By on October 12, 2020

Would you like a wedge-shaped economy coupe with sporty styling, a plastic body and a tendency to catch on fire? Well then, the choice is clear: Fiero, by Pontiac.

Today marks Part I of two for the Fiero, as there’s quite a bit of information to cover on this important Rare Ride. It’s not even the first time Rare Rides has touched on Fiero; that honor goes to the ’86 Zimmer Quicksilver. The Quicksilver was a different (expensive) take on the Fiero. It wore a lengthened body on the outside, and had a luxurious hand-crafted living room inside. But today’s subject is notable for a few different reasons, namely that it’s survived 32 years in stock condition.

The Fiero was a new kind of car for General Motors, as its engineers wanted to build a compact vehicle which would reinvigorate the Pontiac brand. It was the first mid-engine car in mass production from a U.S. manufacturer, and the first two-seat Pontiac since 1938. The goal with the Fiero was to appeal to customers who couldn’t spring for the full-fat V8 Corvette. Knowing execs were hesitant to approve a car that was even on the same plane as the Corvette, the Fiero team sold it to management by calling it an efficient commuter car.

After approval, they continued to develop Fiero as a sports car with a V6. It received a bespoke platform, the P-body, and utilized newly developed technology for its plastic body panels. Fiero was the only mass production vehicle to use the P platform, but General Motors held onto it for later use in the very limited production all-electric EV1. During development of the exciting new sports car, its lead designer was saddened to learn The General would not, in fact, spring for the development cost of an all-new aluminum block V6 as intended. There was a fuel crisis ongoing, and GM restricted the budget on the already expensive project. Besides, who needed a V6 when the 2.5-liter Iron Duke from the Celebrity was already available, and fit the application? The Fiero went on sale in 1984, and despite plenty of parts bin sharing it ended up a financial loser for GM. Each time they made a Fiero, Pontiac lost $2,000.

For the first two and a half years, the Fiero was only available as a notchback coupe. All versions carried the Iron Duke until 1985, at which point the fuel crisis was over, and consumers demanded more power in their coupes. GM conceded, and added a 2.8-liter V6 to the SE trim and the GT. Transmissions over the Fiero’s production included four- and five-speed manuals, and a three-speed automatic.

The first model year of Fiero was a rough one, and by 1987 there were more than 20 of them catching on fire each month. The burn rate was about one for every 508 cars produced that year. The cause was defective connecting rods in the engine, which would throw oil onto the hot exhaust and cause a slight fire. GM found about 40 percent of the rods produced at its Saginaw plant had defects. The company did recall all 244,000 four-cylinder Fieros, but not until January of 1990. Bit of a delay there on a very visible problem.

But the future of Fiero was not to be dampened by fire big issues. Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll cover the second half of the Fiero’s run. It’s when the engineers got their say with Fiero instead of the accountants.

[Images: seller]

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20 Comments on “Rare Rides: A Completely Stock 1988 Pontiac Fiero Formula (Part I)...”

  • avatar

    “But the future of Fiero was not to be dampened by fire big issues.”

    I wouldn’t expect fire to dampen much of anything.

    Reading this turns my mind to the Fiero restoration / parts shop that was flooded in Midland this past summer, losing all of the inventory and driving the proprietor(s) out of business. My heart broke at the news, same as when Jack chronicled the apparent death-by-crusher of a fleet of 90s GM B-Body sedans and wagons following the death of the owner and the inheritors’ seeming indifference to the value of the cars.

  • avatar

    I loved these cars when they first appeared, particularly the GT models with 2.8 V6. In 1986 I joined the SCCA after autocrossing for a couple of years, and had purchased a dedicated autox car, and 86 GLH Turbo Omni, a couple of years prior to my first Solo 2 Nationals in Salina, KS. While in Salina of all places, I went to a Pontiac dealership and came very close to driving one of these off the showroom floor. However, I had already purchased extra R Compound tires and wheels for the GLH, and did not want to do that again so quickly. I talked to the sales guy and told him I may come back and trade the GLH in, (it only had 3 K miles on it since it was trailered to out of town events) after the week of Nationals competition was completed. I had a miserable experience that week, driving against competition from across the country, and of course I had a tendency to blame the choice of car over the lack of talent on a national level at that time. I cleaned the GLH up, put the factory wheels and tires on it, and drove it to the dealership…much to my chagrin, the car had been sold. It stickered for upwards of 12 K as I recall, and the sales guy told me a guy came in with 10 K cash in hand and they sold it. I kept the GLH another 5 years or so, and it proved to be a decent, competitive car once I learned the intricacies of proper set-set up and most of all, extending my driving skills at various high performance driving schools. But, that bright red 88 Fiero Formula remained a “want one” car up until production stopped on the model. Ironically, I sold the GLH with only 22K on the odometer to a gentleman who owned a bright red Fiero GT…

  • avatar

    Always liked these cars – problems or not. Thanks for the write up Corey. Looking forward to part 2.

  • avatar

    I always felt the original Fiero was the best-looking. I didn’t car for the ‘fastback’ look that came later.

    The 1988 Fiero was the best-driving, with the revised front suspension, the 2.8 V6 putting out credible hp, and a 5-speed.

    This car has both–PEAK FIERO, in my opinion.

    It’s ironic that 20 years later, during Pontiac’s final days, one could buy another proper sports car, the Solstice. Not as badly botched at launch as the Fiero (the Solstice’s main sin was the 5-speed gearbox with horrible gear ratios, fixed after the the first or second year), it also wound up losing money, and it also was kept “down”, as it could not be allowed to compete with the Corvette.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, the original Fiero chassis used the front suspension from the Chevette (T-Body), and the rear suspension was simply a repurposed front suspension from the X-Body (Citation/Omega/Skylark/Phoenix). For 1988, the Fiero got its own front and rear suspension designs.

  • avatar

    I never heard the story about the con rods.
    My take was this was the era when GM went away from gaskets on stamped sheet metal covers and with robotically applied RTV which was caused a LOT of oil leaks as the RTV aged. This was a huge warranty issue and prompted the famous Ross Perot comment “I don’t know much about GM cars but I know they all leak oil”.

    In the iron duke, leaking oil from the rocker cover would pool above the exhaust manifold. I remember repairing this with an aftermarket gasket on a Celebrity I owned. On the fwd cars like my A-body, airflow through the engine compartment (exhaust was on the forward side of the engine) kept things cool enough, but in the Fiero the oil would ignite.

    • 0 avatar

      I didn’t know about the connecting rods either.

      I had read that to package the Iron Puke into the car, GM modified the oil pan to make it fit, and removed about a quart.

      So instead of 4.5 quarts, the engine started with 3.5 quarts. Then, if you were one half to one quart low (and many people don’t check between intervals) you were at 2.5 quarts. And the engine was harder to cool, being mid-engined, as the engine ran hotter with less oil…well, poof, fire!

      I have a harder time comprehending how the connecting rods throw off hot oil onto the exhaust… the connecting rods live in the crankcase. The exhaust lives in the combustion chamber. They are separated by a piston. Please explain

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    My old neighbor had a yellow Formula identical to the featured ride. He introduced me to autocrossing with it. Good times, until it was totaled. I think it was rear ended. He replaced it with a 5 speed 4cyl Cavalier, not so good times. I was really surprised he didn’t do the autocross thing, which is a buy a Miata, but he was at the time a GM loyalist.We lost contact. Good guy for sure.

  • avatar

    “The first model year of Fiero was a rough one, and by 1987 there were more than 20 of them catching on fire each month. The burn rate was about one for every 508 cars produced that year. The cause was defective connecting rods in the engine, which would throw oil onto the hot exhaust and cause a slight fire.”

    Huh? Connecting rods are *inside* the block, so in order to throw oil onto the exhaust manifold, they would somehow have to get *outside* the block (where the manifolds are). Usually that happens when a rod fails (the cap, or the rod bolts), or because of a spun rod bearing, or a failed piston or piston pin. That’s a catastrophic failure. I call BS on that story.

    • 0 avatar

      Seriously the casting of the early rods was very problematic. GM knew that more than 1 out of 4 didn’t pass random QC checks yet they kept shipping them and installing them in engines.

      Yes part of the problem was the fact that they had an advertised capacity of just 3qts of oil and weren’t known for being leak free. They also had a tendency to run hot which increases oil breakdown and burning. So yeah oiling problems cause a lot of those rods to exit the block, in addition to those that were just plain bad.

  • avatar

    Thanks for reminding me why I’ll never buy a GM product. They don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t care.
    Fun fact: small block Chevy motors from the late 70’s, 305 and 350, had mismatched odd-ball crank main bearings, different sized upper and lower bearings like 12/10,000ths on the bottom. These were installed to shim the crank because of the warped thin wall block castings. When you brought your car in under warranty for a leaking front main seal they would tighten the be belts to lift the crank and get it out if warranty.
    Good ole GM!

  • avatar
    Michael S6


  • avatar

    So every Fiero fire started with a thrown rod? Why have I never heard of this before?

    • 0 avatar

      There were other fire sources. The engine bay collected all kinds of leaves and other trash for some reason, and I think the heater could also catch on fire.

      There’s also the position of the engine. You just don’t smell the smoke, oil or leaking gasoline the same way as in a front-engined car, and when you notice the flames it’s too late.

  • avatar

    Shortly before I left the VW shop one of the guys bought a new red Fiero 4 cylinder, I thought it was nice but only got to drive it around the block in traffic so I had no idea how good / bad it was .


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