybe the windows were down because the air conditioning didn’t work. Maybe she had just wanted them to take the other car.
I’m friends with three sisters my younger brother and I grew up with. Their father had a stick-shift, Fox-body Mustang hatchback from the mid-’80s era from that awkward middle period between when the Foxstang was new, fresh, and novel, and later, when the increasingly more popular and attractive 5.0L models were starting to gain near-universal popularity. The professor’s Mustang wasn’t a 5.0L, but he thought it was cool. The sisters, however, thought it was janky.
As it was told to me, Dad would ask the girls if they wanted to go somewhere with him on an errand, but when they found out they were going in the Mustang (which they thought looked like an embarrassing, generic compact car), they would change their minds. Dad then didn’t understand why any of them wouldn’t want to go anywhere in the Mustang, because to him, it was a cool car. My hope is that the owner and driver of this red Fiero understood from my burst of enthusiasm that I was his brother in solidarity with his choice of automobile. Hopefully, his lady also came to understand.
Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, September 13, 2020.