x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

The Fiero's risen from the ashes

For a car that looks so much like a product of its times - complete with that signature 1980s wedge-shape and those delicious pop-up headlights - the Pontiac Fiero's roots can be traced back to the mid-Sixties.

The stylish and efficient Pontiac Fiero proved to be named a little too accurately after it developed a reputation for catching fire.
The stylish and efficient Pontiac Fiero proved to be named a little too accurately after it developed a reputation for catching fire.

For a car that looks so much like a product of its times - complete with that signature 1980s wedge-shape and those delicious pop-up headlights - the Pontiac Fiero's roots can be traced back to the mid-Sixties and the incredible mind of John Z DeLorean, a man who needs little introduction to readers of these pages. DeLorean, who was divisional head of Pontiac at that time, wanted GM to build a plastic-bodied, cheap rival to the all-conquering Ford Mustang and commissioned the so-called Banshee design project to woo the rest of the senior management group.

The resulting treatment was quickly deemed to be too close in looks to the Chevrolet Corvette (its more expensive cousin) and the idea was ditched before the oil crisis of the late Seventies reawakened the General's interest in an affordable sporty little car with a slippery shape. By this time, however, DeLorean had long since fled GM, abandoning the General to chase his dreams of building a stainless-steel gull-winged fantasy, and the Pontiac brand, with its bloated, anachronistic product line, was firmly locked in a bygone era.

It was against this backdrop that the Banshee file was dusted out of the archives and reborn as the Fiero, a compact two-seater coupe that could also deliver great fuel economy, while giving the brand a refreshing new look. You might be thinking this equation sounds too good to be true - you'd be right. Sadly, the Fiero may have had an exquisitely styled, zeitgeist-capturing exterior, but with Pontiac struggling to find enough cash to properly fund the project, the marque made several swoops into the corporate parts bin to get the car off the drawing board and into showrooms.

The first examples of the breed incorporated bits and bobs stolen from the Chevrolet Chevette, as well as a fuel-efficient 2.5L engine lifted straight out of the fantastically named but unrelentingly dull hatchback otherwise known as the Chevrolet Citation. It was fair to say performance (or lack of it) was an issue. Pontiac may as well have been equipping a Ferrari with the engine from a Fiat 500.

Nevertheless, the Fiero received surprisingly warm reviews from the North American motoring press and even bagged a couple of car of the year awards in its launch year of 1984. Better still, the great American public bought the car in droves, forcing GM to put on extra shifts at the Fiero factory in Pontiac, Michigan to keep up with customer demand. However, just as the Fiero was burning a place in the hearts of America, the car developed an unhappy reputation for combusting just a little too well.

In truth, only a tiny proportion of the total production run ever went up in smoke - a problem that was said to be caused by drivers thrashing the car while running low on engine oil - but just like the current safety crisis that is causing Toyota such corporate strife, the perceived threat to all Fiero owners was enough to stall the sports car's sales figures in 1985. And those that didn't smoulder did something far worse - break down. Unreliable, unsafe and underpowered, public confidence in the Fiero vanished.

The Fiero remained in production for another three years and by the end of the run Pontiac had sorted the reliability issues, improved performance with a little help from Lotus and had managed to put out all the fires. Today, these late-model examples are very collectable. Having been too hot to handle in the Eighties, the Fiero has now, more than two decades on, been transformed into a reliable runaround and a most practical of classics. motoring@thenational.ae