On March 1, 1988, Pontiac announces that the Fiero will be discontinued after just five model years.
The Fiero’s mission was to help GM meet stricter fuel economy standards as well as draw new customers to Pontiac. The project came to life after a period of increased fuel prices and was led by Hulki Aldikacti, a Turkish-born engineer.
To keep product development costs in check, the Fiero's underpinnings were culled from GM's massive parts bin -- the Chevy Chevette’s front suspension, the Chevy Citation’s rear engine cradle, and a low-performance, 2.5-liter "Iron Duke" four-cylinder engine.
Stress was always part of the Fiero’s DNA. Pontiac engineers wanted a sporty, two-seat car to compete with popular sports cars of the era, such as the Triumph TR7 and TR8, Fiat X1/9, Mazda RX-7 and Toyota MR2. GM brass insisted on a fuel-sipping commuter car to address tightening fuel economy regulations.
The result was a car with sporty looks, but not much in the way of performance.
The Fiero, introduced in September 1983 as a 1984 model, was the first car from GM with the engine mounted behind the driver since the Chevrolet Corvair and the only mass-produced mid-engine car made by a U.S. automaker. It was also GM’s first vehicle to use composite plastic body panels hung on a steel spaceframe. For a couple of model years, there were even speakers in the headrests.
“The Fiero will always be considered a breakthrough car for Pontiac, a vehicle that was right for Pontiac and our dealers throughout its product life,” Mike Losh, then Pontiac’s general manager, said when the car was scrapped.
In 1984, the Fiero’s first full year of production, U.S. sales reached 101,720.
U.S. deliveries reached 370,167 over five years, helping to “reposition Pontiac and attract new owners for us,” Losh said.
The Fiero’s wedge-shaped styling invited sporty driving, something the 98-hp Fiero was not designed to do.
An appearance in 1984 as the pace car for the 68th Indianapolis 500 also helped reinforce the car’s sporty image. It was, and still is, the shortest Indy pace car in length and the only mid-engine one.
Several factors -- and demons -- contributed to the Fiero’s demise.
To fit the engine in the Fiero’s cramped engine bay, GM engineers reduced the size of the oil pan from four quarts to three. Because many drivers rarely checked the oil, when it ran low, trouble was instant and often fatal for the car.
In 1987, GM recalled 125,000 four-cylinder versions produced in the 1984 model year after engine fires occurred in one of every 400 cars. When the engine ran low on oil, connecting rods could blast through the side of the engine, spraying hot oil on the exhaust manifold, often resulting in a fire.
Roughly 20 percent of 1984 Fieros experienced engine bay fires, Autoweek reported in March 1988. GM made some alterations in that first recall, including one that raised oil capacity to four quarts.
In 1990, GM recalled every four-cylinder Fiero ever made, some 244,000 cars, due to engine-fire risks.
Pontiac added new models, such as the GT, and for 1988, the Formula, along with a new, compact 60-degree 2.8-liter V-6 engine rated at 140 hp. A-five-speed transmission replaced the four-speed, but the Fiero’s reputation was damaged and sales never recovered.
Despite its problems, the Fiero was credited with drawing first-time buyers to Pontiac.
“Since the introduction of Fiero, Pontiac has added new car lines and enhanced its other vehicles which compete very successfully for the same type of buyers attracted to Fiero,” Losh said, pointing to the Firebird, Sunbird and Grand Am.
While the car’s life span was short, some features, specifically the plastic body panels, lived on in other products, such as GM’s so-called Dustbuster minivans (Pontiac Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Chevrolet Lumina APV) and a new GM brand: Saturn.
Pontiac engineers also designed an electrohydraulic power steering system for the 1988 Fiero -- power steering was never available -- but pulled it at the last minute. Later, that same system was used in GM’s EV1 electric car.
The Fiero’s demise also had ramifications for GM’s assembly plant in Pontiac, Mich., the sole source of Fiero output.
At the time of the announcement, the plant in suburban Detroit employed 1,109 people with 1,241 on indefinite layoff. At the plant’s peak, in 1986, with two shifts, 2,500 people were employed.
One GM executive told Automotive News that the Fiero workers were among the most cooperative and productive at GM. Workers and managers embraced Japanese teamwork techniques to build the car.
“The Fiero was the first all-new car to signal the development of the new Pontiac image when it appeared five model years ago, and contributed significantly to setting the tone for the successful focused image of Pontiac today,” Losh said, some 21 years before the Pontiac brand itself went the way of the Fiero.
Today, the Fiero is a favorite of car collectors and hot rodders who maintain them in original condition or who have transplanted more powerful engines into them. The Fiero is also a favorite for modifiers to make faux Ferraris and other exotic look-alikes.
The 1988 Fiero GT remains the most sought after and valuable of all. It could be ordered with leather interior and removable T-tops.
GM had planned to offer a revised Fiero for the 1989 model year, featuring Oldsmobile’s Quad 4 DOHC four-cylinder as the standard engine and Buick’s 3800 V-6 as the optional powerplant for the GT and Formula. The body was redesigned with a new nose and tail.
Though the 1989 Fiero was never built, the styling later appeared on the 1991 Pontiac Firebird.