1988 Pontiac Fiero GT
1988 Pontiac Fiero GT. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The idea for the Pontiac Fiero evolved in the late 1970s. Pontiac had developed a tremendous performance image with its racing successes in the late ’50s and the 1960s. And it had invented a whole new automotive genre, the Muscle Car, by offering the big-engined GTO option in the compact 1964 LeMans series.

Noting the outstanding success of the Ford Mustang, also introduced in 1964, Pontiac wanted a sports car. It brought out the 1967 Firebird, a Chevrolet Camaro clone, but really would have preferred its own unique model. This resulted in several sporty concept vehicles, including a mid-engined Firebird in 1971.

For some reason placing the engine between the passenger/driver and the rear axle held strong appeal for Pontiac. While dominant in racing, the mid-engine layout had never been very popular in road cars, principally because it wasn’t a very practical design. Mounting the mechanicals in the middle of the car makes it strictly a two passenger, and leaves limited space for luggage.

Mid-mounted engines have been used in such road cars as the Fiat X1/9 (later the Bertone), the Porsche 914, and more recently, the Toyota MR2 and Porsche Boxster. They also reside in such exotics as Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

Mid-engine cars traditionally had high development costs, but the introduction of the new 1980 GM X-cars (Chevrolet Citation, et al.) would solve that for Pontiac. In the X-cars, the overhead valve 2.5 litre in-line four, or optional overhead valve 2.8 litre V-6, was mounted cross-wise in the chassis between the front wheels.

This was just the recipe that Pontiac needed. If an engine/transaxle could be mounted transversely in the front, it could also be placed the same way behind the driver. Pontiac’s engineers saw the route to their long awaited sports car.

Unfortunately for Pontiac, GM’s corporate leaders had other priorities at that time, such as meeting fuel economy and exhaust emission standards. Pontiac finally received approval in 1979, the year of the second oil crisis. They got it by cleverly selling the P-car, as it was called, as an economical commuter rather than a sports car. Demonstrating that it could be built using many existing components helped their cause.

In addition to the mid-engine layout, the engineers conceived some other novel ideas. The most radical was the body. Rather than using unit construction or body-on-frame architecture, Pontiac created a unitized space frame, a steel skeleton on which were mounted separate exterior plastic panels to form the body surface. Several advantages were claimed for this, including resistance to small dents, ease of replacement of panels for major repairs, and the ability to easily and economically alter body styling. The tooling also cost less because expensive steel-stamping dies were not required.

The Fiero, as the new car was named, thus became the first volume produced American car, besides the Chevrolet Corvette, to have a body made of plastic or glass fibre. Since the panels were non-load-carrying, the car could be driven without any body at all.

Underneath this unusual construction could be found the four-cylinder X-car powertrain, resting transversely behind the seat, and driving the rear wheels through a four speed manual or three speed automatic transaxle.

The X-car’s MacPherson strut front suspension and disc brakes were used at the rear, while at the front, Chevrolet Chevette suspension components and disc brakes were fitted.

When the Fiero 2M4 (two passengers, mid-engine, four cylinders) was introduced as a 1984 model it was a beautifully styled little car. It stood a svelte 1,191 mm (46.9 in.) tall, and its lines started at a pert nose and swept back over the sharply raked windshield. The angle of the rear window was matched by the slope of the tail, and it was faithful to Pontiac’s styling theme.

Although improved over the years, such as a V-6 engine option for 1985 that finally turned it into a creditable sports car, the Fiero seemed haunted by some early shortcomings. The Chevette front suspension was one of its weak points, although this was replaced for 1988. It had also suffered an image-damaging recall to cure an engine fire problem.

Unfortunately for Pontiac, Fiero sales never lived up to expectations. The projected first-year volume of 100,000 turned out to be 67,671, which would prove to be its best year. This slid to 47,268 in 1985, 35,017 in 1986, and 19,595 in 1987. GM discontinued the Fiero in 1988, by which time it had, ironically, been developed into a pretty good sports car.

The Fiero lasted only five model-years, and will go down as another failed attempt to bring something different to the marketplace. Its body construction method did, however, point the way for GM’s vans, the Chevrolet Lumina APV and Pontiac Trans Sport. Composite panels were also used on GM’s Saturn car.

In spite of its short life and disappointing sales, the Fiero has already developed a devoted band of enthusiastic followers, and there are clubs devoted to it. The Fiero should have future collectible value, especially in the V-6, five-speed, GT version.

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