Much has been said about troubles encountered during development of the all-new 2020 mid-engine Corvette. Problems are to be expected with any new vehicle, but they can multiply when the car uses a largely unfamiliar layout. And in the case of General Motors’ last mid-engine effort, the Pontiac Fiero, they nearly killed the project. Let’s go back 35 years to see how the P-car almost wasn’t.
Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Pontiac was in trouble. The GTO was a distant memory, the showrooms were stocked with badge-engineered versions of other GM products, and the brand had neither the name recognition of Chevrolet nor the luxurious overtones of Oldsmobile and Buick. Pontiac’s general manager, Bill Hoglund, wanted to bring back the performance image that Pontiac had built in the 1960s, and he thought the way to do it was with a two-seat sports car—one that would be exclusive to the Pontiac brand.
To say that he was facing corporate headwinds would be a major understatement. The gas crises of the ’70s had given the imports a foot in the door, and now American buyers were discovering the joy of Japanese quality. For the first time, the General was having serious trouble selling its bread-and-butter cars. There was also a new Corvette in the works—it would debut in 1983 for the ’84 model year—and the last thing Chevrolet wanted was an in-house competitor.
Hoglund and his crew managed to sell the project to the top brass by pitching it as a two-seat commuter car, an eco-friendly runabout that upstanding citizens would buy to supplement their family-friendly GM product. The executives reluctantly agreed, allocating a mere $700 million for the project—an amount that, by new-car development standards, was couch-cushion change.
Part of the deal Pontiac struck was that it would keep costs low by using as much existing componentry as possible. As a result, the P-car, as the project was known internally, was a masterpiece of parts-bin engineering: The engine was the Iron Duke OHV 2.5-liter four-cylinder, the driveline and rear suspension were front-wheel-drive X-body (Citation) components flipped around backwards, and the front suspension and steering gear came from the Chevette.
Even so, the project had a troubled gestation. The P-car made extensive use of innovative construction methods and new technology, and on at least three occasions the project was cancelled before being later reinstated. There were serious doubts inside GM that the P-car could be delivered under budget, a failure that would have almost assuredly led to the project being euthanized. But Pontiac came up with innovative ways to reduce costs: It invited suppliers in to drive a prototype, then sent them home to see how much they could reduce the costs of their components. The gambit worked, and for all of its setbacks, the P-car came in on time and under budget.
The car’s unique construction method employed a steel space frame with bolt-on plastic body panels. (There was, apparently, some speculation that a passing an 18-wheeler could blow the panels right off the car.) This required a level of precision assembly that was difficult to come by in the quality-challenged early ’80s. Pontiac’s solution was to weld up the frames first, then add mounting holes in the completed assembly. Gilman Machine Tool built a mill-and-drill machine that stood two and a half stories high. Each Fiero frame was clamped firmly into place before 39 milling heads descended at once, each milling an epoxy-filled mounting pad flat and then drilling a hole. The result were body-panel tolerances of half a millimeter—fit and finish that would do a Rolls-Royce proud.
There were several names proposed for the P-Car, including Fiamma, P1000, P5000, Sunfire, and even Hummingbird. Pegasus was an early favorite before Fiero eventually won out—but not before the logo was designed, which explains why the Fiero badge is adorned with a winged horse.
When the Fiero finally made the rounds of the magazines, the hopes of a sporty car had to be tempered by the reality of its purported eco-commuter mission. Despite being fitted with throttle-body fuel injection and a specially developed high-compression cylinder head, the Fiero produced slightly less output than the X-cars—92 horsepower versus 94 and 134 lb-ft of torque versus 135. Economics dictated a four-speed manual transaxle rather than a five-speed. Automobile was still nearly three years in the future, but the boffins at our future corporate cousin Motor Trend timed the Fiero to 60 in 10.5 seconds. That said, they did note exceptionally good fuel economy.
The Fiero lacked a rear stabilizer bar in order to meet the corporate mandate for benign understeer, though the chassis was reportedly fairly neutral up to the limits of traction. Testers noted that the front end felt a bit light in the 80-to-90-mph range but settled down nicely at the car’s 120-mph top speed. Motor Trend praised the non-assisted steering, though others found it heavy and slow. And yes, they verified that you could blow past a semi at top speed and not lose the plastic body panels.
Despite the praise, Motor Trend and other outlets wanted more from the car—a six-cylinder engine and a five-speed transmission for starters. The Fiero would eventually get those, as well as a revised front suspension and more attractive styling, in the form of the GT (as featured in our classic drive story from 2015). Even so, many critics felt that the Fiero never reached its performance potential. But the Fiero did fulfill Bill Hogland’s vision for the car, giving some teeth to the “We Build Excitement” slogan that saw Pontiac sales climb steadily throughout the 1980s.
Today, the Fiero has plenty of critics, but those who truly understood the adverse environment in which it was developed heaped praise on the very fact of its existence. “Pontiac’s stock went up tenfold in our book,” wrote Tony Assenza in the September 1983 issue of Motor Trend. “The sports-car crazies and fans of affordable, fun, high-tech cars should now please rise and give Pontiac a big round of applause. They deserve it. People with guts always do.”