The Fantastic Plastic Pontiac

I wrote this for a class called Writing About Place in 2010. Later that year it was published in the Savannah College of Art and Design publication Artemis, which is a collection of student writings.

General Motors, particularly their Pontiac division, tried to kill me twice. Their weapon of choice was a 1987 Pontiac Fiero.

I was driving home from school, going down a main road into town. It was right at the city limits and I basked in the feeling of warm air coming through the open window. I took my time shifting, enjoying the smooth clutch movement and how each gear change was light and precise. By chance I glanced at my rear view mirror.

There was a chrome-covered wall coming at me.

Two things shot through my mind. One, it was a Dodge Ram, because I could see the fist-sized badge on the front of it. Two, it was going to splatter me all over the pavement.

My car was a small, silver, fiberglass wedge that sat maybe five inches off the ground. I had to look up at Chevrolet Cavaliers and Ford Focuses. With this Dodge, I was staring at his bumper. That silver I-beam was getting closer, and rapidly filling the mirror. I nailed the gas.

Behind me the four-cylinder engine whined as I shifted up into forth and felt my right foot hit the floor. The car groaned as it summoned its reserves and desperately tried to get all of its 92 hp down onto the pavement.

The chrome was getting closer. I started having visions of the Dodge’s grill splitting open and just eating me in one large bite. I could see the truck’s V8 mincing me into small pieces and blowing what was left out the exhaust pipes. Bits of fiberglass and flesh, the only proof of my existence, would bounce down the road and annoy other drivers.

I started moving faster, the speedometer needle finally dialing up to the right. The Dodge started falling back an inch at a time. I don’t know whether fear for its life, or my driving, spurred the Fiero on. All I’m sure of is that I pulled away from the Dodge and possible mutilation.

After taking a deep breath, I cursed GM’s engineers for not knowing what kind of car they wanted to build. Then I damned them for taking the easy way out.

Over thirty years ago someone at GM had an idea for a cheap two-seat sports car for the masses. My guess is that it was John Z. Delorean. He’s the man who practically invented the Pontiac GTO, and then made the stainless steel Delorean from Back to the Future and then tried to peddle cocaine to keep his company alive. The man always wanted to take a potshot at the Corvette, GM’s golden child. The idea stayed behind even after he left Pontiac and General Motors.

So, in the late ‘70s, some engineers and product planners dusted the idea off and presented it. GM’s board (aka the Masters of the Universe) asked what the car’s purpose would be. These engineers and product planners outlined a sporty commuter car for people in the city. They said it should look good, be easy on gas, and enjoyable to drive.

The Masters of the Universe asked if the as yet unnamed project would be a threat to the Corvette.

The underlings said no.

The board probably nodded its collective head and decided to distribute largess to these interesting little men and their odd idea. There was promise here, they likely thought. It might be a chance to demonstrate that General Motors can innovate, not just turn out boring cars that followed the herd. GM could do something new, and not just rest on the laurels of its market share. Which, they’d be quick to remind you, was over 40 percent at the time.

The engineers and the stylists, once they hurried back to their cubicles, got a few things right. The car looked good enough. It was a wedge, the best way to make a car look stylish in the ‘80s, because people back then forgot what a curve was. They concealed the headlights so everything looked nice and smooth. The trunk was perfectly flat, emphasizing the rakish front and the small passenger compartment.

The styling worked; I can attest to that myself.

The first time I saw one; I was sitting in the back of a school bus. I glanced out the window and saw this wide, low, and flat trunk, with low roof and wide back window. The taillights stretched across the entire back, and there wasn’t a badge on it. There was just a white name printed over the dark red paint: “Fiero.” I was smitten.

So a few months later I jumped at the chance to buy the ’87 Fiero that would later try to end my life. I was thrilled that I had a two-door sports car that had a moonroof and a five-speed manual. I didn’t care that it had the little four-cylinder and not the V6. I would get better gas mileage, and look good doing it. But the best thing of all was that nothing else in town looked like it. I was unique.

Then I learned something.

It wasn’t a sports car.

The four-cylinder was, like I’ve already mentioned, anemic at best. After all, I could tell a difference in acceleration if I turned on the air conditioning. It had the “Iron Duke” four-cylinder, which was about as complicated as a sack of rocks. It came from the Chevrolet Citation, which is one of the worst cars ever made. The engineers literally pulled the entire engine and transmission package out of a Citation and dropped it into the back of the Fiero. It was pretty much the most basic, simple, and cheap way to make a mid-engined car.

But GM managed to find a way to mess it up. When Pontiac first started selling the Fiero, when consumers were hot for the new car, everyone discovered something very nasty.

Fieros were bursting into flame.

GM later discovered that some of the engine’s internals weren’t cast properly, and thus were quite weak. Then there was the fact that the car originally had a three-quart oil pan, and not the usual four-quart. Without enough oil the engines would heat up, parts would fail, and you had barbequed fiberglass. What made it worse was that the factory manager knew the parts were defective and shipped them anyway. It severely damaged the car’s reputation and helped cement the idea that GM couldn’t build a reliable car even when they tried.

My Fiero’s engine didn’t have that problem. No, it suffered from GM’s ‘80s era quality in other ways; like my alternator kicking the bucket and trying to take me with it. The alternator is what creates electricity when the car is in motion. It’s pretty much like the human heart, if it goes out everything stops.

There are few greater fears than when a car just dies. The engine cuts out, the tachometer drops to zero, and the car lurches backwards as it loses all momentum. Fear physically settled in my stomach.  I checked my mirror. A massive Ford F350 was coming at me. This time a Ford badge was going to imprint itself on the back of my head. This time my car wouldn’t get chopped to bits; it’d be crushed under a three-quarter ton truck.

I turned everything off, even the headlights, turned the key, and desperately pumped the gas pedal. Luckily something caught and the car came back to life. For once that rattling four-cylinder was the best sound in the world. I took the next corner without bothering to break, fearing the engine might die. I pitched the Fiero left and heard the tires scrabble against the wet pavement as they fought for traction.

I shot down that road, careening off manhole covers and rough pavement, before I rolled through another stop sign. After that, I hung a left on the next road and nailed the gas, rocketing down the street at over 30 mph.

My driveway was 40 degrees of dirt and gravel. I barely tapped the breaks.

The car went down and back up like a jackhammer as it bounced through the ditch. The shocks worked hard again, keeping the wheels from slamming into the car, as I landed on the driveway itself. I was sure I’d busted the bumper as I rolled toward my parking spot.

I pulled up next to our truck and turned the car off. It instantly shut down, as though it had nothing left to give. There wasn’t even the quick winding down that some engines have, just whirring and then silence.

I climbed out and looked at the bumper. It was completely intact. The old girl had held herself together. I was impressed.

But I had to drive our Toyota to school.

To get the alternator fixed, I had to use a jump battery and get enough juice into the battery to both start and run the car. The tip to the repair shop was basically the trip home, but in reverse, and minus the rattle inducing, bumper busting ditch. Luckily, there weren’t any cops around. Braking didn’t happen, turning signals were a luxury, and speed limits were merely suggestions.

But the Fiero had that sort of “drive fast, brake less” feeling to it anyway. Part of it was the exterior styling; the other part was the interior. It’s the one place where I have to give GM credit. There wasn’t a dashboard; at least not the kind normally found in a car. The instrument pod attached to a large piece of black plastic that ran the width of the passenger compartment. At each end was a single vent for the air conditioning and heating. In the middle, right above the center console that ran between the seats, was another box. It held the buttons and two more vents for climate control system. At the bottom was a radio. Luckily, some kind person had already installed a CD player before I got to it.

I thought it was a nice place to be. The gray carpet had held up well and went with the black plastic, which wasn’t of the hard, chintzy sort either. It was the soft thick vinyl that was actually pleasant to touch. With the engine was in the back, there was a surprising amount of legroom for the passenger. People could actually stretch their legs out over there.

What really tied the car together, for me, was that center console. When I fell––sat––in the Fiero and shut the door it seemed to wrap around me. The steering wheel was just over my lap, the console just under my chest, and the gearshift at the perfect height and reach away. Since the car didn’t have power steering turning the wheel meant, that it required more effort, but it felt light. It all felt sporty, as though every distraction was gone, giving me a direct connection with the car.

Turning a corner and getting up to twenty-five took much more effort than in a regular automatic, power steered car. There was a sense of occasion in just pulling away from a stoplight, shifting smoothly with one hand on the wheel. I was so low to the ground, so connected to the car, that it skewed my sense of speed––in a good way. Twenty-five in the Fiero felt like fifty in another car.

Others didn’t feel the same way. The automotive media was disappointed in Pontiac. Here was a car, they said, that was mid-engined, looked like a sports car, but was gutless and didn’t handle worth a damn. They took GM to task for building another lackluster car, and rightfully so. GM made it look sporty, but they didn’t follow through. Power isn’t necessary for fun, but the car must handle properly.

For the 1988 model year, General Motors tried to change that. They had the suspension and steering set up redesigned by Lotus, a British sports car manufacturer. That was a great idea, as GM owned Lotus at the time and because Lotus can take a Mack truck and make it handle like a Ferrari. When the ’88 Fiero came out it was widely regarded as the car it should’ve been in the first place. It’s considered the best Fiero that they made.

GM killed it a year later. They murdered the car in its sleep just as it reached its potential. That act illustrates, perfectly, why GM went from the largest company in the world, to a shattered husk that needed a bailout.

In 20 years General Motors went from having over 40 percent of the market, to less than 20 percent. It’s because they lost focus, they forgot that each car brand needs their own image. It’s the key to success.

For years Pontiac called itself the “Excitement Division,” but what was there to excite people? They sold warmed over Chevrolets that handled about as well as an oil tanker.

Then the Fiero came along. It wasn’t perfect, far from it really, but it was a start. It was a Pontiac that had few things in common with any other GM product. Given enough time and effort it could have turned Pontiac’s image around.

Instead, they killed the Fiero. GM said it wasn’t profitable enough, even though it was doing better than breaking even. Money that could have gone toward a new Fiero instead went into the new Saturn brand, and I’m sure that some of the money went toward the SUV craze that was developing. They made tons of money off those SUVs, not so much off of Saturn, but they ignored other brands and products. By focusing only on the most profitable segments, rather than the entire product line, General Motors slowly poisoned itself.

That’s why, years later, the company had to shut down Oldsmobile, then Pontiac, then Saturn, then Hummer, and sell off Saab. The core of the company barely survived.

I’m not saying that my fiberglass shoebox would have singlehandedly saved the company, but it could have been a start. GM could have learned how to make brand specific products. GM could have learned how to improve brand identities. But most of all, General Motors could have learned how to stick with a product, to improve it with each new iteration. That skill, which they have finally learned, could have saved the company the past four years of hardship, and taxpayers billions of dollars.

But the Fiero is dead, if not buried. It’s a cult car now, meaning that it lives on through collectors and communities dedicated to the little plastic wonder. Honestly, I miss mine. I miss its manual transmission, its fuel mileage, and its styling. I had to sell it just over two years ago when I was moving. It couldn’t come with me.

I want another one, even if does try to kill me. It’ll make life more exciting.

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