I can still recall the look of horror on my student's face when, during a quick recap of recent events, I reminded the class Saturn would be no more. Was the planet Saturn going away? After all, Pluto had lost its classification. It wasn't until I clarified myself that he realized I was speaking of the line of cars GM had just shuttered.
Nearly 25 years ago, the General Motors chairman, Roger Smith, stood up and announced to the world the automotive giant was intent on introducing a new brand of American made compact cars built expressly to compete against the likes of Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. They would be nothing like American small cars of the past. They would be stylish, yet practical and economical just like their Japanese counterparts.
Up until that time, Detroit's record building small cars was spotty at best. In the early 1960s, GM introduced the Corvair family of cars. These rear-engined compacts were created to compete directly against Volkswagen's Beetle. They were stylish and perhaps a bit quirky, and they sold well initially. However bad press generated by a young lawyer named Ralph Nader help to undo the line's success. His book, UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED, took direct aim at General Motors for failing to put an inexpensive part on the car that would have made it safer (ironically, by the time Nader's book had reached publication, the issue had been dealt with but the damage was done). As the 1960s came to a close GM was no longer interested in the Corvair and the car died quietly in 1969.
As the 1970s began, GM again tried small cars with the Chevrolet Vega. Ford also took a crack at the market with its Pinto. While both cars sold reasonably well, they both proved to be technological failures. The Vega was riddled with engine problems and the Pinto was infamous for a design flaw that could cause the gas tank to explode on impact. When compared to the increased competition from Japan, the Americans were quickly losing ground. The oil crisis of 1973-74 only helped to exacerbate this problem as many buyers were drawn not only to the great fuel economy, but also to the rock-solid reliability.
By the time Roger Smith had announced the creation of Saturn, American automakers, already well behind, were continuing to lose ground quickly as the Japanese automakers' offerings became more and more sophisticated. But creating Saturn was a bold step as GM was attempting to create a whole new brand designed from the ground up to give the car buying public a new experience that would be worthy of Saturn's slogan: "A different kind of company. A different kind of car."
And for a while it worked.
Saturn was GM's attempt to prove to the world - or least Americans, that the company really could build solid, well apportioned, small cars. In fact, for much of its early life, Saturn was almost totally disassociated with GM. They were built in a facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee and the working environment was patterned much like one operated by a Japanese automaker. Assembly line workers were empowered to stop production if they sensed a problem. The idea was that they would do things nothing like their corporate parent had done for so many decades prior. To further distance themselves The cars had no GM badging and Saturns were sold in completely separate showrooms in a very serene no-haggle environment. While the cars were fairly benign in design, they did have one unique feature setting them apart from other automobiles - dent-resistant body panels. Buyers were loyal to the brand and Saturn did fun events like the annual homecoming where Saturn owners could literally bond with other Saturn owners. It was almost marketing genius.
But as the Saturn brand matured, its product line did not. As time passed, the brand became more closely tied to its Detroit parent when calls for a larger model to compete against entrenched competitors such as the Accord and Camry were unable to be answered. It was almost a decade before Saturn finally answered the call and introduced additional offerings. They even quit using dent-resistant body panels. But it was beginning to become apparent that Saturn's window of opportunity had closed and the brand which had such idealistic beginnings was quickly becoming an afterthought.
What really caused Saturn to fail? I can't say exactly. Here, I am as guilty as anyone for contributing to the brand's demise writing an obituary lamenting its departure. I had plenty of opportunity to join the Saturn family, but somehow did not find it appealing enough for my own personal tastes. Hypocritical? Maybe. However, it could also help explain the problem to a degree. Definitely the lack of a broader offering hurt the brand immensely. Saturn was unable to cultivate buyers into bigger more expensive Saturns. Instead those buyers graduated to bigger, more expensive, Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans. While the company may have had early success appealing to late baby boomers and gen Xers, top officials at GM were sadly mistaken if thought they could use Saturn as a springboard to other GM products. Instead, Saturn found itself on the cutting room floor, with a line of cars that were unprofitable to sell. What had begun as a different kind of company, ended up as a whole lot of the same.
And somehow, in spite of it all, I will still find myself missing its rings.
Well, I gotta scoot...