GM 2-seaters, past and present
The Chevrolet Corvette has been a superstar since the 1950s; for the rest, the record is mixed
Just six months later, GM was bolting together 300 production copies in Flint, Mich. Who knew then that those 300 cars — all polo white with a red interior, 150-hp Blue Flame six and two-speed Powerglide automatic — marked the birth of an automotive legend?
But three other two-seater image-car wannabes introduced in the 1980s failed to make the grade.
All three were intended as halo cars for their divisions, yet each had fatal flaws. Each received substantial improvements in the final model years. And each — despite a generally appealing blend of style, performance and dynamics — ultimately fell victim to high cost, low volume and an unrealistic production plan.
1984-88 Pontiac Fiero
After the fuel price increase of 1973 and the advent of corporate average fuel economy requirements, GM needed more small, fuel-efficient cars. Pontiac craved a sexy two-seater. Could those two needs be combined in a cost-effective way?
That was the idea when Pontiac's mid-engine, plastic-bodied Fiero was approved — not as a sports car but as a small, sporty two-passenger commuter car that would help meet CAFE requirements. And that's why it debuted for 1984 with the anemic 92-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine.
But it looked good, sold well and began evolving into the low-priced sports car its designers had intended. In mid-1985, a hot Fiero GT with a 140-hp 2.8-liter V-6 began scoring performance points.
But the Fiero's reputation suffered when its too-small oil reservoir began running dry, leading to engine failures and some fires. U.S. sales slipped from 93,485 units in 1984 to 41,830 in 1987.
Despite major improvements, GM built just 26,401 1988-model-year Fieros before deciding to ax it. The Fiero's five-year sales were 370,167, not bad for a small two-seater, but not enough to sustain it.
1988-91 Buick Reatta
In 1980, new General Manager Lloyd Reuss set out to expand Buick's product line and improve its image. "We were too much like Oldsmobile," he says, "so there was a major decision to move more toward Cadillac. We wanted an upscale, sportier image."
A luxury two-seater on a shortened front-drive Riviera platform promised solid profit potential at a $20,500 sticker price and projected annual sales of 22,000 units. It was approved as a 1984 model but was delayed four years because of a complex GM reorganization and an agreement to let Cadillac launch its Allante roadster first.
The Reatta finally arrived — at $25,000 — and by 1991 the coupe was $28,335 and the convertible was $34,995. Sales were slow, and the Reatta remained a money-loser.
On March 5, 1991, Reuss, then GM's president, pulled the plug. Four-year production was 21,751: 19,314 coupes and just 2,437 ragtops.
1987-93 Cadillac Allante
In a troubled time of wrenching reorganization, product downsizing, look-alike design and shaky quality, Cadillac decided it needed a high-style, high-tech two-seater.
Because its body design and assembly were subcontracted to Italian designer/coachbuilder Pininfarina, one unfortunate element was the expensive "Air Bridge" — specially equipped 747s — that linked Pininfarina's body shop in Italy to Cadillac's assembly plant in Hamtramck, Mich.
The Allante hit U.S. streets in March 1987. Critics praised its chiseled looks and agile handling but panned its so-so performance and hard-to-manage manual top. At a time when loaded big Cadillacs went for less than $30,000, it stickered for a breathtaking $50,000.
Incremental upgrades followed annually before a much-improved 1993 model debuted with Cadillac's new Northstar V-8. Finally, the Allante was the internationally competitive luxury roadster its creators had envisioned — six years too late.
Allante production totaled 21,347 during seven model years. Cadillac's general manager at the time, John Grettenberger (who inherited it essentially done), agrees that the Allante's fatal flaws were the sky-high price and the poorly designed manual top.
Given this sad saga of failed two-seaters, why would GM try it again?
The first, which began as the 1998 Evoq concept car and reached market as the 2003 XLR roadster, was deemed essential to the rebirth of Cadillac. The keys to financial viability were that it could be built on the C5/C6 Corvette architecture and that it would be good enough to fetch appropriately high prices. And it has.
The second was the fulfillment of GM product chief Bob Lutz's dream of a desirable and affordable two-seat sports car. It arrived in 2002 as the Pontiac Solstice concept and reached production four years later at a base price below $20,000.
Its keys: gorgeous styling, athletic handling, inexpensive tooling and components from GM's global parts bin, plus a solid rear-drive architecture shared with the mechanically identical and equally appealing Saturn Sky and Opel GT roadsters.
So how are two-seaters doing in today's market?
Here are the sales totals for 2007. The Corvette led at 33,685, followed by Nissan's 350Z at 18,957, the Solstice at 16,779 and Mazda's MX-5/Miata at 15,075. The Solstice's platform-mate, the Sky, was eighth at 11,263, just ahead of BMW's Z4 at 10,097. Cadillac's aging XLR slid to 20th at just 1,750.