When performance cars are mentioned in a conversation, we always hear about those fast cars that made it into production. These cars reached stardom even if it was a very brief moment and even if their total production volume was ultra low. But what about those cars that had the potential? You know, the ones with the correct performance formula but weren’t given a chance to reach it to stardom. This didn’t mean these cars were flops – actually quite the contrary some were respectable performance cars however they walked away from or better stated were pulled from the performance car scene before they could mature into a performance legend. Here’s a list of three such American performance cars, all of which were good performance cars but due to circumstances beyond their control never reached their full potential.
Pontiac Can Am
Even with Trans Am sales skyrocketing during the 1970s, Pontiac still longed to have the GTO back in the lineup. After-all it was the car that put Pontiac on a hit streak when it came to performance cars. When the 1974 model year started the once great GTO was reduced to using the GM X-body platform which was also used by the budget oriented Chevrolet Nova. In other words the GTO’s once great looks were gone. Unfortunately so were its muscles, a 200 horsepower Pontiac 4-bbl 350 CID V8 was the only game in town. The Trans Am as comparison had as its best motor for 1974, the legendary 290 horsepower SD-455 (455 CID) V8. It was a sad end to a legend. But Pontiac planned a grand comeback, however it didn’t use the name GTO but instead Can Am after the famous racing circuit. Pontiac did however use the "Remember the Goat" (Goat was what many youth back in the 1960s called the GTO) ad slogan on Can Am advertisement literature.
The 1977 Can Am was just the ticket, it had standard under the hood the Trans Am’s hottest motor that year, the W72 400 (CID) V8 (California buyers were stuck with the 185 horsepower Oldsmobile 403 CID V8). On paper the W72 produced 200 horsepower, NHRA rated the W72 in stock form at 260 horsepower. It was the best high-performance V8 you were going to find in a new car back in the late-1970s. And not only did the Can Am have the brawn, it had the looks. The GTO had spent 10 model years on the GM B-body platform (1964-1973), it was a marriage made in heaven. The Can Am was also built on the B-body platform – it was even the same generation B-body platform as the 1973 GTO. However there was a big difference, back in 1973 the GTO had a pedestrian front end design. Pontiac by 1977 had really improved the styling of the A-body and the Can Am had the 1977 LeMans’ attractive looks which included the quad square headlamps surrounding a front elegant grille. The Can Am would also get the 1970-1976 Trans Am shaker hood scoop and a fantastic looking rear spoiler. Add to that all Can Ams received a beautiful white exterior paint scheme which included a very attractive decal and striping package. The net result was something most performance fans wanted to buy. You had a great looking performance car which could fit up to 6 adults comfortably (5 if you ordered the optional front center console), and a massive amount of trunk space. It was a throwback to when muscle car could be used effectively as everyday family cars. 1977 would be the last year for the large A-body, the GM 1973-1977 Colonnade style A-body platform was actually used as a size template for GM’s full-size 1977-1996 B-body platform.
Unfortunately disaster struck, the Motortown Corporation had its one and only mold for the Can Am’s spoiler break during Can Am production. Pontiac had contracted out to Motortown the installation of the rear spoiler, application of the decals and stripes, and the cutting of the hood for the shaker hood scoop for the Can Am. Why only one production mold was made is anyone’s guess. But this disaster cost Pontiac precious sales with only 1,133 Can Ams being produced before the spoiler mold broke. Instead of just continuing to produce the Can Am without a rear spoiler which would have been the logical decision, Pontiac pulled the plug on the project.
The real tragedy in the 1977 Can Am being cut short wasn’t its meager production output but its future potential was robbed. The GM B-body was downsized for 1978 shedding about 500 lbs. The W72 400 was available in the Trans Am and Firebird Formula for 1978 and 1979, so a 3,100-lb with (as NHRA rated) the 260 horsepower high-performance W72 V8 would have been the fastest American muscle car available in the U.S back in the 1970s – it would have yield quarter-mile times in the mid-14 second range. It would have easily surpassed the 1978-1979 W72 powered Trans Am and Formula which were 500 to 600 lbs heavier. And with the right kind of handling suspension package it could have been the best all-around muscle car of that era. The 400 CID V8 would have easily fit between the two front wheels under the front hood of the 1978 and 1979 Can Am had it been produced. And after the W72 was sent out to pasture, the 200-210 horsepower LU8 301 (CID) turbo V8 could have kept the 1980-1981 Can Am ahead of the competition. At 3,100 lbs it still would have easily managed low 15 second quarter-mile which would have been faster than any of the competition at the time. Unfortunately what could have been the hottest and fastest car in American during the late-1970s and early-1980s was never to be. It was the automotive equivalent to a Greek tragedy, due to a broken spoiler mold the Can Am was robbed of its legacy.
Ford LTD LX
GM beat Ford to the punch on downsizing its mid-size lineup to a front-wheel drive platform. GM did the deed for the 1982 model year with the release of its new front-wheel drive A-body platform. A year later Pontiac released its performance oriented 4-door A-body – the 6000 STE which totally changed the performance car landscape. The STE was powered by a zippy 2.8 liter HO V6 and exhibited great handling from its European touring type suspension. Ford’s midsize market offering was the rear-wheel drive Fox-bodied 4-door LTD which was powered by a 3.8 liter V6. The LTD had replaced the Ford Fairmont in 1983. The LTD had a sleek front-end with sleek roofline for 4-door car – much sleeker than the more formal roofline of the 6000 STE. Ford knew it had to field a competitor against the very popular STE, so it decided to offer a touring version of its mid-sized offering called the LTD LX. The end result was a V8 powered muscle car with 4-doors.
As neat and trendy as the 1983 Pontiac 6000 was, a 135 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque wasn’t going to cut it for traditional muscle car fans. The 1984 LTD LX was powered by a 165 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque electronic fuel injected (TBI equipped) 5.0 liter HO V8. It was one of the hottest engines in Ford’s engine lineup back in 1984, only the 175 horsepower (245 lb-ft of torque) 5.0 liter 4-bbl HO V8 produced more horsepower which was standard in the 1984 Mustang GT. When a 1984 Mustang GT buyer opted for an automatic transmission instead of the standard 5-speed manual the LTD LX’s electronic fuel injected 5.0 liter HO V8 was standard (rated at the same 165 horsepower). For 1985 power out of the LX’s electronic fuel injected 5.0 liter HO V8 was raised to 175 horsepower. In essence the LTD LX was a 4-door Mustang GT. Ford to its credit didn’t just ram a 5.0 liter V8 into the LTD with the LX and called it a day. It specially tuned the LX’s suspension to give it handling on par with the Mustang GT. It even used the same spec P205-70HR14 Goodyear Eagle GT performance tires found on the 1984 Mustang GT. A semi blacked-out front grille and black trim pieces gave the exterior an attractive European look. And the LX’s interior had performance flair with the LTD’s front bench seat getting the boot for a set of very comfortable front bucket seats along with the addition of a gauge cluster that consisted of every readout you would expect in a performance car. Ford also gave the LX a standard center console which was where the mandatory automatic shifter was mounted. Ford may not have realized it at the time but the concept was sound, a performance oriented rear-wheel drive V8 powered performance 4-door sedan was just what America needed. Ford kept the LTD LX for another model year with only slight changes. The LTD’s replacement was the front-wheel drive 1986 Ford Taurus, it was a big seller but it didn’t have a performance model to replace what had been lost when LTD LX was cancelled. Ford would finally release a performance oriented version called the Taurus SHO for the 1989 model year – just like the Pontiac 6000 STE, it was a front-wheel drive, V6 powered, and had an European type handling suspension. It would be Chevrolet with the 1994 Impala SS that would bring back the LTD LX template of a V8 powered 4-door muscle car – it was a big success. The 2014 Dodge Charger R/T and SRT8 with a 5.7 liter and 6.4 liter Hemi V8s respectably use this template. And for that matter the 2014 Chevrolet SS along with other 2014 model year cars also use the LTD LX’s template.
Ford which was way ahead of the curve threw it all away by canceling the LTD LX at the end of the 1985 model year destroying any shot the LX had at becoming a legendary car. Ford which produced the fox-bodied Mustang through the 1993 model year could have found a way to continue to produce the 4-door LTD LX and by 1987 it could have been powered by the 1987 Mustang GT’s port fuel injected 5.0 liter HO V8 which produced 225 horsepower. Had a 5-speed manual transmission and more exterior color choices been thrown into the mix, the LTD LX would have been the ultimate 4-door muscle car. Even today with the 2014 model year about to start, Ford could sure use a modern day rear-wheel drive 4-door LTD LX with the 2014 Mustang GT’s 420 horsepower 5.0 liter V8 under the hood to compete with the 2014 Dodge Charger and 2014 Chevrolet SS. And while Ford is at it they could offer a Police Interceptor variant to replace the massive void the rear-wheel Crown Victoria has left since its production ended in 2011.
The poor Fiero seems to be the quintessential punching bag, fortunately not as much as it once was. Seems as the years pass, an increasing larger base of car critics are now realizing Pontiac’s mid-engine 2-seat sports car wasn’t so bad after-all. There was of course the famous engine fire issue which was an issue with only 1984 Fieros equipped with faulty connecting engine rods. Barring this issue which GM had a recall to fix, the Fiero was a reliable car for a 2-seat sports car. What really caused the Fiero’s demise was GM’s upper management not allowing the Fiero to be the kind of car it needed to be, until it was too late. Due to the fear of cutting into Chevrolet Corvette sales, the Fiero during its first model year (1984) was only equipped with the 92 horsepower 2.5 liter Iron Duke 4-cylinder. For 1984 the Corvette had a 205 horsepower 5.7 liter V8. A gap of 113 horsepower gave GM brass enough confidence the Fiero wasn’t going to cut into Corvette sales. Even with the Fiero being crippled in the area of horsepower it still managed to sell over 100,000 units for 1984 which was double the production of the 1984 Corvette which had a much longer production year than the 1984 Fiero. Even with just 4-cylinder power the first year, this could have been overlooked had the Fiero possessed a world class suspension. Even though Pontiac had managed to get the top-of-the-line 1984 Fiero SE to obtain .84 on the skidpad test (which back then was a very good handling number), the poor Fiero’s steering was numb and the overall feel of the suspension was sloppy when rough pavement was encountered. The Fiero may have had 4-wheel disc brakes and an independent suspension which looked good on paper however the suspension was a throw together of different GM off the shelf compact car parts. This kind of thrifty spending on GM’s part kept the base price of the 1984 Fiero down to a very low $7,999. Another bone of contention was the Fiero’s automatic and manual transmissions which were both one gear short. The Fiero was stuck with a 3-speed automatic with no overdrive gear and from 1984-1986 a 4-speed manual transmission was as good as it got for manual gears, the 5-speed manual didn’t appear until 1987. The introduction for 1985 of the 140 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque 2.8 liter V6 with multi-port fuel injection helped to liven the Fiero’s performance considerably. The Fiero also got periodic styling updates which added to its appeal along with incremental handling and performance improvements. By 1988 the Fiero’s GT and Formula models finally had the world class sports car suspension the Fiero should have had for 1984. Lotus had helped Pontiac revamp and tune the suspension. So by 1988 the Fiero GT and Formula with their standard 2.8 liter V6 (which had dropped to 135 horsepower) and a Lotus tuned suspension finally embodied the essence of a true sports car. Sales had dropped by 1988, and GM decided to call it quits.
This alone makes the Fiero saga a very sad story. But this just isn’t a story about a car finally becoming what it should have been and then getting the plug pulled. Unfortunately that’s only part of the story. When the 1988 Fiero was canceled in the middle of its model year, Pontiac was in the final stages of development of the new 1989 Pontiac Fiero which was to have even sleeker exotic sports car looks and a new high-output 200 horsepower DOHC (Dual Overhead Cam) Quad4 (4-cylinder) engine. The 1989 Corvette with its Tuned-Port Injected (TPI) 5.7 liter V8 produced 240-245 horsepower. This would have been 40 to 45 horsepower more than the 1989 Fiero on the surface. However scratching below the surface will have you realizing real quick the 1989 Corvette had a curb weight of just over 3,200 lbs versus the 1989 Fiero’s estimated 2,800 lbs. The 400-lb difference would have closed the performance gap allowing the Quad4 Fiero the ability to give the Corvette a run for the money. And this would have been with a Fiero with a base price, at least half of the Corvette’s $31,545. There’s no doubt the 1989 Fiero would have been nipping at the Corvette’s heals. And add to that the 1989 Fiero was going to have even more improvements to 1988 Lotus tuned suspension including P225-50VR16 performance tires (versus the 1988 Fiero GT and Formula’s P215-60-R15 in the rear and P205-60-R15 in front). Had the 1989 Fiero made it to production, most surely the Fiero today would be looked at in a different light. With the cancellation at the last minute of the almost production ready 1989 Fiero, the Fiero was robbed of its legacy of becoming a true exotic mid-engined 2-seat sports car. And who knows the internal-GM competition may have forced Chevrolet to improve its Corvette. Unfortunately we’ll never know what could have been.
Written contents in this article – © 2013 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved