Automotive History: Saturn’s Early Years – Corporate Camelot

My wife often warns me that I come across as a GM basher. According to her, I bust out the whoopin’ stick far more than the General deserves.  And on one level, she’s right.  The corporation that gave us self starters (1918), Hydramatic (1939) and modern, small block V-8’s (1955) deserves better than a public flogging for its less than successful endeavors.  So todays tale is a one of a hopeful time when The General did well by doing good.

In November 1983 GM announced an entirely new division to market the small car that would re kindle the hope that the parent itself could be saved.  It was a time when all of the planets aligned for seller and buyers alike.  It would (in theory) spark a GM renaissance, a magical moment when everything was possible.

That division was Saturn and in its day, offered hope that GM could be great again.  The product was right – in the beginning.  The company ethos was honest and the approach to building a class competitive small car was right for the times.  But the ultimate failure of Saturn was proof that GM will never be the GM of our youth again.

The demise of Saturn represented the final battle that GM had waged with itself during the preceding quarter century.  And when the last Saturn Aura was sold in 2010, a page of history turned. We’ll not see its like again.  But for today, let’s go back to the beginning, when Saturn was much like a corporate Camelot – full of promise and a sign of better times to come.

One of the myths of the Saturn story that has persisted is that the new division was GM chairman Roger Smith’s personal vision.  This is simply not borne out by the facts.  While its true that Smith greenlit the project and ran interference when corporate politics began heating up, Saturn was really a collective response from within GM’s engineering and design labs to the threat posed by Japanese carmakers in the late 70’s/early 80’s.

The embryonic stage of what would become Saturn took shape in June, 1982 when GM VP’s Alex Mair and Robert Eaton laid down the principles of what would become the car that bore the name that we recognize today. “Saturn” was to be the project’s internal code name within GM.  Only later was it decided that the name would be the official name for “a different kind of car company – a different kind of car”.

The concept of the Saturn would solve several existential problems within GM.  One, if successful, the new car would finally make the General a player in the small car field with an entry that would be the equal to any that were on offer from Japan.  After the Corvair/ Vega / X-Car debacles that had unfolded over the previous two decades, it was debated whether GM could ever make money on small cars again.  The GM “price ladder’ had no first rung worthy of purchase.

To be sure, the first step to recovery is to admit the problem.  And GM, by 1982, was ready to check into auto rehab for its small car program. As we have seen,  it was about this time that GM struck out in another direction with the CorNova joint venture with Toyota.  That in itself was a “moment of clarity” when it became obvious that the company was finally serious about building a “no excuses” small car that buyers would be proud to own and love to drive.

The Saturn project would be a home grown, clean sheet effort in the image of nothing that had gone before. To give praise where it is due, GM realized that it would have to build not just a car, but a new company from the ground up.  Even the people that built and nourished the political rivalries at GM realized that assigning another small car to an existing division would result in a compromised product that would have no character, no unique selling proposition.  In essence, what emerged as Saturn was to be a change in the entire ownership experience, something that could not be done through existing sales channels.

Early on, it was decided that even though structured as a separate company, Saturn would work through the United Auto Workers union.  This meant that the UAW would have a seat at the table in just about every major decision that related to the project.  The cooperation between the company and its workers was viewed warily on both sides, with each suspicious of the other’s true motives.  But when the “Group of 99” was set up to steer the project (in 1984), there were UAW locals represented in every facet of the cars development.

Line workers and shop foremen participated in the development of engines, bodies and other functional components.  Their input was used to tell engineers and management what could be done and what shouldn’t be done.  For the first time, “management by memo” was verboten at GM.

The next big issue was just where Saturns would be built.  The GM view was that the atmosphere in Detroit was too toxic, too hidebound for either side to claim a new way of doing business with one another.  A new company would need a new, modern factory and GM set out to find a place that was close, but not too close to the industry’s hub.  The search played itself out in a very public way and politicians that saw electoral hay to be made with bringing an automaker to their locale duly made the trek to the fourteenth floor of GM HQ to pitch their states.  Incentives were dangled, promises made.  Longstanding favors were called in to secure the great pay and benefits of building cars.

Finally, on July 30, 1985, the news stunned the world that Saturns would be built in the rolling hill country of Spring Hill, Tennessee, southeast of Nashville.  I grew up just a couple of ridge lines and hollows away from Spring Hill and remember to this day the excitement and pride that I personally felt when the news broke.  Lots of Tennesseans can still tell you where they were or what they were doing when they heard the news.  Construction on the plant began in May of 1986.

Later that year, the company logo was unveiled.

By this time, GM knew the who, where, and how.  But what?  The car itself would be the tough part.  The targets that the new company would have to catch were leaping ahead in quality, reliability – and owner loyalty.  To catch the Japanese, a good car just wouldn’t do.  The company had to make buying, owning and driving the product a transformative experience, or it would have just another “me too” product.  The General had run out of room for error.  By the spring of 1988, (after mock ups and clay models had been massaged) the first hand built SC and SL pre-production prototypes were completed.

By the fall of 1989, GM’s “space program” was just about ready for launch.  CEO Roger Smith was flickering on and off the tube touting the new division at every company event and press gathering.  Smith was racing the clock:  he was scheduled for the “gold watch” dinner that had sent so many other GM executives packing on July 31,1990.  He achieved his personal goal to drive the first car off the line with almost 23 hours to spare.  (This is probably another source of the myth that Smith was the “father” of the Saturn.)

In the grand event, the car was dynamite.  The SL-1 and SC-1 debuted to accolades that a small car from America hadn’t seen in years (if ever).  Buyers lined up and signed up for waiting lists to own one.  Saturns were even exported (to Taiwan) by the late summer of 1992.  The car was a smash.  And GM finally, at long last, walked the walk on quality.  When a batch of early Saturns turned up with the wrong antifreeze in May of 1991, (supplied by Texaco), the company replaced the cars.  You read that right.  GM replaced the entire cars instead of just their radiators, (or instead of doing nothing at all, as in the really bad old days,)  It turned out to be the best investment GM ever made.

Out in the showrooms, what buyers saw was, for all the build up, a fairly conventional sedan and coupe that didn’t break any new ground in the styling department.  The look was in the mainstream and as befitted the “space” connotation, the body was a space frame-like arrangement, with thermo formed plastic providing the skin.

The engine owed nothing to any other GM product, with a smooth, pleasing 1.9 L aluminum  four that made good use of the power band while returning upper 30’s mileage on 87 regular. The engine technology made use of the “lost foam” casting process that saved money which helped meet the cars price target.  Saturn had gotten it right.  Sales went in a straight line upwards during the first heady years after launch, and the car won numerous (well deserved) awards.

By 1994, Saturn was gearing up to build and sell 200,000 cars. That summer, the company staged an event that was to become a phenomenon and garner no small amount of (free) publicity.  The Saturn Homecoming event in Spring Hill attracted over 40,000 owners, former owners and wanna be owners from all over the world for three days in June of 1994.  It was akin to a family-friendly Woodstock on Wheels.  The world’s largest car company had found a way to connect with customers that didn’t involve 30 second ads on TV or self serving press releases.  Saturn (the car) and Saturn (the company) had seemingly done the impossible for GM.

But the parabola of ascent for Saturn had reached its zenith.  While not evident at the time, the company’s ride forthwith would be all downhill.  When owners packed their cars for the pilgrimage to Spring Hill that year, they couldn’t know it, but the marque that had earned their trust would expire sadly just 16 years later.  Sadly, Saturn would become another victim of GM’s endless war with itself.