Historiography: A Different Kind of Car Company

One company changed the way we shop for cars. It is obvious which one would it be.

It would be easy to tell the story of Saturn as a corporate historiography. Yet, there is more about Saturn than just the foundation, the design and production of the company and its products. It is the cultural impact on how a company – albeit a part of General Motors – sought to connect its products, the way they sold them and the extraordinary consumer engagement that spurred on such immense brand loyalty amongst owners.

Plenty of automobile brands could talk of this experience. Yet, they were enthusiasts of the brand that had varying reasons for its continued loyalty and brand chauvinism. These connections between brand and owner/enthusiast are usually born from the showroom floor and ends up with a deeper experience with the vehicle and brand. You could see this at any meeting involving cars and their owners anywhere across the country. Some might say that some brands befit their demographics, as evidenced in clubs for more luxurious makes or of specific historic vehicles or types.

Was this any different with Saturn owners?

When Saturn was created as an independently operated part of General Motors, the idea was to create a clean sheet approach to the company and its products. It meant doing everything from the ground up – vehicle design, manufacturing, retailing and after-sales support. If you recalled the momentum leading up the opening of the first stores and the delivery of its first vehicles, you knew that Saturn would become something different – aside from its competitors.

You first heard it in the language Saturn used to define its business. They were the first to call their outlets "retailers," instead of "dealers." The difference was the fact that the people employed at Saturn retailers were non-commissioned salespeople. Some likened this practice as somewhere between an electronics store, such as Best Buy, and an actual car dealership. These retailers were franchised to major auto dealership chains, as long as it had its own property, structure and adhered to Saturn's philosophy. Saturn also supplied templates from sales techniques to marketing materials to practically everything you needed to become successful.

One practice seen under Saturn was the multiplication of retailing locations. It was perfectly OK for a dealer network to own multiple Saturn stores in a certain market.

With retailing locations, you had to have the product. This was originally a GM idea to create a compact lineup that would best or supersede the current J-Body. Chevrolet's Cavalier was selling well in the 1980s after a few missteps with the entire compact car program. What almost derailed the J-Body program was the plan to offer it across all brands, including the ill-fated Cadillac Cimarron. Cadillac had trouble selling the car, especially when everyone saw that it was simply a Chevrolet Cavalier with fancier trim. By the end of the 1990s, Chevrolet and Pontiac ended up being the only ones to sell their compact wares.

The Saturn project was revealed in 1983 – two years after the first J-Bodies went on sale. The assumption was that it would supplant the J-Body, but others speculated a new division would be created around this project. The latter was right – though it was not created as a division. As an independently-operated entity within GM, the Saturn project became The Saturn Corporation in 1985. By 1990, the cars showed up at the retailers.

The cars were in essence built using a technique first developed for the Pontiac Fiero – the space frame. To save costs, the space frame had plastic body parts attached where steel would have been forged to create an integrated unit body shell and subframe. This was all done at a brand new plant located south of Nashville in Spring Hill, Tennessee. It would be the first time in years a single product was developed and manufactured at a sole location. It would also be a plant staffed with United Auto Workers members building each unit with pride. The result was a choice of three bodies – a sedan, a coupe and a wagon – offered in three trim levels, two engines and transmissions.

In short, the Saturn cars were a success. In time, they would become amongst the ten best selling passenger cars in the USA. The brand’s customer loyalty and satisfaction ratings would become the story of the industry through the 1990s.

This is truly where the Saturn story takes on a life its own.

Saturn was a universal car. The brand supported this universality. It was not where you came from or who you were – you were all seen as Saturn owners in the eyes of the folks in Spring Hill. Saturn invited you to come to Spring Hill to see how they built cars. They sent out invitations to join them at an annual confab called the "Homecoming" at the Spring Hill plant to celebrate the connections between company, owner, and enthusiast.

This connection with Saturn ran pretty deep in its heyday. I felt it through many friends who owned Saturns since its first years. My brother and his wife were amongst those who owned a Saturn in its first model year. Friends, acquaintances and former co-workers owned various Saturns through the 1990s and beyond – mainly S-Series models, but also a few VUEs, SKYs, Ions, L-Series and Auras. For the most part, the ownership experience was very positive amongst my family and friends.

In the midst of recalling these ownership connections with Saturn, one thing stood out: A familiar person at a Twin Cities store who probably sold a good chunk of these cars to my friends, acquaintances and co-workers.

Richard Herod III was part of Saturn of St. Paul before he became the general manager for the Mitsubishi and Volkswagen stores that now inhabit old Saturn locations in the Twin Cities. His contribution to Saturn culture became a visible symbol amongst mutual owners we knew across the Twin Cities. While some stores offered decals to fit the embossed Saturn name on the rear bumpers, Herod would up providing a different take on the same thing.

Herod recalled: "I remember seeing a friend of mine, Steve, take different color pin striping to the bumper cutout and shape 'Saturn' in all the colors of the rainbow. I approached the management team at the time about creating a decal set that we could offer customers to personalize their Saturn with 'pride.' I remember the management staff being very supportive of this idea. We started selling rainbow Saturn decals in 1998, putting rainbows of Saturns in parades and by the early 2000s we were getting phone calls from Saturn stores across the country wanting 'rainbow' decal sets. It was fun to be part of such an inclusive and innovative car brand."

Saturn was. They were one of the first automobile brands to embrace the LGBT community when it was not considered good business for most of its competitors. Saturn's efforts started a larger effort towards General Motors' being one the most active automakers in terms of LGBT diversity engagement with employees, retailers, and consumer alike.

The cultural phenomenon that was Saturn went beyond just recognizing one demographic over another. The cars were universally accepted across many age, ethnic, faith, and financial groups. These were vehicles that knew no political affiliation, ideology or lifestyle. Everyone loved their Saturn – foibles and all.

The company loved them back. Saturn owners were treated to an experience that was reserved for more expensive cars. Yet, you had fun. There were smiles from people wearing polo shorts and khakis instead of suits or expensive button-down shirts, ties, slacks and shoes.

This is why my family, friends, acquaintances and former co-workers owned these cars. This was why Herod sold them. This was why I reviewed two of them in the pre-V&R days – an Aura and an Outlook, to be exact.

Sadly, Saturn became history in the face of the global financial crisis and the resulting bankruptcy proceedings General Motors went through to survive the worst of it. The damage was already done with its integration inside Renaissance Center, while shuffling production across state lines, international borders and oceans. It was too bad, really. The Outlook was part of the Lambda crossover program that still sells over 20,000 units per month under Chevrolet, Buick and GMC nameplates. In fact, if you look at the back of today's GMC Acadia, you will find a bit of the Saturn Outlook integrated in its design.

Saturn also lives under the guise of the Mexican-built Chevrolet Captiva sold exclusively through GM Fleet & Commercial. The second generation VUE shared the same platform as the global Captiva and Opel Antara crossover. While the platform continued, the rug was already pulled on the brand before it had a chance to do something more with the VUE.

The compact Astra has since been replaced with a new generation in Europe and other export markets. Several attempts to bring the new version over as a Buick had never materialized. Despite the critiques on the car, the Astra was a bit ahead of the curve. What if it took off? Would production continue in Belgium or brought to the NAFTA zone to supply enough of the European compact? One thing was sure – this was a good leap ahead for being the successor to the S-Series and ION, despite the higher than anticipated pricing.

However, the Aura was to have been run out with the new generation of Epsilons at the time of the bankruptcy. One story had the 2011 Buick Regal/Opel Insignia as the new Saturn mid-sized sedan. Imagine if that actually happened.

Imagine if the deal with Penske actually went through. What kind of Saturn would we actually see today? Would it have returned back to its roots? Or, would it as unrecognizable as the products that were sold towards the end?

To the many people in my life who owned Saturns during its time with us, I know how much you loved your experience. They added to the story of a company that provided fun products and truly engaged with their customers when it was not considered the best way of doing business.

It was indeed "a different kind of car company."

All photos by Randy Stern

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