Remember that insane Lancia/Jeep-looking off-road Pontiac Fiero conversion we found called the "Jalapeno?" Of course you do, which is why I dragged my ass all the way to Phoenix, Arizona to meet the man who makes them.
Well I was mostly there to check out the 2015 GM 2500 pickups. But after learning of the Jalapeno's existence, it would have been sheer idiocy to leave Phoenix without seeing it for myself. Lucky for me, the proprietor of Phoenix International Sport Automobiles (PISA) Marty Jakolat answerw e-mails and was "happy to show me around."
Jakolat is a slender blonde fella with a heavy tan and easy hyperwhite smile. His shop is wedged into some industrial space near Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, which I found after some wrestling with the OnStar eNav in the 2014 Chevy Silverado.
There are no signs or markings outside his single-story garage and lot, no clues that this might be the headquarters of one of the coolest Fiero up-fitters in all the land... Unless you count the sun scorched field of wedge-shaped coupes in various states of conversion and disrepair, which are packed into the property like bros at a wet t-shirt contest on spring break.
"So, how many Fieros do you have?" was out of my mouth before I'd finished shaking his hand.
"About fifty. Ten or twelve are parts cars." Based on my quick surveillance of the parking lot, I think he was being nice to lot of those forty "non-parts" cars; most didn't look like they'd run in since the first President Bush was in office.
The most interesting Fieros were close to the front. I spotted a C4 Corvette look-alike, some Testarossa-style fender vents under a cover, and a Fiero with an unpainted Ferrari 355 face. Out back was a partially-completed Countach kit that looked particularly rough, if intriguing.
The Jalapeno, Jakolat's daily driver, was in the process of being reconstructed after a fender-bender with a truck ruined its fiberglass front end. As you can see, it didn't fare well.
"The guy's trailer hitch went right through it." Indeed.
I was pretty heartbroken that my chance for a test drive had been negated, but Marty was optimistic that the Jalapeno would be reborn better than ever. "We're making some more modifications to it now; adding some better cooling ducts. We're also going to camo-wrap it."
The only vehicle under a roof was a bright-red Lamborghini Diablo replica. I'm sorry, I mean a Fiero wearing a Lamborghini Diablo inspired body kit. PISA calls that one the Artero.
Jakolat was adamant that his products are not "replicas." When I raised an eyebrow at the bull emblems and "Lamborghini" script all over that Artero, he laughed and shrugged. "Of course, the owners can dress them up however they want."
"We encourage our customers to modify the kits," he added. "They ship to buyers with a good amount of finishing work still required."
Indeed, this particular customer had gone through the trouble of shoehorning a 4.9 Cadillac V8 into his Artero. Jakolat suggested that there were more efficient ways to add power to the Fiero; "We've got three or four with supercharged 3800 engines... somewhere back there."
We walked through his shop, tip-toeing over stacks of parts, more stacks of parts, and assorted tools among stacks of parts. PISA makes their own dashboard covers and gauge clusters as well, which were hidden in corners and on work tables. On the other side of the cavernous room, the molds that the bodies come from were stored up in rafters.
The body kits do require a bit of sanding when they come to your door but make no mistake, these are not the half-baked shit-heap "Black Widow Style" bumpers you remember from the back pages of Super Street. Marty Jakolat's primary mechanic and sculptor is a man by the name of Breck Van Kleeck, who has created set pieces for Hollywood movies (like the helmets in Connery classic "The Rock") and has spent time on the tools for LeMans teams.
"The Fiero was originally a commuter car test bed," Marty told me as we made our way to toward the crown jewel of the collection— the Jalapeno. "SMT, urethane, nylon... GM packed all kinds of products into these things."
I confessed that I knew fairly little about the puny little Pontiac as I palmed its body panels, so Mr. Jakolat elaborated; "It was basically a Citation in the rear, and a Chevette in the front. GM was just throwing all kinds of stuff into it to figure out how different parts would perform in the real world."
So hell, why not slap a Jeep face on it and jack it up a few inches?
Apparently the car came into its own a bit in 1988 when it received much-needed updates, specifically in the suspension. You Fiero guys probably already know the post-'88 cars are the ones to look for, and PISA favors them for their conversions.
Of course, any "improvements" GM may have rendered on their little coupe are completely negated by the Jalapeno.
The lift is nothing more than the name suggests; 4" of blocks simply push the Fiero's existing suspension skywards. Jakolat immediately answered the question I was wearing on my face with "Oh, it's awful off-road. Just beats the hell out of you. We took it into the dirt a couple times... no more of that."
But hey "women really like it," he seemed happy to ad.
Well, ladies? What do you think?
The 2.8 liter engine has been bored and stroked to 3.2 liters, creating what Jakolat reckons is "about 200 horsepower." Besides the intricate body kit and roll bar, which I was assured "serves no safety function whatsoever," the only modifications to the Fiero was a bit of cutting up front so the radiator could be moved back a bit.
The grille is obviously Wrangler-inspired, and the headlight slots are sized for Baja Bug eyes.
Marty told me he'd sold 20 or so Jalapeno body kits since he'd been running PISA. "Once in a while people will call me and say they want to make a bulk order, but they always fade away. It just isn't profitable to sell these as turn-key cars."
DAMNIT, so much for asking to buy it on my way out. "The way it is, it would have to cost about $45,000." Yeah, no. Sorry Marty.
While Mr. Jakolat happily runs the Jalapeno as his DD, he confessed he couldn't take credit for the idea. A company called Arizona Prototype in outlying Apache Junction drew it up, and sold it to the fella named Dan Campbell, the original owner of PISA.
Jakolat ended up acquiring the company from him back in 2001, when he was really only in the market for a Jalapeno kit himself. As Marty was placing his order, Campbell simply said "he ought to buy the company" and apparently made Marty an offer he couldn't refuse.
Since then PISA has been something of a side-hustle for Mr. J, his main gig being building the mechanical components for microscopes that see duty at big-time shops like Intel. Seems the Fiero up-fitting game isn't what it used to be.
"This company has been going since the 90's, right after GM stopped selling the Fiero themselves. PISA was shipping kits as far as Japan. We used to sell a lot more, but the market for expensive toys isn't what it used to be. Plus I got kicked out off my old space by eminent domain a few years ago, then ripped off by a web designer. Long story, but that's basically why the shop and website looks the way they do."
But Jakolat isn't throwing in the towel on wacky GM conversions. In fact, he has a new line of products planned— with the third gen J-Body Cavalier as a base. "They made about three million of them, and you get 'em real cheap."
Can't wait to see what he does with it.