By on August 25, 2021

GM

To many children of the 1970s and 80s, the Pontiac Fiero is something of a tragic figure. Its mid-engine chassis and clean, sporty lines made performance promises that its 2.5L OHV, 92 horsepower “Iron Duke” could never deliver on. Even later models, with their 140 HP, 2.8L V6 engines were disappointments – albeit lesser ones. Despite continuous improvements, the car was only in production for four years, and ultimately became more sought-after as the basis for a number of ill-conceived Faux-rrari kit cars than for what it was … but it didn’t have to be this way.

Across town, Pontiac’s GM stablemate Oldsmobile had something that could have changed the fate of Pontiac’s Fiero – and maybe the Chevrolet Corvette’s, too – and that’s the subject of this first engine swap fantasy file: the Quad 4.

WHAT THE QUAD 4 WAS AND WAS NOT

As the late 1970s rolled into the 80s, GM was hemorrhaging market share to Japanese brands like Toyota and Honda. GM’s U.S. market share had plummeted from somewhere in the 40 percent range to less than a third, and the company was hurting. GM brass believed that they needed a small, efficient overhead cam engine to compete, and what their engineers came up with was ultimately dubbed “Quad 4” (as in: four valves per cylinder, four-cylinder engine).

In its day, the Quad 4 was a marvel. Where the Fiero’s engine spun all the way to a 5,000 rpm redline, the Quad 4 would spin to 6,800 rpm before reliability concerns drove GM to artificially limit the redline to 6,500. What’s more, the Quad 4 weighed a bit less than the Iron Duke 4 cylinder – and a lot less than the 2.8L V6 – that made it into the Fiero in our timeline, all while making a wholly respectable 190 hp and 160 lb-ft of torque. In 1987, those numbers weren’t too far off from what the Mustang/Firebird V8s were making.

So, the Quad 4 was a great motor. It was, arguably, the most important GM engine design of the 1980s and 90s, serving nearly two decades until being ultimately replaced by the Ecotec engine at the turn of the century. What it was not was readily available to Pontiac.

I know, I know – that doesn’t make any sense, does it? Today, if a car company makes an engine for one brand – let’s say a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder – you’ll probably find that engine in just about every brand of car that company makes. VW? Check. Audi? Check. Skoda? I don’t know – but, probably check. GM in the 80s was a different thing, though. It was like a tiny version of America, and each brand was like a state, greedily snatching at money and resources and sparring over what passed for political power within GM. One of the things that said power could get you, as a brand, was veto power over what other brands could do.

Indeed, if you believe some of the automotive conspiracy theorists out there, GM made sure the Fiero was given crappy engines on purpose, in order to protect Corvette’s position as “GM’s performance car”. That power could also be leveraged by a brand to score a unique platform or, as in this case, a unique engine. As surprising as it might seem today, the Cutlass Supreme was the #1 best-selling car in these United States every year from 1976 to 1983. Because of that, Oldsmobile wielded an entire metric fuckton (fucktonne?) of power within GM in the mid-80s.

What came next looks something like this: Olds wanted the Quad 4, so Olds got the Quad 4.

GM

RIGHTING THE WRONG

In the old sci-fi series Quantum Leap, every episode starts with an introduction that goes like this …

Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator – and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so, Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap… will be the leap home.”

… so, for this fantasy swap, we’re Sam Beckett. We’re not building some tire-shredding monster or overly styled, stanced, and box-fendered SEMA car. We’re simply putting right what once went wrong and giving the light, nimble Pontiac Fiero the 190 horsepower, DOHC, 6,800 rpm heart that GM should have given it in the first place.

If it had, well – I don’t think the Fiero would have sold any better, to be honest (I subscribe to the belief that enthusiasts don’t buy new cars in sufficient numbers to justify building enthusiast cars), but I do believe that a Quad 4-powered Pontiac Fiero could have been a bona-fide GM performance classic in its own right, spoken of in the same breath as the Buick Grand National and GMC Syclone. And that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t have made sense to chop up a Fiero to make it look like a Ferrari – because the Fiero would have been the car you wanted to begin with.

The car deserved at least that; I think. And, with a Quad 4 behind the seats, it may have gotten it.

[Images: GM]

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47 Comments on “Quantum Leaps: The Quad Four Pontiac Fiero That Never Was...”


  • avatar
    turbo_awd

    I had a friend who had the V6 version (dubbed 2M6) in the 90s and was obsessed with a V8 swap for it – to the point he got a “2MV8” license plate. However, it never worked out. Eventually he bought a ’99 or ’00 V8 Trans-Am.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    “a lot less than the 2.8L V6 ”

    25 to 40 lbs less depending on equipment?

  • avatar
    Fred

    Another GM mistake. Designed as a sporty car, but cheapened up to be a economy youth car. Finally made right with the 2nd gen and then canceled. Even the Quad4 engine, I heard a lot good things about it, but I guess they kept it in Oldsmobile and it was never seen again. I’m surprised it lasted 20 years

    • 0 avatar
      DungBeetle62

      No, the Quad 4 definitely made the rounds. The Olds Calais was sure a weird place to debut something so rorty and sporty, but the Grand Am made a far more suitable home. There was always talk of the Quad 4 ending up in the GM10 products, but I never did see where it came to pass.

      What I don’t remember was the Quad 4 having a 190hp rating except briefly in limited numbers and later down the road. The standard-issue was 150 to my recollection with a high-output 180hp version in the sportier Grand Am, Beretta and Calais (and later for Olds, the Achieva) models. After a couple more years there was a SOHC “Quad OHC” version and very briefly a 190hp version exclusively to Olds.

      Never had the experience firsthand, the press was always criticizing the Quad 4 for being rough. Maybe compared to a Honda or Toyota 4 but I can’t believe it’d be a worse alternative in my 1987 Grand Am than the awful “Tech 4” (Iron Duke) it had. Rough? Rev that thing past 3000…

      But the author’s point is made that it was far, far too late for GM to finally recognize this whole engine fiefdom madness was a long, drawn out “Deck chairs on the Titanic” exercise. I’m sure that had roots in the whole horror show during the 1970s of “Wait, my Oldsmobile has a Chevy V8 in it? The nerve!!!” as though most consumers would know the difference even if told.

      And the legends persist that the 180hp Quad 4 would’ve been the base engine after the suspension changes made for 1988, with a turbo version available. All I know is the one time I drove one the dashboard pointed directly at my gut, and the manual transmission has the same amount of side-to-side slop whether in neutral or in gear. My friend’s 1986 MR2 seemed a generation ahead of the Fiero.

      • 0 avatar

        “Wait, my Oldsmobile has a Chevy V8 in it? The nerve!!!” is exactly right. That’s 100% how the little fiefdoms worked. Excellent word choice.

        • 0 avatar
          indi500fan

          The GM divisional system was at the core of the corporate culture. It took decades to phase it out.
          Add complex deals like big bets on EDS, Hughes Aircraft, and Saturn and no wonder the 80s produced a lot of fail.

      • 0 avatar
        Dawnrazor

        I had the 180hp version in a 1991 Grand Am SE (5mt). In retrospect it was a little rough around the edges, but damn could it pull like a freight train! I never got tired of feeling the rush of acceleration that kicked in at about 3500 RPM, a different but similar sensation as you get when a turbo hits max boost. As far as speed, it was fairly legit in its day in both handling and acceleration; in fact, I could generally keep up with a buddy in his ’87 Mustang GT (auto) to about 75-80mph.

        It did have issues with a blown head gasket at 49k (replaced under a “goodwill” warranty), it chewed through coil packs as if they were regular maintenance items, and required a camshaft bearing replacement at 68k (power steering pump ran off one of them). (As marginal as the engine’s reliability proved to be, the bigger problem was the outright malevolent build quality in the hunk of s**t car that surrounded it!)

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        I drove the Calais 442 with the Quad 4 HO – that made 180 hp I believe. After that, when it became the Achieva, there was the SC making 180 hp and the SCX making 190 – the most a GM 4 cylinder ever made without forced induction.
        But, my God, without balance shafts and other vibration deadening, those engines were ragged. They would rev, but they felt and sounded miserable doing it. When they finally put the balance shafts in, and installed the engine in more models, I recall it was a detuned version making around 150 hp.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        Supposedly GM had a 2nd-gen Fiero test mule with a turbo Quad4 running circles around Corvettes back in the day. The time to head gasket failure on that setup would have been measured in weeks.

        • 0 avatar
          APaGttH

          My father was a VP of engineering back in the day. For better or for worse, you can thank him for a fair amount of work on the ye’ old 1.6L 4 in the Escort.

          Folks in the industry talked – and I remember vividly him talking about this. How his friend at GM was frustrated because GM leadership was furious that the Fiero mule had destroyed the Corvette, and this was not allowed.

          Don’t hold me to the year – late 82 – early 83 – I was a teen back then, but I 100% remember this convo.

      • 0 avatar
        Flipper35

        Every Quad 4 I rode in was terrible in the NVH regime. All the car mags back then loved it and never mentioned that until late in the life of the Quad 4.

      • 0 avatar
        NexWest

        Quad4 in Aerotech sets speed records: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oldsmobile_Aerotech

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      The Fiero was originally conceived as a two-seat commuter car, but in design morphed into a sporty car. There wasn’t a second-gen car, just a replacement of the Chevette front suspension and X-Body front suspension as rear suspension with designed-for-Fiero front and rear suspension systems.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        The 1988 Fiero got the revised front and rear suspension that was unique to it and much improved.
        Probably because the last Chevette was for the 1987 model year and GM had some big plans including the Quad-4 for the Fiero. In typical GM fashion such as the 215 aluminum V8, once they get it right it gets sold off or dropped.

      • 0 avatar
        DungBeetle62

        The list of 2-seaters that weren’t presented as some sort of “sporty” is real short. Maybe the original Honda Insight as well as the extremely limited production GM EV1. Even the Honda CR-Z, in spite of its hybrid mission and nowhere near CRX curb weight, got presented as a sporty ride.

        If anyone thinks they’re marketing a 2-seat mid-engine ride as a commuter car… “Sure it’s got webbed feet a bill and quacks…. but trust us, it’s NOT a duck.”

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Screw the Quad 4. The right engine that never happened in the Fiero was the LQ1 Twin Dual Cam. Take the finickiest 60º V6 GM ever built, and put it in an inaccessible mid location. What could go wrong? (Though it was also the best-sounding of all the GM V6es, and would have sounded terrific in a Fiero.)

  • avatar
    ajla

    “What it was not was readily available to Pontiac.”

    There were Pontiacs and Buicks available with the Quad4 in 1988.

    Also, the 190hp version of the Q4 didn’t exist until ’91 and by then the Fiero was dead. In ’88 it made 150hp and the high-output version that came out in ’89 had 180hp

    The Fiero not receiving the Q4 wasn’t really due to internal brand politics. The car was already slated for death by the late 80s due to being a slow-selling, unique platform with a poor reputation from its early life issues.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      Agreed. GM had this practice to kill poor reputation models after 1 gen. Statistics are there: Corvair, Vega, Citation, Chevette, Cimarron, Fiero, Aztek and many more to mention here.

      Lack of continuity for a nameplate hurts reputation of a brand but making things/design wrong from the very beginning hurts the brand even more.

      I’ve wondered a few times if GM executives from those times realized/accepted their wrongdoing years after the fact even if not made public.

      • 0 avatar
        dukeisduke

        The Corvair lasted two generations – ’60 through ’64 models, known as “earlies” (and ’60 models are quite different from the ’61-’64 models in several ways), and the ’65 to ’69 models (the “lates”).

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    “I asked for a car, but I got a computer. How’s that for being born under a bad sign?”

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    The Fiero wasn’t designed as a sporty specialty. GM brass would’ve never bought it. It was just an economy, fuel saver with some zig. It was GM marketing that pushed it as a legit sporty, and priced it as such.

    Buyers got burned. Literally.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      Yeah eliminating gaskets for robot applied rtv on stamped sheet metal covers was a bad choice. On the fwd cars it was OK because the pooling oil on the head adjacent to the exhaust ports got cooled by airflow.
      On the Fiero, no airflow, and hence combustion.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      The “economy, fuel saver” angle never made sense. It weighed the same as a Citation, had the same crappy engine, and had orders of magnitude less interior space, and was not cheap. Hell of a trade off for a little sportiness.

      As usual, Honda showed the right way to pull this off with the CRX.

  • avatar

    I was quite attracted to the Fiero. Thought it was a great looking car. I didn’t know all the stuff swirling around the car other than what I remember as it’s unfortunate connection to traffic deaths. Thanks for the write up, Jo. Like the the Hall & Oates pic too.

    • 0 avatar
      sayahh

      Me, too. It looked like a smaller Trans Am (smaller Knight Rider KITT) or Lotus Esprit (James Bond) in my head. Too bad that at the end of the day it was still a GM (read: vulnerable to internal sabotage and bean counters trying to make it as cheap as possible).

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    It’s not quite close to era Mustang/Firebird V8 power. About halfway. 160 vs 300 torque. Malaise V8s were big on power down-low, so their HP isn’t so showy.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I remember how rough the quad 4 Grand Am SE was, rougher than my Mk1 GTI was , but gobs faster. In college, my roommates girl friend drove a new Beretta GTZ, it seemed smoother , so they must have used better balance shafts or engine mounts later applications

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Real GM vehicles have an 8-cylinder normally-aspirated pushrod gasoline engine mounted longitudinally in the front of the vehicle, driving the rear wheels, on a full frame – and they run pretty near forever.

    The further you get from that formula with any GM vehicle, the more trouble you are asking for. The Fiero was asking for a lot of trouble.

  • avatar
    redapple

    >Toolguy

    Post of the week – outstanding. !

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    No, the Quad 4 was not a great motor. On paper, yes it checked a lot of the boxes but in practice it was let down by the usual beancounting and insufficient durability testing. Upon release, Car and Driver called it a “jewel of an engine”, and they wound up eating those words. GM ads proudly proclaimed that the “vision is paying off” as they showed a photo of a Quad 4 being hoisted up by the multi-racial hands of its assemblers. However, reality painted a different picture. They were very rough and eventually received balance shafts but only after the engine’s reputation was set. Classic GM move. They devoured head gaskets like a child eating Pez candy. I know of two people who ditched their GM cars that blew gaskets and moved to Honda – permanently. The Quad 4 was another example of GM taking (yet) another attempt at redemption and throwing it away.

  • avatar
    renewingmind

    This is intriguing though. It would be a fun project to put a later, sorted, 190hp Quad4 into a Fiero that shipped with the iron duke. Surprised some Fiero enthusiast hasn’t done this already.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      I was really into Fieros in the 1990s and went to four Fiero Owners Club of America national meets. There were a couple of guys with Quad H.O.-swapped Fieros, but the most popular swap was the Buick 3800 or 3800 SC. The Buick was heavier than the Quad 4, but made a lot more torque and was much more reliable.
      At that time, the V8 Archie kit that allowed you to swap in a SBC was also popular.

  • avatar
    johnny ringo

    From what I read about the engine, it had reliability issues and ran really rough; apparently the bean counters at GM refused to authorized counter balance shafts and it had an appetite for head gaskets. Late in its life it finally got balance shafts, but I think they reduced the engine’s power output from like 180 to 150 or so. Another potentially great engine destroyed by GM bean counters.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Fiero production ran five years (1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988), not four.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    They should have just taken the turbo V6 from the Regal T-Type like they tested and ran with it, Corvette be damned.

  • avatar
    cruster

    Variants of the 4th-gen Cutlass were the best-selling cars 1978-1981. The best selling car of 1982 was the Ford Escort. The Cutlass did take the top back one last time in 1983.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    I remember that V6 having a very strange valve train drive .Off to Wikipedia and . . . . “The 3.4 L (3,350 cc) engine substituted the standard camshaft for a chain driven intermediate shaft, which drives four overhead cams via a cogged belt.”. Yeah, they retained the original camshaft in the valley of the V, but just used it to transmit power to the belt driven valve train. That made me uncomfortable the first time I read about that arrangement in all of the glowing automotive press reports at the time. Apparently Rube Goldberg had some influence at General Motors engineering. Rube Goldberg? Oh damn, am I dating myself.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    The Quad 4 definitely didn’t make my dreams come true. GM was out of touch and out of time when they put this in Pontiacs.

    I had one on one experience with it, and even as a kid, I understand why some people just couldn’t go for it. It wasn’t an engine for rich girls, but more for people who wanted a domestic with some power.

    As for the problems with it, I’m sure GM would agree that some things are better left unsaid.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Is that Hall and Oats?

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      The terrors of the jukeboxes circa 1982.
      Casey Kasem’s American Top-40 countdown kings of the early 1980s.
      And one of them is a founding member of the Art Garfunkel sidekick Hall of Fame.
      I would recognize that moustache anywhere…yup, that’s one Hall and Oates.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    I drove many Quad-4s when I worked at a dealership, it was very impressive. The 190HP versions wold burn the front tires of a Grand-Am to the ground, it was responsive and had good low-end torque, would have been brilliant in the Fiero. But I also sold a lot of timing chain and guide sets for them. Another great idea that GM managed to screw up. I hear though the Ecotech is pretty tough, I know a guy who has turbo-ed one to 400HP and he can’t break it, try as he might.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    With the Quad 4 and decent suspension, it would’ve sucked less than the Corvette at the time. A lot less!

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