This week on Carspotting we went looking for the famous 1950s Studebaker that still parks on the street on the Upper West Side. We didn’t find it. But we did come up on this pre-facelift Pontiac Fiero, one of the more interesting cars that never gets its proper due.
(Welcome back to Carspotting! It’s been a while but we’re back with The Worst Walking Tour of New York City, headed by me, a hack who is barely qualified to tell you how to get to the Empire State Building from here. We’re out to find the best cars of the Big Apple.)
The Fiero is a child of one of the more interesting eras of the American auto industry. Approved in 1978 and developed in the wake of the 1979 Oil Crisis, the second of a decade after the 1973 OPEC Embargo, it seemed like we would all just have to adjust to a more scarce future. Cars of the late 1970s on to the mid ‘80s have this sense of built-in thrift. The Fox Mustang. The downsized Chevy Caprice. The Chevy S-10. Lincolns with BMW diesel engines.
“Anyone who thinks the energy crisis is temporary or can be easily solved,” the New York Times wrote in early 1981, wasn’t facing the facts.
From this mindset we also got a new class of car, in addition to more small and miserly cars from many manufacturers. We got the Sporty Commuter Car. Included in that was the MR2, the CRX, and also the Fiero, which looks like a sports car but was also sold as basic transit. It fit as few people as reasonably possible, with as small an engine as reasonably possible, in a package as light and aerodynamic as possible. It was fun but doubled as a city car in a pinch.
The initial concept even went after 50 mpg, as Aaron Severson explained in his great and comprehensive history of the car republished to Jalopnik from Ate Up With Motor:
In 1978, Pontiac’s Advanced Engineering group, headed by Turkish-born Hulki Aldikacti, again proposed an inexpensive plastic-bodied sports car, analogous to the long-defunct Banshee concept. The proposal added a new wrinkle: a mid-engine drivetrain, something that was becoming virtually de rigueur for serious sports cars.
New general manager Robert Stempel and chief engineer Robert Dorn, an ex-racer, both liked the idea, but they were not confident about its prospects. The corporation had previously rejected proposals for a mid-engine Corvette, and with ever-increasing federal emissions and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, new sports cars were not on the menu. Bob Dorn pointed out, however, that if the two-seater could be built cheaply, with a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, it could help Pontiac meet its CAFE targets.
Late that year, Stempel and Dorn presented the idea to senior management, presenting it not as a sports car, but as a cheap, two-seat commuter vehicle capable of up to 50 miles to the gallon (4.7 L/100 km). The stratagem worked, and the project, known as the P-car, received preliminary approval — ironically, from Pete Estes, who had become president of General Motors in September 1974. Bob Dorn assigned Hulki Aldikacti as the P-car’s project manager and chief engineer, and told him to proceed.
Over the years it would evolve into a real sports car (just in time for GM to kill it off), but it stands as a herald of an interesting time, even if it mostly got cut up to become fake Ferrari 308s.
And this one is double-interesting, as it’s not just a historical object, but a real New York City car, as I am happy to tell you, just like my two New York City carspotting icons, Joe Formaggino and his cousin Joe Formaggino:
Please do enjoy this week’s episode, and stay tuned for more real New York City cars.