COAL – 1992 Saturn SC: Low-Cost And Durable, Right Up Until The Dashboard Fire


Last time, I wrote about my 1994 Nisan Pathfinder. It ended up being too much car for a college student, and coupled with the on-going electrical issues, I returned to form and picked up a two-door car. $1500 got me the keys to a 1992 Saturn SC.

The SC was the two-door realization of Saturn’s vision for low-cost, durable cars. The plastic body panels were designed to repel dent and dings, and surely helped offset the 124 horsepower on tap. While no one would ever call this car fast, it did have a nimble nature that made it fun in town.

saturn sc 1 #2 engine

I always liked the looks of this car. While the plastic didn’t look great up-close, it had nice curves. Visibility was hard to beat, and thankfully all that glass could distract from the fact that very little of this car’s body was made of metal.

Unlike later SCs, these first-gen cars were built on a shorter wheelbase than the mainstream, 4-door SL. Coupled with the 50-inch height, the SC was not a big car, even by Saturn standards.

The $1500 I spent got me a clean car in a nice gold color with a matching tan interior, sun roof and automatic transmission. It’s the only car I’ve owned with pop-up lights, even though I had issues keeping the sealed-beam lamp on the passenger side from blowing out until I tracked down a guilty-looking fuse.


Unfortunately, the lesson this Saturn taught me is that, sometimes, you get what you pay for. I owned this car in college, so really only got driven on the weekends. One Sunday morning, I was out early. While I was driving, I started to notice the unmistakable smell of burning plastic. In a matter of moments, smoke started pouring out of the dashboard.

I don’t mean the vents, either. Smoke was curling around the climate control buttons and coming our from around the radio. I pulled over as quickly as I could, jumped out and disconnected the battery. After the smoke cleared and a friend showed up, we began to take apart the center console.

The culprit soon became clear. The circuit board that made up the climate control panel had shorted out, burning not only the silicon board, but the plastic on its wiring harness. I disconnected it, started the car back up and got home with no other issues.

After the car spent a few days of sitting outside my dorm, I went to get something out of it and realized the smell wasn’t going to fade quickly, as long as that part was in the car. I took out that entire section of the center console, just leaving the radio. Coupled with an interior door panel I had removed to repair the window regulator, my Saturn suddenly looked very steampunk:


Notice the wrench wedged in there to keep the radio in place. Not sure why I thought taking the faceplate off was necessary at this point. I promise not all my cars turn into such horror shows. I soon realized that a replacement part was going to be way out of my budget, so I learned how to drive a car with no AC, heat or even defrost. It’s all about when to have the windows up or down, and sometimes, having a towel handy.

I drove The Steampunk SC for another 6 months or so, and as the odometer neared 100,000 miles, it began to run warm. Replacing the thermostat helped, but soon, I realized that I had a bigger problem when nothing I could do would keep the temperature under control.

Before long, the car was only capable of making short trips. Making it to work involved prayer, and on hot days, the need to stop to let things cool down.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. One hot day at the end of a spring semester, my SC went to the great Saturn parking garage in the sky in a cloud of steam and smoke. I had it towed, and the news was bad. My little plastic car needed a block. One of the guys who worked at shop that had it took a liking to it, and offered me $500. I took his money in a heartbeat and decided it was time to do the adult thing: take out a loan and buy a car that would last.