Pontiac’s unabashedly pretty, mid-engine two-seater caused a huge stir when it hit showrooms in 1984, and it’s been fodder for automotive journalists ever since. I’d venture to state that most of those column inches have been lavished on the sportier V-6 iterations of the car, along with what (the press felt) Pontiac did wrong — chiefly, not making sporty Fieros even sportier than they were.
The bread-and-butter four-cylinder cars were liked, but not loved, by many scribes of the past, and today are the subject of armchair speculation as to what other powerplant might be shoehorned in to replace the worthy, old Iron Duke. “Malaise Machines” will herein redress these “sins.”
The Fiero’s development is a frequently told tale of how Pontiac sold the idea of a mid-engine two-seater to General Motors brass as a commuter car with good mileage figures rather than a sports car. And, while Pontiac did imbue the Fiero with “driving excitement,” there were concessions made to economies of scale, as well as low running costs, and being able to offer the car at an accessible purchase price.
The budget to develop the P-Car (as the Fiero was known within GM) was all of $700 million, considered a paltry sum for the task. It was also mandated that the “Excitement Division” rely as much as possible on existing GM components. In spite of these limitations, Pontiac delivered a beautiful and innovative car.
Take the Fiero’s construction. The basic structure was a unitized frame built of six individual, stamped steel subassemblies: front, rear, floorpan, roof/windshield-frame/cowl and left and right door loops. These were welded together to form a stiff platform, which was then clad with impact-resistant composite body panels (GM would use a similar technique with Saturn a few years later). The entire frame was placed in a massive mill-and-drill rig and drilled out at 39 points to create mounting holes for the outer panels. The result was excellent panel fit and easy panel replacement in the event of an accident.
The Fiero used the front suspension from the corporate T-cars (Chevette/T-1000), and the rear suspension was engineered from the front-whee’-drive X-car’s (Chevy Citation) front suspension. This gave traditional twin A-arms and rack-and-pinion steering up front, while out back you ended up with MacPherson-cum-Chapman struts. With little weight over the front wheels, there was no need for power-assisted steering. The four-wheel disc brakes did have a vacuum booster.
The use of the X-car’s front subframe dictated the Fiero’s wide stance, which had the happy side effect of allowing a cockpit that didn’t feel too claustrophobic (in contrast to Fiat’s X1/9). This gave the Fiero a vast center tunnel, which was used to good effect in creating a console that made space for power window switches, power mirror controls, the shifter and not one but two ashtrays. It was quipped that they were put there to appease Fiero project chief Hulki Aldicakti, a hardened and heavy smoker. The 10.2-gallon fuel tank was positioned beneath the tunnel for both safety and better weight distribution.
As with most Detroit products, comfort was an important design vector, and the Fiero did deliver good ride quality, a quiet cabin and extremely effective heating and air conditioning.
The powertrain was, perhaps, the area in which Fiero suffered most, at least in the eyes of the press. On introduction, the only engine offered was a 2.5-liter, cast-iron, pushrod four-cylinder engine delivering 92 hp and 132 lb.-ft. of torque. Known as the Iron Duke, it came by its title through longevity and toughness, rather than fierce performance. With a four-speed manual, a Fiero would hit 60 mph in around 11.5 seconds while cars with the “auto-box” lost a tick or so.
In 1985, a V-6 would become available, upping the performance ante to a more sporting 140 hp and 170 lb.-ft. of torque, which clipped 3 seconds of the 0-60-mph sprint. Revisions and improvements, such as a five-speed transmission, eventually led to even better performance from the car, but it’s outside the purview of this piece to cover all of them. Fiero’s real-world fuel consumption never quite lived up to the stellar figures promised.
The back-country roads of southwestern Maine would seem a more natural habitat for trucks with disintegrating wheel arches than 1980s sports cars. But it’s there that Norman Hutchin’s drives his white 1984 Pontiac Fiero 2M4 SE. The 2M4 appellation means “2 seats, Midship engine and 4 cylinders.” And SE means “Special Equipment,” which, among other things, includes the Special Performance Package comprised of higher-performance springs and shocks, 14-inch cast-alloy wheels and 215/60R14 blackwall tires.
His first-year Fiero is significant today; as an SE with an automatic, it’s very representative of a Fiero that would’ve appealed to the typical buyer of the time. And, realizing this, Norman has maintained the car’s factory specification.
It’s been in his care since 2006, having obtained it “from a co-worker’s sister who was pregnant and whose husband didn’t want her driving it anymore.” Since acquiring it, he’s had a few maintenance and repair tasks to keep the car roadworthy, but nothing onerous. New head and valve cover gaskets, as well as shocks and struts, were the most serious repairs to date. A rebuilt power headlamp motor keeps the obligatory-for-the-period, flip-up headlamps in working order. Beyond that, it has only required normal consumables, such as tires and motor oil.
The wide build of the Fiero contributes to a car that Norman describes roomy, compared to other two-seaters, such as his Solstice. The Fiero cockpit is a great place to spend time. With low bucket seats and pod-mounted instruments, it has the flavor of a car far more exotic than most GM products. Unfortunately, the ambiance of Norman’s car is disrupted by a sunroof that is less than watertight.
He does find the little runabout to be great fun to drive. When new, road tests indicated that a Fiero 2M4 SE could generate .812 Gs of lateral acceleration. In spite of the grip, Norman considers his Fiero underpowered, and he feels braking could be more efficient. Period road testers found that a Fiero 2M4 would halt from 60 mph in 143 feet; by comparison, the contemporary Bertone (nee FIAT) X1/9 could stop from 60 mph in 138 feet.
It should be mentioned that Fieros, in particular the first-year cars, have a reputation for catching fire. There is some truth to this. First, Pontiac accidentally quoted oil capacity as 3 quarts instead of 4, which meant many Fieros were running around low on oil. This exacerbated a problem with a bad batch of connecting rods, which could fail and poke a hole in the block, thus dumping hot oil onto hot exhaust manifolds. There were other problems as well, such as technicians not following factory protocols with coolant flushes, leading to overheating.
But these woes are all water under the bridge. Many cars have some mechanical issue or peculiarity that owners’ should be aware of. Common sense and diligent maintenance practices can go a long way to ensuring the safety, longevity and enjoyment of driving a Fiero or any other classic car.
Incidentally, the name Fiero means “proud” in Italian, and it’s evident that Norman is proud of his. It’s kept safe from winter weather in dry storage while he waits for the fair days of spring to reawaken the Iron Duke and take to the road again
*Bryan Raab Davis is the cofounder of the popular Facebook group “Malaise Motors.”
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