Pontiac spent four years developing the innovative 1984 Pontiac Fiero.

Pontiac Fiero

By far the most enigmatic 1980s Pontiac was the innovative but ill-starred Fiero. A 1984 newcomer, it was Detroit's first mid-engine production car and the first new series-built U.S. two-seater since the original Ford Thunderbird.

Fiero was broached in 1978 as a low-cost, high-mileage "commuter," but that was just a ruse to convince management that the project would help GM fulfill its CAFE obligations. The urge toward something sportier was irresistible, since the plan called for transplanting the front-drive X-body powertrain behind the cockpit to drive the rear wheels.

GM president Elliot Estes approved the concept in 1978, perhaps for sentimental reasons: He had pleaded for a two-seat Pontiac while he was division chief back in the '60s. Corporate cash-flow problems almost killed the Fiero program several times in 1980-82, but engineering director Hulki Aldikacti somehow persuaded decision-makers that this new "P-car" not only made financial sense but could also improve Pontiac's image.

What emerged was definitely sporty; a smooth but chunky notchback coupe on a 93.4-inch wheelbase, evolved under Ron Hill in GM's Advanced Design III section and finalized by John Schinella's production studio. A fully drivable steel space-frame chassis served as a skeleton for supporting body panels made of various plastics -- but not fiberglass -- making style changes cheap, quick, and easy.

To minimize production costs and retail price, steering, front suspension, and brakes were borrowed from the humble Chevy Chevette; rear suspension and disc brakes were retained from the X-car power package.

Announced at base prices carefully pitched in the $8000-$9600 range, the Fiero predictably generated lots of excitement. The division's Pontiac, Michigan home plant, fully retooled as Fiero's exclusive production center, happily cranked out nearly 137,000 of the '84s.

But Fiero was flawed -- heavy and thus sluggish with the standard 92-bhp, 151-cid Iron Duke four; little faster with the optional 173-cid V-6; low, cramped, noisy, and hard to see out of; hard to shift; stiff-riding; indifferently put together. As it had with the X-cars, GM shot itself in the foot by selling a car before it was fully developed.

Word got around quickly. Fiero sales crumbled by more than 40 percent in the second model year, recovered to near 84,000 for '86, then fell by nearly half for '87. A further blow came in September 1987, when a spate of engine fires implicating some 20 percent of the '84 models occasioned a government-ordered recall.

With all this, plus a sharp drop in two-seater demand due to soaring insurance rates, GM announced in early 1988 that Fiero was dead, lamely claiming itself unable to make a profit at 50,000 units a year.

Ironically, Pontiac had just spent $30 million for an all-new suspension that greatly improved handling on '88 Fieros. Left stillborn were plans for a 1989 Quad-4 option and the more distant prospect of a lighter aluminum space-frame that would have done wonders for performance.

The V-6 S/E and GT models were the most desirable Fieros. The GT bowed for 1985 with a sleek nose inspired by a special 1984 Indy 500 pace car (of which a few thousand replicas were sold). Standard rear spoiler, "ground effects" body addenda, uprated suspension, and a deep-voiced exhaust made it a sort of mini-muscle car. Without the V-6, this package became the midrange S/E model for 1986, bolstered at midseason by a restyled GT with modified rear flanks and "flying buttress" fastback roofline.

Arriving in June that year was a five-speed manual transaxle, long promised as an optional alternative to the standard four-speed and extra-cost three-speed automatic. The main changes for '87 involved a reshaped nose for base and S/E, plus a larger fuel tank.

Though compromised in many ways and a relative commercial failure, the Fiero was a useful test bed for General Motors' new Saturn subcompact, which would also use a space-frame skeleton overlaid with dent- and rust-resistant plastic panels

Fiero also symbolized Pontiac's renewed commitment to interesting automobiles. A more successful expression was the all-new front-drive Grand Prix that replaced one of Detroit's dullest cars for 1988.

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see: