pontiac fiero build, pt. 1 – the car

July 4th, 2016 | written by:
in: culture, featured, hobby, projects

I’ve been interested in Pontiac Fieros for quite a while. The first (and arguably only) American-made Mid-engine sports car, the Fiero is a unique, and often overlooked, part of car history. Designed in the 80s as a sport coupe, during it’s production it became more of a parts-bin economy car than the sporty two-seater that it had been intended to be, sharing parts with econo-commuter cars like the Chevette and Citation.

Over 30 years later, they’ve become a sort of cult classic, garnering attention from drivers and collectors all over the world and being the center of a plethora of Internet forums and aftermarket and performance parts suppliers and manufacturers.

My foray into the Fiero began with an ill-timed and budgeted attempt at building a competent rear-wheel drive RallyCross car in the summer between graduating undergrad and staring a Master’s program. Needless to say, that car is still parked at my parent’s house, much to their chagrin.

Fast forward six years, a degree, and a real adult job later and I finally made it to a place in my life where I had the spare time (and disposable income) to handle a project like restoring and racing a car.

It all started with happening to rent a house that came with an extremely large garage. It’s the first time I’ve had a workspace of my own since, well, forever. That, coupled with a small amount of disposable income, gave me the idea that I should try again to build myself a car to race. Once I’d made this realization (and decided that I could afford it) I immediately turned back to my Fiero.

It had been sitting at my parents’ house for about six years. It also only had front brakes when I bought it, the previous owner had dealt with a brake fluid leak by crimping the rear brake lines, rendering them useless. It also had a less-than-desirable “Iron Duke” engine, which, while reliable, was not very powerful – racing this would have been more of a chore than fun. This particular parts-bin car had itself become a parts bin. Not terrible for a few hundred dollar investment.

Now, I was on the hunt for another. This time, though, I would find exactly the right Fiero. It HAD to be a notchback. While the fastback-bodied cars look like European sports cars, they just looked like vague European sports cars. I love the iconic notchback design of the Fiero. It also had to come with the V6. This would be the only engine worth having in the car if I were going to race it with any sort of success. Plus, even the moderate power of the V6 would be enough to make the Fiero feel like a rocket if paired with the correct minor modifications.

My hunt took me to Craig’s List. This is the best place to find cheap, used, 30 year old cars. It’s actually the ONLY place to find them in a state other than “show car” quality. Anyway, I was looking for a project that fit my budget of “as little as possible”. And part of the project was to actually work on the car rather than buy a completed one.

I’d found several cars worth taking a look at. The first was a 1984. The first model year of the Fiero. It was a 4 cylinder car (not what I truly wanted, but I as also convinced that I could make something of the “Iron Duke” if I tried hard enough). This was the perfect car on paper (or in email). It had the WS6 suspension package – a stiff, high performance handling package for better cornering – came with a “quick ratio” steering rack, and a 4.10 to 1 final gear ratio 4-speed manual transmission. For a 4 cylinder car, it was really quick. I could make due with this.

When I went to take a look at it though, it was in pretty rough shape for $2500. Rust had taken over the entirety of the trunk, the upper frame rails, and probably the engine cradle. Not only that, it was a mess inside – the seller was the second owner of the car – he’d bought it in high school – which meant that he’d installed underglow lights, interior lights, and stereo in the car (and then removed them) at various points in its history. He’d also left it parked in his parents’ yard (this is a familiar story) for almost 15 years. It was worth the drive to find out that it wasn’t worth buying.

The next car was a 1987 notchback. Also with a 4 cylinder. This one, however, came with the update front and rear fascias (which I think look great, but that’s another argument for another day). The interior was kind of trashed, but otherwise appeared to be in decent shape. This one was also only $1100 – a steal compared to the first one.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to actually look at the car. The morning I was supposed to drive out to see it, the owner had sold it. I was pretty bummed out. But, I figured, if it had been sold to someone else, then it couldn’t have been worth my time – I felt like as disappointed as I was, the universe was probably looking out for me. I was back to my search.

The third car I found was a diamond in the rough. I came across a listing for a 1985 Fiero GT – this was a notchback, but with the “Aero” style fascias (they were marginally more aerodynamic, but also looked a lot better than the standard 1985 fascias did). The photo in the ad was terrible, the only details I could make out were that it was red and it had the better fascia… Not much to go on. But it was listed for $800. It was worth taking a look at.

I managed to get in touch with the seller and made a point to stop and look at the car before work one morning. It was parked at an auto repair shop, which was sort of odd to me. The seller wasn’t available, but the keys were in the office, so I convinced one of the employees to let me go look at the car anyway.

There was rust in the trunk (one large hole and one small one, actually), but there wasn’t the scary amount of rust that normally extended through the frame rails. The underneath of the car was relatively clean as well – only a normal amount of surface rust that you would expect on a 31 year old car. The front end was in great shape as well. I was starting to get pretty confused.

On my way out, I retuned the keys to the office and left my name and number with them for the seller (who also happened to be the owner of the shop). I asked to have him call me when he got in, since I wanted to look more closely at the car since it was in such good shape. Then I was off to work.

Just a little over an hour later I got a call. It was the seller. He couldn’t tell me much – as it happened, his brother had bought the car the year before but had died earlier in the year. He was just trying to get rid of it. With the condition of the car (as it seemed) I didn’t bother to barter him down, it was a steal.

I picked the car up the following day and drove it home. Mostly.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t perform a real test drive before I purchased the car. I only really was able to drive it around the shop’s parking lot out back. This was just enough to know that the car ran and drove, generally. That, and it was brought to my attention that the transmission was not the original – the 1985 GT came with a 4-speed manual, however, this car had a 5-speed installed. Not to mention the strange, blue marker part or stock number written on the intake manifold. Some work had been performed, it was just a matter of figuring out what.

On the way home from picking up the car, it stalled twice. Both times, the car was on an incline. Both times the car spit out a large amount of smoke after getting started again. According to my fiancé, who was with me picking up the car and drove home behind me, the car was spitting out a darker smoke – making me think that it was burning oil and possibly had a compression issue that was causing the stalling (although given that it was dying on an incline, this could have been a fuel delivery issue as well – the smoke was also a problem, but may not have been the cause of the stalling). We managed to get the car into a parking lot, with the help of a friendly driver who offered to help us, and called a tow truck to take me the rest of the way home. I just didn’t feel like ruining the engine completely if it were running out of oil.

Once home, I was able to pull the car into the driveway and get it parked. Luckily, I’d planned on removing the engine and going through it regardless of its condition, so I wasn’t worried about the smoke. My only disappointment was that I wouldn’t be able to take it for a real drive before I starting tearing it down.

Now, though, I have a plan to execute.

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