Saturn: 5 Years Dead

One of the 50 best cars ever was the Saturn L200, at least according to our capricious, contradictory and downright random list

1990 Saturn SL: mad4wheels com
1990 Saturn SL: mad4wheels com

As luck would have it, this is a good time to be reflecting on the failure of Saturn. Pending my own careful meditations on the topic I’d like to draw your attention to this very good article at TTAC. In addition to the article, a reader who goes by the name 28-cars-later offers a very good precis of Saturn’s history which I will take the liberty of reprinting here (see under the “Continue Reading” button). I immediately thought the chap writes well enough to deserve to be on the other side of the author/reader divide. Others at TTAC did too. 

This is 28-cars-later’s history of Saturn:

1991 Saturn SL: blog.hemmings.com
1991 Saturn SL: blog.hemmings.com

“In response to the small import cars of the late 1970s, Saturn was GM’s moonshot. Smith planned to take engineers, managers, and UAW employees away from Detroit so they could reinvent General Motors from the ground up. They would design a small car which represented the future of American automaking, one which included front wheel drive, fuel injection, and space-age plastic body panels. Yes it was Saturn which would lead the way to the 21st Century, quoting then Chairman Smith “In Saturn we have GM’s answer — the American answer — to the Japanese challenge.”. Sadly though, it wasn’t the correct answer.

1990 Pontiac Grand Prix which had a passing resemblance to the Saturn SL.
1990 Pontiac Grand Prix which had a passing resemblance to the Saturn SL.

Initially the gamble was a success. Saturn management was independent of Detroit, it had its own Spring Hill TN based factory and its own dealer distribution network. The company developed a no haggle strategy and instructed its dealers to focus on customer service. The first generation of Saturns created customers who came back to the brand for the next purchase and was initially viewed by the general populace of really being “a different kind of car company”. When the second generation debuted for 1996, initial orders actually exceeded the production capacity of the Spring Hill plant. Later research showed around fifty percent of these buyers said they would have bought a small import car if Saturn did not exist. Again the gamble seemed to pay off, but all was not well in the rolling hills of Tennessee.

Another car that stole Saturn´s thunder, the 1990 Cutlass Supreme: pixgood.com
Another car that stole Saturn´s thunder, the 1990 Cutlass Supreme: pixgood.com

General Motor’s investment in Saturn was $5 billion in 1980s dollars or about $12 billion in 2015. This money was quickly spent building the factory, developing the S-series, and setting up the dealer network. Saturn, unlike other GM brands, did not enjoy economies of scale due to its unique design and parts content. The low margins pricing of being an affordable import fighter could not cover the excessive costs of having a completely independent supply chain. In the year 2000, the Saturn Corp was losing $3,000 on every car it sold and the writing was on the wall at Spring Hill. GM folded Oldsmobile that year and effectively folded Saturn too as the corporation’s new model lineup would come from other parts of General Motors. Wikipedia notes: “In 2004, GM and the United Auto Workers dissolved their unique labor contract for the Spring Hill manufacturing plant, allowing Saturn operations to be integrated with the rest of GM”. The dream was over.

Many things have been said of Roger Smith’s brainchild and ultimately the plan was done in by its own success. Had Saturn products been more upscale from the start, there may have been more margin to squeeze and kicked the can to another day. Had General Motors further invested in the Corporation when Saturn was selling so many cars it was out of capacity, perhaps another Spring Hill grown Saturn would have emerged, instead of the problematic Opel derived L-series, and been profitable.

In the end Saturn simply became the unwanted stepchild of the larger General Motors corporation selling generic product to fulfil a legacy distribution system. Despite its ends, I will leave you with this, “Saturn nevertheless exemplifies a new model of organization that goes beyond the principals of lean production. More than any other U.S. case Saturn illustrates the positive organizational partnership and employment system that can be created when a union with a vision participates in the design, governance, and management of the enterprise” (Kochan, Lansbury, Macduffie, 65).”

That concludes 28-cars-laters rather good explanation. If you don’t already, TTAC is a good site made better by contributions such as these.

Now, if you had read the summary of the historical significance of the Saturn L200, it then become apparent why people might get worried about the Opelisation of Buick. In between 1999’s L200 and the wholesale importation of the current Opel line-up there came the short-lived Saturn Aura, which is nearly the Opel Vectra B with very little modification at all.

2007 Saturn Aura: caranddriver.com
2007 Saturn Aura: caranddriver.com

Up to this point, Saturn had taken an existing Opel (having given up designing from scratch) and more or less ruined the appearance to Saturnise the donor car. They realised this was not necessary and did a straight badge swap for the Vectra B. I guess with the writing on the wall for Saturn and indeed Buick, it made no sense to give good Opels to Saturn when they could give them to Buick instead.

So, one of the many reasons Saturn had to die was to allow Buick to take Opels without much or indeed any sheet metal changes. GM would not pay for one of those two brands to incur the cost of differentiation. So, Saturn had to die. And indeed, so has Buick, it seems. Having understood that it was first the runt brand Saturn that took Opel’s cast offs it must be bitter to see Buick now in the same position as Saturn was a decade ago. If Buick is not to die, it must have at least one, very competent car that is its first if not its alone.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

3 thoughts on “Saturn: 5 Years Dead”

  1. The Saturn episode shows what a sclerotic institution GM had become by the end of the 1970s. Against the background of a struggling portfolio of brands, creating yet another company was only ever going to add to the problem. The actual answer to combating the import onslaught was root and branch reform of the GM empire: reforming its labour relations, reinvigorating its design and updating its manufacturing practices, so that all three placed a greater emphasis on quality.

    Looking back, Japanese cars of the time were not unimpeachable: mechanically conservative, poorly styled and mediocre to drive. But they also never failed to start, did not leak oil on your driveway and did not rust to the consistency of a brown lace curtain within a couple of years. There may have been a GM dealership on every street corner, but such reliability was worth looking abroad for.

    In creating Saturn, Roger Smith believed he was sidestepping reforming GM. Naming the company he made after the planet was inappropriate; the Saturn company was another ring around GM, albeit one describing a unique orbit. One is put in mind of W. B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. As GM’s gravity weakened, so did its satellites. Saturn was not the first to fall apart, nor was it the last. Eventually, even GM failed.

  2. I just found the extraterrestric Saturn Ion – with these small rear-doors the Coupé is a class of its own.

    And the Sedan managed successfully to combine some korean flair with the typical american virtue to design small cars wit a lot of caracter.

    Maybe these iconic Ion – models did indicate to everybody that climbing to the peak of creativity has now come to an end at planet Saturn.

  3. The coupe is borderline acceptable if you can overlook the details like the cheater panels filling the gaps between the sideglass and the frame its meant to occupy. The saloon is missing details, like an unfinished CAD model. It’s shockingly crude. At the time I thought it poor and its badness only increases in magnitude as time passes. The C-pillar and rear door shutline resemble first passes of a sketch. The door has no rubstrip but a groove in the metal. The bonnet-shutline is grossly too big. Awful.
    As Markus says how could they top this level of indifference. I’d say more than a few design staff went home demoralised every evening while working on these beauties.

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