Gordon Murray's design and engineering chops are unquestionable. But does his carmaking approach owe something to the short-lived Pontiac Fiero, a scrappy little car program that emerged from GM against serious resistance?

Murray had a Formula One career that ran from 1969 to 1991, with stints at Brabham ('69 to '86) and McLaren ('87-'91), that resulted in several shelves' worth of trophies for the cars he was instrumental in designing.

He moved on to McLaren Cars, the consumer side of things, where, during his tenure from 1991 to 2004, he helped design the McLaren F1 and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, two cars that took learnings from his two decades in Formula One.

What do all of these cars have in common? Three things:

They are light. They were built in limited numbers. And they were (and are) exceedingly expensive—when the McLaren F1 debuted in 1994, it stickered at $815,000.

Murray went on to establish Gordon Murray Design in 2007. GMD has created some interesting concept vehicles, such as the diminutive T.25 city car (94.5 inches long, 51.1 inches wide and 55.1 inches high), and the OX, a lightweight truck for the developing world that packs like an IKEA shelf and is working toward realization through a worthy crowdfunding campaign established by the Global Vehicle Trust.

Now he has created a vehicle manufacturing company, Gordon Murray Automotive, that will use manufacturing methods that he developed under the moniker "iStream."

Unlike a unibody, there are the "iFrame," a cage-like construction made with metallic components, and the "iPanels," which are composite. The panels aren't simply a decorative skin; they actually provide structure to the vehicle. Presumably this has something of the F1 monocoque about it.

Going back to the three elements, (1) this arrangement results in a vehicle that can be comparatively light; (2) Murray has indicated that his manufacturing company will be doing limited-run production; and (3) to launch Gordon Murray Automotive they are going to be building a flagship model, about which Murray said, "With our first new car, we will demonstrate a return to the design and engineering principles that have made the McLaren F1 such an icon." Which seems to imply that it will be on the pricey side.

According to the company's verbiage, "iStream forges an entirely new production method that defies conventionality with its Formula One-derived construction and materials technologies."

It also sounds a whole lot like ... the Pontiac Fiero.

  • Image Credit: Autotrader Classics
  • Image Credit: Autotrader Classics
  • Image Credit: Autotrader Classics
  • Image Credit: Pontiac
  • Image Credit: Pontiac
  • Image Credit: Pontiac
  • Image Credit: Pontiac
  • Image Credit: Pontiac

Yes, the mid-engine, two-door sports car that was produced for five years, from August 1983 to 1988.
The car was largely the brainchild of Hulki Aldikacti, who headed the program under William Hoglund, who took over Pontiac in 1980. Realize that this was a rather controversial car within the corporation. For one thing, there was concern regarding cannibalization of the Corvette. CAFE standards were signed into law in 1975, so there was the issue of fuel economy. The Fiero program was, initially, ostensibly, a two-passenger commuter car. And as for mid-engine — well, we're still waiting for the Corvette with that layout.

Aldikacti and his P-car team decided that they had to do things differently to get the Fiero on the road, including having product and design engineers working alongside manufacturing engineers — which was entirely revolutionary. The program was given a budget of $410 million — which was rather weak at the time.

Still, they persisted.

The Fiero's structure was a frame that consisted of a few hundred steel stampings that were welded together. The body panels were attached to this frame. Because the skin was made of various plastics and could move in space more readily than stampings, an innovative "mill and drill" machine was used to put the locating surfaces precisely on the frame for better panel gaps. The manufacturing of the Fiero was performed in what had been a mothballed plant in Pontiac, Mich.

While the Fiero didn't last long, it is worth noting that Bill Hoglund, after Pontiac, became president of Saturn, which originally built cars by hanging polymer panels on a steel spaceframe.

While neither the Fiero nor the Saturn SL1 were even in the same universe as the McLaren F1 (perhaps the closest is the 1984 Indy Pace Car-edition Fiero), somehow iStream doesn't seem all that advanced.
To be sure, the structural elements are greatly reduced in number compared with the Fiero's frame, and the materials undoubtedly are more specifically tailored to the application. What's more, the iPanels are structural while the Pontiac Enduraflex panels were essentially cosmetic.

Still, what Aldikacti and his team created may have been an engineering approach well ahead of its time.

Gary S. Vasilash is editor-in-chief of Automotive Design & Production, co-host of Autoline After Hours and a juror for the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards.

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