Fiero Firing Squad

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FIERO FIRING SQUAD

"Engine fires, recalls and sagging sales conspire to consign Pontiac's innovative sports car to the scrap heap."

Last week, we presented the first installment of an excerpt from "Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry", that detailed how Pontiac's innovative Fiero came into being. The book, a saga of the late-1980s decline of the domestic industry and its sub-sequent recovery, was written by the Wall Street Journal's Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White, who earned the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of General Motors. Fiero, which was conceived as a two-seat "commuter car" and evolved into a sports car against great odds, incorporated space frame construction and labor/management teamwork adopted by Saturn. But when sales slipped, GM abandoned the car: This week's conclusion chronicles the chain of events leading up to Fiero's demise.

One of Pontiac's engineers knew almost from the start of production that the Fiero had a disquieting tendency to become, quite literally, a hot rod. On Oct. 6, 1983, less than three months after production began at the Pontiac plant, a Pontiac engineer wrote an ''urgent" memo to report that two Fieros had suddenly caught fire during test drives. The engineer blamed the fires on antifreeze leaking out of badly installed hoses onto hot exhaust pipes. The man in charge of the Fiero project, Hulki Aldikacti, saw a Fiero catch fire at GM's test track.

But Fieros flamed out more than one way. Pontiac engineers fought an 18-month battle to get GM's Saginaw foundry division to stop shipping batches of defective connecting rods for Fiero engines. The foundry managers, who got paid on the basis of tons of iron shipped out the door, had little financial incentive to spend money to fix Pontiac's warranty problems. After one meeting, a Saginaw foundry manager wrote that ''. . .60 percent to 90 percent of the rods produced do not exhibit" defects. Of course, this meant that between one and four of every 10 rods were defective. Pontiac was still complaining in that ''no permanent solution has been found'' to the problem of hairline cracks in connecting rods for the Iron Duke. Sure enough, Fieros began suffering breakdowns caused by broken rods.

A connecting rod that breaks at high speed is like a shrapnel grenade detonating inside the motor. In Fieros, chunks of broken metal flew with such force that they ripped through the engine block. Oil would spill onto the hot exhaust pipes, and often ignite. The Iron Duke engines used in early Fieros also suffered from a defect in the way their blocks were cast that, in some cases, caused the engines to leak oil or lose coolant. Since the Iron Dukes in Fieros ran a quart low to begin with because of the customized oil pan, losing more oil quickly created big trouble. GM engineers and Fiero plant workers knew of these problems and many more.

They discovered that some of the engine cooling fans on early Fieros were wired backward. That meant the fans sucked hot air back into the engine. Engineers rewired the fans. Pontiac engineers fired off bulletins to dealers warning about other problems poorly installed radiator hoses, leaky gaskets and bad wiring.

"If you wouldn't want your family riding in it, recall it.'' company president Jim McDonald would say when asked about GM's policy toward recalling cars. In practice, however, GM operatives were reluctant to push for an expensive recall of a popular new model. When a Fiero burned, GM often handled the loss as a warranty claim, and paid for repairs as each case came in. Sometimes, GM and its insurance company quietly worked out deals to pay off victims of Fiero fires. GM continued this approach even as complaints about the Fiero's defects began pouring in to Pontiac and to regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. By the end of 1985, GM had reports of 112 Fieros that had caught fire one for every 1700 sold at the time....
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