The TL;DR of it: The story of how I turned my ‘88 Fiero from a poor-college-kid-project into a well-sorted 500+HP monster.
This car spent a lot of time doing this. (Drag racing, that is.)
Back in the year 1999, I was 19 years old when I purchased my 1st car. I was in my 2nd year of college (I think) and was in a phase of transition. My high-school years were filled with an obsession for sports (Football in particular) and it consumed all of my free-time. While I was still playing football in college, the obsession was waning. Especially since I knew I was never going to make it in the NFL as a Division-III backup.
I now found myself turning back to an earlier love. Cars. When I was young, playing with hot-wheels and building models were some of my favorite things to do. Then there was my mechanic-father who I was always ‘assisting’ on whoever’s car he was working on at the time. (By ‘Assisting’, I mean using my tiny kid-hands to reach into spaces he couldn’t get into, and using the impact-wrench to tighten lugnuts way too tight.)
I had a part-time job, and was living at home so I began saving money for my first car paid for with my own money. I was fortunate to have a few hand-me-down cars before this. I previously had some underwhelming cars in two Ford Tempos, and I was currently driving an early-nineties Plymouth Duster. And it was purple.....
Mine looked just like this one. While not a terrible car. It didn’t scream ‘Performance’
I’m a rather non-traditional person and will do a lot of things simply for the sake of being different. I knew wanted something rear-wheel-drive and sporty that was not a Mustang/Firebird/Camaro and I had a very limited budget of under $3500 (because broke-college-student). This left me with a list of 3 choices: 1st-Gen Toyota MR2, FC Mazda RX7, and the Pontiac Fiero. I’m sure there were other choices out there, but that’s what I settled on.
Now Buffalo, NY isn’t exactly a sportscar-friendly area (Like looking for water in the middle of a desert) and my choices were rather limited. Remember, this was the pre-Craigslist times and even places like Autotrader weren’t incredibly popular to use yet. While I did as much internet searching as I could, things like driving all over town looking around, word of mouth, and the classified sections of the paper were just as valuable.
After looking at a few cars that were either rusty, beat-on, or needed repairs (Or all 3), I came across a 1988 Pontiac Fiero GT with 72k miles on it in the Buffalo-News Classifieds section listed for $4500. This car sounded very promising, but I didn’t think I would be able to afford it (I only had about $2800 saved at the time). My father and I went to look at it. The guy who owned it was in his early/mid 30’s and lived in an apartment downtown. He worked for Xerox and was the original owner of the car. It was his first car he bought after he graduated and you can tell that he treated it well. I’m sure he was growing-up and the car was getting long in the tooth and he wanted to move on to something newer.
After looking at the car and taking it out for a drive, I was in love and heartbroken at the same time. The car was in awesome shape and was exactly the kind of car I was looking for. I told him I loved it and wanted to buy it, but I needed to come up with some more money. He told me he would take $3800 for it. It was still a whole $1000 away from what I had and I was running through my head about how I could come up with $1000 as fast as possible.
It turns out my father had a talk with my step-mom about the car and how much nicer it was than the other piles of crap I looked at and they should help me out and cover the rest that I couldn’t. I still can’t describe how elated I was when my Dad told me he would help me out. I called the guy back and a couple of days later I was the owner of a Pontiac Fiero! This is where my journey into modding begins…..
This is as close of a photo as I could find to my Fiero (mine didn’t have a wing) when it was stock as I don’t have any photos of it from then. Photo taken from curbsideclassic.com
The car I purchased was a 1988 Pontiac Fiero GT with a 135HP 2.8 litre 60* V6, an automatic transmission, power windows and locks, A/C, and cruise. It was red with a beechwood cloth interior, and gold-mesh wheels. A couple things that made my car rather rare and unique was that it was wingless and had a solid-roof. I have seen maybe one other Fiero optioned the same.
Now the 1988 Fiero was also a special year for the Fiero. First, it was unfortunately the final year of the Fiero. More importantly, its suspension and brake systems were completely redesigned resulting in a far better handling and driving car (And NO, the ’88 suspension was not designed by Lotus.) While this made for a better base to start from, the lack of replacement parts and aftermarket for a car that was made one year was a looming factor for when I finally sold it.
To reiterate, I was a poor college student. I was also an automotive novice and many of my early mods indicated as much. I did take care of the car as far as running synthetic fluids and changing maintenance parts with quality OEM replacements.
I discovered an internet forum called Pennocks Fiero Forum. This internet community really helped feed my Fiero-passion and inspired me to want to mod my Fiero and make it what I wanted.
I did silly things like installing a large stereo system adding aftermarket subs and speaker pods. At one point I think I had 13 speakers in the car, with 2-amps, a capacitor and a 10” subwoofer. It was loud and it could hit pretty hard, but it was also stupid.
Much Stereo. Total Cool. Expert Install....hahaha
I also did some other basic mods like adding upgraded brake pads, and then 12” C4 Corvette Rotors with some caliper adapters. I added lowering springs and KYB shocks and struts which in time evolved over to Konis. I also installed poly suspension bushings and swaybar endlinks. For the engine, I added the obligatory K&N filter, MSD ignition coil with upgraded wires and a MSD 6a ignition box. Later on, I added 1.52 ratio roller-tip rockers, ported exhaust manifolds, a ported throttle body, and hand-ported all the intake manifold. All of these things turned it into a decent-handling car that wasn’t terribly slow.
One of the 1st pics I have of my Fiero circa 2001.
I had a lot of problems with this car through those years. I had a TON of ignition issues which would result in being on the side of the road replacing the ignition coil and/or module. I carried around the tools and a bunch of coils, modules, caps, and rotors that I scavenged from the junkyard to replace the parts. I replaced every part of the ignition system at least once on that car and could still probably do it without a second thought.
I also collapsed a lifter on a road-trip to Frankemuth MI for a Fiero show. I was in a convoy with members of the Greater-Toronto-Area Fiero Club and like most convoys, there was some high-speed goofing around. Well the hot day, the thin 5w30 oil, and the ½ hour of idling at the border resulted in the loss of pressure and lots of drivetrain noise. I got an oil change with 20w50 oil in Port Huron, drove it to my Uncle’s in Detroit and then limped it home from there the next day where I then replace all the lifters.
Another scary moment was that a rear lowering-spring snapped and caught the inside of my rear tire and disintergrated it in seconds. Thankfully I did not wipe out. I ordered up some coilovers for the rear after that mess.
Springs aren’t supposed to look like that.
While all these problems were quite frustrating for the late teen/early 20’s version of myself, I learned so much about working on and diagnosing car issues. I also never stopped wanting to make my Fiero better and faster. I had a full-blown car-addiction by this time.
While most of the Fiero-guys were dreaming about V8’s in theirs, I was gathering up parts to build a low-compression engine and run a turbo-system in mine. I drove to Lancaster PA, to pick up a spare engine to build-up from a forum member, Skitime. Skitime didn’t need his engine anymore because he installed a 3800-supercharged car in his (Here’s a link to a great build-thread he did). He took me out for a drive in it and it was so awesome being in a Fiero that made north of 300hp. If I wasn’t hooked on power before, I certainly was then.
I spent many, many hours inside this engine bay....
I became so knowledgeable and obsessed about Fieros that I bought an ’87 GT for $400 that I repainted, cleaned up and turned it into a winter car. That one ended up throwing a rod eventually. I then bought a pristine ’88 4-banger notchback coupe from a nice gentleman in Florida who drove all the way to Buffalo to deliver it to me. I daily-drove that one into the next phase of my life.
-The Michigan Years-
On Dec. 26th, 2003, 7 months after graduating from college, I got a phone-call with a job offer that took me to Detroit, MI. Since I was striking off into the wild-blue-yonder on my own (well my then-girlfriend, now my wife came with me), I left my Fiero GT back in Buffalo. I was living in an apartment complex, so parking was limited, and I didn’t want to drive it year-round. Plus, it wasn’t exactly the most reliable car in the world as previously mentioned. My ‘88 4-banger coupe served me well until I bought a 2004.5 VW Jetta GLI.
My Fiero stayed in Buffalo until 2006. In that time, I had many changes in my life. But plans for the Fiero never stopped. I abandoned my idea of a 2.8 turbo Fiero and began saving up cash for a 3800-supercharged (3800sc) swap.
The 3800sc swap was growing more and more popular as the powertrain was quite stout and also allowed for a better automatic transmission (the 4t65e-HD vs the TH-125) but still bolted up to the stock manual transmission offerings. The engine was the Series-II l67 90* V6 engine with the Eaton M90 Supercharger from late 90’s/early 2000’s Pontiac Grand Prix GTP’s, Buick Regal GS’s, Pontiac Bonneville’s and other assorted GM products. In stock form it put out 240hp/280tq. A stock l67 swap into a Fiero was good for a low 13-second quarter mile, better fuel economy, and reliability (If done right). With companies like ZZPerformance producing many aftermarket parts for these engines, Fieros were dipping into the low 11’s in the quarter-mile in short order. A quick look at the Fiero Quarter-Mile List will show you how the Series-II V6 is the swap of choice.
I began talking to Ryan Gick who runs Sinister Performance out of Ft. Wayne IN to do my swap. I would have like to tackle it myself, but I was in an apartment with no garage space and little support. In the fall of 2006, I went back to Buffalo, rented a trailer and my Dad and I drove my Fiero to Ryan’s shop where it would undergo its transformation.
Now while I had saved up enough money for the swap, I wanted to have some mods and upgrades done while the swap was being completed. This resulted in what I see now as my only automotive regret of selling my 1986 Ford Mustang SVO (I still miss that car). But instead of a stock 3800sc, I now had a 3800sc swap with an intercooler, higher ratio rockers, freer flowing exhaust, ported blower, and smaller pulley for more boost.
Although never designed for this engine, it is so much easier to work on this than the stock engine
I picked it up in the spring of 2007 and it was one of the best automotive days of my life. The car was totally transformed and ran flawlessly. Listening to the blower-whine was intoxicating and you couldn’t help but to mash down the pedal and go!
That year, I drove the crap out of that car. I had it on the dyno where it made 256hp/319tq at the wheels. That was getting me into the mid/high 12’s at about 104MPH in the quarter-mile (And I put ~40 ¼mile passes on it that year). I knew it could do better. I soon purchased a wideband and HPTuners and began teaching myself the world of powertrain tuning. With lots of help along the way, and a smaller supercharger pulley, I was running low 12’s in the quarter-mile and now trapping in the 108mph range in 2008.
This was a very fun car at this power level
I also made some small changes during this time including adding a bunch of sound deadening to the interior and adding some Recaro seats with custom-fabbed brackets.
Considering this was from a For Sale ad, you think I would have cleaned it better. But this was the interior after a bit of ‘modernizing’.
A great combination of looks, and ease of access.
While the car was fast and garnered lots of attention at the track, out on Woodward Ave, and at car shows, I was still not content. I had dreams of 10’s in the quarter-mile and figured that going turbo would be how I would get there. I once again got in touch with Ryan and started putting together a plan to change my supercharged Fiero with a turbo setup similar to the one is his personal car. To my surprise, he was able to take my Fiero in for work that winter due to a cancellation in his schedule. This was not the best time as I had bought a house earlier in 2008, but since I wanted it done and I knew how high in demand he was for his quality work, I took out a loan against my savings-plan and got it done.
I was acquiring parts for this before I took my car to Ryan and I was able to do some things on my own like porting the new heads and intake along with having some nice powdercoating done. So besides being fast, my engine bay was also quite a sight to look at.
A photo of the engine during the build process.
The changes that were made consisted of: l36 naturally aspirated heads ported by me with upgraded valvesprings, the intake manifold off a v6 Camaro ported by me (moves the throttle body to the other side), 60lb/hr Siemens Injectors, Master Power 61mm turbo, stainless ZZP Power-logs into a custom Y-pipe, Synapse wastegate and BOV, Turbo XS manual boost-controller, a larger LT1 MAF, and a custom air/air intercooler with extractor fans and an airdam to get air through it as it was located under the car. Oh, and I also had a custom-built transmission built by Dave at Triple-Edge-Performance to handle the power. It had all kinds of upgraded bits and went from a 2.93 final drive to a 3.29. (Further pics of the engine can be found on Sinister Performance’s website)
2009 was a fun year. I spent a lot of time driving my Fiero and it was an absolute blast. The amount of power this car had was insane. Of course I had many more quarter mile passes including my 1st time trapping over 120mph against a new C6 Corvette Z06:
During the Woodward Dream Cruise of 2009, I had my only major hiccup with the car. I was sitting in traffic for a while and was maybe a little over ¼ of a tank when the car started sputtering. I thought it might have been a spark issue and I was misfiring due to excessive engine bay heat. While it started after I let it sit, it was still sputtering. So I thought maybe it’s actually out of fuel and limped it to the gas station. I filled it up and drove it home and all seem ok. The next day, I was driving it around and went into boost and saw my wideband go super-lean! I immediately let out of it. I then spent some time diagnosing the issue which involved making some fueling changes, and sending tuning logs to Ryan.
The diagnosis was that I destroyed my fuel pump. The excessive heat from sitting and idling during the Dream Cruise resulted in fuel vaporizing which was then returning into the tank as air bubbles which then were getting sucked into the fuel pump. With the fuel pump (A Walbro 255lph BTW) not getting sufficient lubrication from the fuel, destroyed its gears.
That magic little box on top of the dash was incredibly vital to building this car.
Fortunately, I had a wideband on that car. If I didn’t, I would have leaned out and popped a piston in short order. Instead, all I had to do was replace the fuel pump. I went with a Denso fuel-pump from a twin-turbo Supra (It was so much quieter). I had no other fueling issues after.
In March of 2010, my son was born. While he took up a lot of my life, I still managed to make it out to the drag strip. By this time, I was running Nitto Drag Radials as street tires after I had a nasty spin-out into a field. I went out to the track in April and on my very first pass, I ran an 11.36 at 121MPH. Here’s the slip from that pass, haha:
Drag-racing, you’re doing it wrong??
I did do a little more racing that season, but never got a faster e.t., although I improved my MPH a bit up to 121.5MPH. I also attended a track day at Michigan International Speedway where we got to do parade-laps on the track. I got up to 145MPH and was banging off the rev-limiter on the back-straight. That was a very fun day.
This car was a great weekend-driver. It was mind-blowingly fast, but with all the added sound-deadening, all the work I put into eliminating squeaks and rattles, the firm, but not overly-harsh ride, and the fact it could get over 27MPG if you kept out of it made it great for ‘just going out for a drive’.
As the Summer of 2010 passed into fall, I started to ponder what was next for my Fiero. My son, wife, and house were taking up more and more of my time. Not in a bad way per-se, but just simply a matter of what happens when you become a responsible-adult, and more importantly a responsible-parent. There are only so many hours in the day and I would rather spend them with my family than with my Fiero.
My Fiero at Belle Isle in Detroit during a MIVE Chilifest parked next to a Lancia Delta Integrale.
I was also getting bored with drag-racing and wanted to get into Autocrossing and HPDE’s. My Fiero was not remotely suited for that type of work. It had become a straight-line monster but with the way the power came on, I’d be spinning constantly, and the cooling was marginal at best. I also wanted something I could drive around with my son. With only 2-seats in the Fiero, driving him around in his car-seat wasn’t really feasible.
I thought about trying to convert my Fiero to a manual transmission, adding custom suspension bits, a short ratio ZR1 steering rack, and better cooling, but the cost and amount of work would just be way too much. Plus with the rarity of many 1988 Fiero parts, and Fiero parts in general, I began to wonder how long I would even be able to keep the car on the road. Seriously, front wheel bearings that can even handle HPDE’s are pretty much non-exsistent.
In January 2011, I put my Fiero up for sale on the Fiero Forum. It was time. I felt I took my Fiero as far as I could. I decided that I wanted to move on and wanted to get into something totally different. The car took some time to sell and I was able to still drive it though that summer, although I blew the turbo and had to replace it. But it was nice that I had all that time because it really confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing.
Come late August, I was contacted by a Canadian fellow named Pete. I met him years ago and he was no stranger to modded Fieros. He had a Cadillac 4.9 V8 turbo and a Northstar V8 Turbo Fiero that he sold some time ago. He was looking to get back into the Fiero game and saw mine for sale. He came and checked it out and made a full price offer that I accepted.
All loaded up and ready for its new home.
The day he came to pick it up was a bit hard for me. I had that car for a long time and I don’t think there wasn’t a part of that car that I didn’t work on at some point in time. It provided me with so much fun, knowledge, frustration, and love through those years. It really was a great car. But knowing that it was going to a good home made it a lot easier. I told him there was one condition in selling him the car; if he were ever to want to sell it, to let me know first to give me first shot at it.
It took all of 3 weeks to buy its replacement; a 2004 Mazda RX-8. But that’s a different story.
Pete kept in touch with me through the time that he owned it and made a few changes, but nothing drastic. The turbo let go on the car again and Pete had a local guy build a hybrid turbo using some Holset HX35 bits that dropped him into the 10’s in the quarter mile:
In early 2014, Pete kept his word and sent me an e-mail asking me if I was interested in buying my Fiero back. He offered it to me for the price I sold it to him. I drove out to London, ON to see my old car. I took it out for a drive and it was great being back behind the wheel of it. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want it back at that moment. I told him I’d sleep on it for a couple days.
Unfortunately, a week or two before this happened, I was approved for a transfer back to my hometown of Buffalo. We already had 3-cars in the household and were going to move in with my parents until we sold our house in MI and got settled in back home. There was already enough chaos at that time in my life that I couldn’t add in buying another impractical car (and I wasn’t selling my RX8), no matter how sentimental it might be to me. It just wasn’t the right time.
It was tough, but I had to decline. Pete ended up selling it to someone in IL. I have exchanged a few e-mails with him and he seems to be enjoying it immensely. I hope if he ever wants to sell it that he’ll get in touch with me first as well. Although I have an additional child now, I have a much more stable life situation and I might have a different answer for him.
In conclusion, I consider myself very fortunate to have all the experiences I had with that Fiero. If you made it through this whole story, thank-you. To some, it might just be a car, but to me, that Fiero and all of the experiences I had with it were some really important times to me. I only hope that every auto-enthusiast can have as memorable of an experience with their car.