Fiero, in Italian, means fierce, bold, and haughty—terms that described this mid-engined Pontiac when it debuted to much fanfare in 1983. Though the Fiero’s production only lasted 5 years, this Pontiac’s history stretches just as far into the past as it does in the future.
Pontiac’s idea of an affordable 2-seater reaches back to the 1960s when a new sports car was wreaking havoc on the industry. The vehicle was the Ford Mustang. Small, affordable, and fun to drive, the Mustang was a runaway success.
In the Mustang's wake, Pontiac proposed a sporty coupe known as the Banshee. Undeniably beautiful, the Banshee was viewed as too close of a competitor to the Corvette and killed as a result in the late 60s.
Pontiac's Banshee concept was never built, but it's easy to see the vehicle's impact on Corvette styling. Image via CarandDriver.com.
Roughly 10 years later, Pontiac pitched a fuel-efficient mid-engine two-seat "commuter car" to GM planners. Known as the Fiero, the coupe offered Ferrari-like styling at an entry-level price point. The "commuter car" project was greenlit, with Pontiac management hoping that a small, affordable, and fun to drive Fiero might enjoy the same success as the Mustang did 20 years before.
What Made The Fiero Special
It's hard to list all the little things that made the Fiero remarkable in its' time, but we'll try:
- The Fiero's exotic car styling was a bold statement for any automaker, but particularly bold for Pontiac.
- The Fiero featured plastic body panels, an industry first. Plastic panels resulted in improved crash test results, and they were also easily replaceable. Custom builders could (and did) go wild with modified Fiero panels. (See more Fiero mods in this blog post.)
- The Fiero's mid-engine design was also an industry first, at least in the USA. Pontiac was the first US automaker to mass-produce a mid-engine car.
- In its final year of production, the Fiero GT was everything enthusiasts could ask for: most of the vehicle's design problems had been worked out, the suspension was completely updated (and much better from a performance standpoint), and the brakes were upgraded. With an optional GT package that included the 140hp 2.8L V6, the 1988 Fiero was the car that Pontiac wanted to build.
Through The Years
Off the production line in 1983, the 1984 model Fiero was on fire. Sold as a 2-seat commuter with sports car looks, the Fiero base model started at $7,999 and made strong first impressions—especially with a slick sponsorship deal with rock and roll icons Hall & Oates.
Though it wasn’t the fastest car on the road—going from 0-60 in 11.3 seconds with a top speed of 105 mph—it handled well and sold even better, with first-year numbers at 136,840. To round off the Fiero fanfare, it was chosen as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 and the 2M4 model even landed on Car & Driver’s 10Best list. Though the Fiero continued to improve as a car through the years, sales would never eclipse the level set in 1984.
In the 1985 model, GM added a 2.8L 140 hp V6 engine, giving the Fiero some much-needed power, but sales still dipped to 76,371. 1986 saw the fastback roofline offered, and many thought that this new GT model was actually a Corvette. Though sales increased to 83,974, it was still well below GM’s target.
By 1987, the Fiero brand name was mired by a series of high-profile engine fires. The 4-cylinder engine in the early model years was insufficiently cooled, making it easy to overheat when driven hard. GM corrected some of the issues - upgrading the oil pan and adding a cooling vent above the engine compartment - but the damage was done. Only 46,581 Fiero's sold in 1987, and an all-new suspension in 1988 couldn't salvage sales.
Though GM finally seemed to solve all the issues that frustrated Fiero owners by 1988, the Fiero was killed.
In hindsight, many say the Fiero was doomed from the start. GM never sufficiently funded development, leading to a series of compromises that hurt the car's reputation.
- Many of the Fiero's suspension and brake system parts were taken from the Chevette, saving money but limiting the Fiero's sportiness
- The "Iron Duke" 4-cylinder engine was a bad fit for a mid-engined sports car. It was heavy, with a long stroke that was better suited to use in a low-revving application (like a tractor) than a spirited sports car. The Iron Duke was also a bit too large for the Fiero, forcing engineers to under-size the oil pan. The engine essentially ran on low oil 100% of the time, making it likely to overheat.
- To save money, GM never designed a power steering system for the Fiero. This made the vehicle harder to sell in an era where power steering was becoming ubiquitous.
Finally, it's fair to say that GM wasn't exactly the pinnacle of quality and reliability in the 1980s. While some GM models from that era - like the C/K pickups - are pretty much bulletproof, the Fiero, Chevette, and other economy cars from the era are not. This lack of reliability had a big impact on sales and shortened the Fiero's lifespan.
The Fiero Today
Fiero Fanatics have grown through the years, and it’s often viewed as more misunderstood than as a failure. Surviving Fieros are still popular with kit builders, as its plastic paneling and roomy engine compartment allow for a lot of customization. The most desirable car is the 1988 model year, particularly the GT model.
To learn more about the Fiero, be sure to read Aaron Severson's extremely detailed Fiero history article on Jalopnik.com.