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Kill Your Darlings: The Birth and Death of the Pontiac Fiero

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Kill Your Darlings: The Birth and Death of the Pontiac Fiero

Written by Aaron Severson

Saturday, 28 November 2009 00:00

Launched in 1983, the Pontiac Fiero promised to be a good-looking, affordable mid-engine sports car, introducing exciting new techniques in production and design. Alas, it proved to be one of GM's great disasters: overweight and underpowered, tarnished by alarming reports of reliability problems and engine fires. By 1988, more power, better looks, and a $30 million new suspension brought the Fiero closer to its original promise -- just in time for the corporation to bring down the ax.

This week, we look at the history of the Pontiac Fiero, and the reasons for its fate.


There was a discussion on The Truth About Cars recently about why General Motors always seems to kill its most interesting models just after it finally gets them right. The pattern is familiar: the company rolls out a new, exciting product to great fanfare, only to have it turn out to be seriously flawed. After the company finally fixes most or all of the flaws, it decides to cancel the product anyway, leaving aggrieved fans and puzzled observers scratching their heads. There are many examples of this sad tendency, notably including the Chevrolet Corvair and Cadillac Allanté, but the poster child is the Pontiac Fiero.

The Fiero had an extraordinarily long gestation period. The idea of a cheap, plastic-bodied Pontiac sports car goes back at least 20 years before the Fiero's introduction, to a 1964 prototype called XP-833, later known as the Pontiac Banshee. The Banshee was the brainchild of E.M. (Pete) Estes, then Pontiac's general manager, and John Z. DeLorean, then the division's chief engineer. Both Estes and DeLorean had joined Pontiac back in 1956, under the auspices of general manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen. They had spent the ensuing eight years reinventing Pontiac as GM's excitement division, with considerable success. By 1964, however, they were faced with a dilemma. Although Pontiac had some fast, good-looking products, particularly the GTO, even its sportiest models were big, five- and six-passenger cars. Pontiac had nothing resembling Chevrolet's Corvette Sting Ray or, more significantly, the new Ford Mustang. The Mustang was then beginning a concerted assault on the youth market that Pontiac had so assiduously cultivated. It represented a serious threat.

In response, DeLorean ordered Bill Collins, then assistant chief engineer for chassis engineering, to develop a compact sports car as a potential Mustang rival. To keep costs down, it was to use a fiberglass body and share about 80% of its components with other Pontiac models. The resultant XP-833/Banshee looked something like a scaled-down Corvette or the later Opel GT, an aggressive little two-seater powered by Pontiac's new overhead-cam six. It was intended to have a reasonable starting price of around $2,500, which would put it within $100 of a V8 Mustang. (Click here to see photos of the Banshee.)

Although DeLorean and Estes made a strong case for producing the Banshee, GM senior management, who had to approve all new models, said no. The corporation's leadership had little enthusiasm for sporty cars, and even less for two-seaters, which they thought too limited in appeal to justify the investment. Even the Corvette, then was selling better than ever, was a distinctly marginal item as far as the corporation was concerned. GM leadership had no interest in building another plastic-bodied sports car, which they assumed -- probably not unreasonably -- would only cannibalize sales of the more expensive Sting Ray.

The Banshee project ultimately came to nothing. Estes was promoted to run Chevrolet, and DeLorean, who succeeded Estes as head of Pontiac, had to content himself with the midsize GTO and the F-body Firebird, based on Chevy's new Camaro.

By early 1969, DeLorean had followed Estes and Knudsen to Chevrolet, and the image they built for Pontiac began to wither. As we discussed in our recent article on the GTO, Knudsen, Estes, and DeLorean's willingness to play fast and loose with GM's conservative corporate policy was the root of Pontiac's success in the sixties. By contrast, their successors, Jim McDonald and Martin Caserio, were corporate team players, more concerned with cost controls, internal politics, and new federal regulations. Alex Mair, who replaced Caserio in October 1975, approved a few image builders, like the short-lived Can Am, but most were not successful. Pontiac quickly slipped back toward its pre-Knudsen obscurity.



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