Falling back to Earth (Part Two)

Saturn makes a promising start.

1990 Saturn SC coupé. Image: consumerguide.com

There was great interest and excitement, both from the general and specialist automotive press, when the first car rolled off the production line at the new Saturn manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, on 30th July 1990. Journalists were invited to tour the plant and engage with the workforce. They detected a certain evangelical spirit amongst the workers, who felt that the company was “people-oriented” and that they had a “voice” in the production process. This referred to regular team discussions with their managers and engineers, where problems were aired and suggestions for improvements were heard constructively and rewarded if adopted.

There were practical innovations in the manufacturing process too. The production line was called the Skillet(1) and the vehicles were carried, not nose to tail, but at right angles to the line, thereby reducing its length by 40%. The workers rode on the skillet with the cars and were free to allocate jobs within the teams, to optimise the use of individual workers’ proficiencies. Any worker could stop the line if they encountered a problem or fault.

Beyond the factory gates, Saturn’s management was also keen to address issues around the customer experience at dealerships that General Motors’ research had highlighted. According to Saturn’s head of marketing, Don Young, “customers feel a sense of intimidation, of being talked down to, of being conned” at traditional dealerships and there was “a low level of trust in dealer salespeople”.

Having to negotiate with a salesperson for a discount was a particular bugbear for many potential customers. Saturn tackled this by introducing a no-haggle menu-style pricing policy for all its models and options. A potential customer was also introduced to the service manager who would look after their car. This was done in an attempt to change the customer’s perception of the experience from merely transactional to one concerned with relationship building.

The United States was divided into 250 geographical areas, each roughly similar, not in size but in terms of potential Saturn customers. The company was determined that its dealers should compete, not with each other(2), but with the importers, whose sales they wanted to capture. Saturn dealerships would be exclusive(3) to that marque and comprise a major sales and servicing hub, requiring a minimum investment of around $2 million.

If sales growth warranted it, the dealership could establish separate sales satellites within their geographic area, supported by the central service hub. Saturn’s first year sales forecast was for 150,000 units, rising to around 350,000 units by the mid-1990s.

High hopes: 1990 Saturn S Series launch. Image: fortune.com

Not only was Saturn planning to build and sell its cars in new and unfamiliar ways, but the cars would also be innovative and quite unconventional in their construction. A self-supporting spaceframe of pressed steel inner panels would be welded together and the exterior body panels, all of which would be unstressed, would be screwed to the spaceframe. The roof, bonnet and boot lid were pressed steel, while the wings and doors were thermoplastic mouldings. All the exterior panels would be painted on rigs before fitting, which took place late in the assembly sequence after major mechanical and interior components had been installed, to minimise the risk of damage to the panels.

The mechanical layout was pretty conventional, with a transverse four-cylinder engine, end-on five-speed manual or four speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels and Macpherson strut suspension all round. The engine was a newly designed all-aluminium unit with a capacity of 1,901cc and either an eight-valve SOHC or sixteen-valve DOHC cylinder head. The engine and transmission combined weighed just 350 lbs (160kg) and even a fully optioned SL saloon weighed no more than 2,440 lbs (1,107kg) thanks to the aluminium drivetrain and plastic body panels.

Stylistically, the Saturn SL saloon was a smooth but unremarkable design, apart from blacked-out screen pillars, a ‘floating’ body-coloured roof and an unusual, sharply folded wraparound rear windscreen. Infuriatingly for Saturn, Oldsmobile had ‘stolen’ these distinctive design features for its 1990 Cutlass Supreme sedan, which could at first glance have been mistaken for the SL. This would not be the last act of sabotage Saturn would suffer from its in-house rivals.

One drawback of the dent-resistant plastic exterior body panels was their greater (than steel) thermal expansion, which necessitated wider than normal panel gaps and shut-lines, giving it an unfortunate less than precision-engineered appearance.

Image: Time Magazine

The model hierarchy was simple to understand, following Saturn’s policy of not bamboozling customers with too much choice. There were just three trim levels, SL, SL1 and SL2. The base SL model was rather austere looking with unpainted grey plastic bumpers. It came with a basic AM/FM radio without a cassette player and not even a passenger-side door mirror(4). No factory options such as automatic transmission, power steering or air-conditioning were available. For these, even as options, one had to step up to the SL1 mid-range variant. Both SL and SL1 variants were fitted with the eight-valve SOHC engine producing 85bhp (63kW)

The range-topping SL2 featured the sixteen-valve DOHC engine producing 123bhp (92kW) and was distinguished externally by body-coloured bumpers. Extra equipment was available, but most of it was still optional, including anti-lock brakes(5), alloy wheels, air-conditioning, electric windows and electric (passenger-side only) door mirror.

Car and Driver magazine compared the Saturn SL with eleven other budget cars from US and foreign manufacturers in July 1992. The eligibility criterion was simple: all must have a sticker price below $10,000. Domestic competitors included the Ford Escort and Plymouth Sundance, while foreign rivals included the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Tercel.

The Saturn was easily the largest car in the group. With an overall length of 176¼” (4,477mm), it was 5” (127mm) longer than the next largest competitor and had the longest wheelbase at 102½” (2,604mm) and a spacious boot. It was also the only four-door car and was best equipped, with intermittent wipers, a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, rev-counter and AM/FM four-speaker radio-cassette player. Fit and finish were described as “impressive” with “obvious attention to detail” in the interior, although the front seat backrests were too narrow and the rear seat cushion too low, resulting in a “knees up” sitting position.

1990 Saturn S Series dashboard. Image: consumerguide.com

The eight-valve SOHC engine gave a competitive 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 9.9 seconds but was harsh and noisy at higher revs: “beyond 3,000rpm [the] aural assault begins.” The five-speed manual gearbox was “fine and light, with a slightly notchy feel.” The ride was described as ”pleasantly firm without being harsh” and the car had “good chassis composure and lots of stick.” Overall, the reviewers were pretty impressed by the Saturn, concluding that it “offers a look and feel of substance — as if it belonged in a higher class of cars.”

Even allowing for a degree of patriotic bias, this was high praise indeed for the Saturn, sales of which had started well enough, if falling short of the company’s optimistic early forecasts, partly because of a short and mild recession that hit the US between August 1990 and March 1991. In 1991, Saturn’s first full year on the market, 74,493(6) found buyers in the US. This increased to 196,126 in 1992 and 229,356 in 1993.

US consumers clearly liked Saturn’s distinctive approach to selling cars, as well as the cars themselves, and goodwill towards the marque was strong. However, within the labyrinthine corridors of power at GM, there were already barely concealed jealousies and the first stirrings of a palace coup that would have serious consequences for GM’s fledgling marque and, ultimately, contribute to its demise.

The story of Saturn continues in Part Three.

(1) A contraction of ‘Skid’ and ‘Pallet’.

(2) This was a problem with existing GM marques, for example, Pontiac, which had a vast network of 3,200 dealerships, many in close proximity to each other.

(3) The dealership was not prevented from selling other marques at different locations, however.

(4) This was a popular dealer-fit option.

(5) ABS included rear disc (rather than standard fit drum) brakes.

(6) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

16 thoughts on “Falling back to Earth (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I’ve always been intrigued by the plastic body panels. I had no idea it needed wider panel gaps because of the larger thermal expansion, but it makes sense. At least is was light weight. I had no idea about the skillet production line either, but it was something I have thought about to make the production line shorter.

  2. A steel skeleton from which unstressed panels are hung that were painted separately – just like the DS.

    The Saturn engine had an interesting production method. They didn’t use sand for the internal casting cores but a special kind of heat resistant styrofoam. After casting this was removed chemically. This allowed to design the internal structures without working around the need to get the sand out of them after casting.

    1. It was a variant of lost wax casting known as……. lost foam casting.

      GM relied on the process heavily for quite a while, but eventually found precision sand casting to be a superior approach for metallurgical and financial reasons..

    2. It’s astonishing now much progress is still possible in cultural techniques known to man since milleniums like casting. Casting processes have made a quantum leap in the last ten or twenty years.
      The current masterpiece is the EA888/2 where every normally separate hose and pipe is an integral part of the block and two of them are cast in one piece and then split apart.

  3. Was the steel skeleton with bolted-on plastic parts a similar construction to that used by Matra on the Murena and Espace?

  4. Good morning gentlemen. Dave, thanks for the interesting information on the engine casting. Regarding the construction, here’s an S-Series that is being restored, stripped back to its skeleton:

    I’m showing my age here, but it reminded me of the Rover P6 2000 rather than the newer designs Fred mentions.

    1. Another benefit of base unit construction is that provided you want the floating roof effect, you can just use a single colour (Black) for every base unit, irrespective of the final colour. Money saved there! I also read in Eric Dymock’s history of Rover that one of the reasons the P6 got a base unit was that there was less resonance in bolted on panels, so there was intended to be a NVH benefit.

    1. There’s a lot more where that came from…

      Here’s a bunch of Saturn ads shown in one night to… Canadians, so one would think they might crank it down a notch? No way. Given the source of this delectable tripe, DTW regulars should have no trouble identifying the make and model of the Lotus support van (11:27), and perhaps the transmission test mule vehicle featured ~7:00.

    2. Hi Charles and gooddog. Thanks for sharing those advertisements. The first is very much in line with the Saturn ethos of relationship building with the customer, but the second strikes an oddly sour note, blaming the decline of (the market share of) the US auto industry partly on the fact that: “We taught the rest of the world everything we knew”.

      Freerk, that Simpsons episode is a gem!

  5. The cars that spring to my mind when I hear steel space frame with bolt on panels are Trabant, Renault Espace and Smart car. Then I think Matra and the rabbit hole appears…
    I wonder how many times this way of making vehicles can be rediscovered?

  6. Thanks for this. Looking at some of the cars the SL was up against, the design was a noticeably nicer proposition. The IP photo shows a calm and rationale shape too. No wonder the rest of GM hated it. It showed up how ghastly base-model vehicles from Chevrolet and Pontiac were. Instead of improving the others, GM´s internal saboteurs decided to kill the messenger.
    From 1988 to 1991 the Plymouth Sundance lured buyers in Europe under the name Chrysler ES. There are two of these charmers for sale right now: https://www.autoscout24.com/lst/chrysler/es?sort=standard&desc=0&ustate=N%2CU&size=20&page=1&fregfrom=1984&atype=C&
    The prices asked are far too high for these mediocritie. But what gives – a Citroen BX from 1988 cost 4K at the same website. It´s not even a nice one but a 1.4 RE from the watered-down series.

    1. Hi Richard. Yes, the original Saturn S-Series sedan was quite pleasant looking, even if Pontiac upstaged it. It was, I think, a genuine attempt on the part of GM to do something new and different to compete with the imports. Saturn certainly enjoyed great goodwill amongst its loyal customers. The trouble was trying to expand that circle meaningfully.

      Here’s a nice image of an early top-spec SL2 sedan:

      Even in this manufacturer’s official photo, the unusually wide panel gaps and shut-lines are apparent. One might even say one could see them from space…😁

  7. Why they didn’t call the three different trim levels SL1, SL2, and SL3 boggles my mind….

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