The Pontiac Fiero showroom poster, featuring Hall and Oates
The Pontiac Fiero showroom poster, featuring Hall and Oates.

I am an 80’s kid. Ocean pacific shorts, feathered hair and all.  I saw Whitesnake live.

Twice.

But, that’s another story for another time.  The reason I’ve been thinking about the 80’s is that I’ve also been thinking lately about the Pontiac Fiero.  As a high-schooler during those years, I was an avid reader of car magazines.  I studied the 0-60 times, drag coefficients and top speeds of sports cars like my GPA depended on it. Which it didn’t, and so my actual GPA may have reflected that lack of focus on real schoolwork…

Anyway, as a sports car fan, I was excited in 1984 when Pontiac, a division of General Motors, unveiled a sleek, new two-seater car called the Fiero.  It was a gorgeous little car.  Sexy lines with a mid-engine design and rear wheel drive.  And for car enthusiasts, terms like “sexy,” “mid-engine,” and “rear wheel drive” evoke thoughts of the classic Italian sports car manufacturer, Ferrari.  And even the name “Fiero” SOUNDS like Ferrari.

But there was a problem.

The Chevette. Definitely NOT a sports car.
The Chevette. Definitely NOT a sports car.

While the Fiero looked like a hot little sports car on the outside, underneath it was essentially a warmed-over Chevy Chevette, a wimpy little economy car with poor performance.

Not surprisingly, the Fiero was initially well-received by an enthusiastic public, but then quickly and roundly jeered when the delivery from the mechanicals did not match the promise of the exterior.  Over the next couple of years, Pontiac and GM worked to make the Fiero better, but progress was slow and incremental. The public lost faith in the car.  Even though the 1988 GT model of Fiero had become a very good sports car, it was too late.  Sales had dropped too far and the project was shelved.

The '88 GT model. A great car, but too late...
The ’88 GT model. A great car, but too late…

The reason I’ve been thinking about this story lately is that there are numerous business and organizational lessons to learn from Pontiac’s foibles with the Fiero.  Here are a few:

One, you simply cannot over-promise and under-deliver.  There’s no faster way to burn through trust and sour other’s opinion of you.  It is nearly impossible to recover from over-promising and under-delivering.  Which leads to my second point…

If you find yourself trying to recover from an over-promised and under-delivered situation, then slow and incremental change absolutely WILL NOT do.  Trust can only be regained by quick, decisive, and very visible change. Pontiac took way too long to make the Fiero live up to its lofty looks.  If they had responded swiftly and intentionally they may have been able to save the Fiero, but massive auto manufacturers are not known for being swift and so the project died.

Whitesnake. In all their frizzed up glory...
Whitesnake. In all their frizzed up glory…

A third takeaway from the Fiero Fiasco can be found with the intent of the project.  The original designers of the Fiero sought to actually make a legitimate sports car, but GM executives higher up were afraid of cannibalizing sales of the iconic Chevrolet Corvette, so they crippled the Fiero project by dictating that it be more of an economic sports/ “commuter” car.  With that muddying of purpose, they doomed the project to failure.  It’s impossible to overstate the importance of clarity in purpose and intent.

So much more could be said, but I’ll leave it to you to ponder further.

Now… where’d I put that Whitesnake cassette?