Goodbye Saturn, Thanks for the Ride (1985-2010)
Later tonight the giant ball in Times Square will be lowered when the clock strikes twelve and 2010 will come to an end. It's been a emotional year for Saturn employees, owners, and fans; October 31st marked the end of General Motors' grand Saturn experiment. Of all the news articles I've written for SaturnFans.com over the past 15 years, this one has been by far the hardest for me to write. Saying goodbye is never easy, and this time is no different. To me Saturn was more than just another car or company: it represented a fresh approach to running a business, and more significantly, it was a symbolic entry in America's ideological battle against the best vehicles the "import" car companies had to offer.
Unlike many automotive concepts that come and go every year, Saturn was one that actually came to fruition. When the company was launched in October 1990, it represented a rare phenomenon in the industry with its unique features, clever marketing, and customer-focused retail stores. Saturn was a surprising success from the beginning. "As foreign rivals continue to flood the market with new models, Saturn is meeting them head on," wrote Business Week magazine in its August 17, 1992 issue. "Almost overnight, Saturn has become the highest-quality American-made brand, with as few defects as Hondas and Nissans." But as well as things were going for Saturn at the time, the magazine recognized that its parent company – General Motors – was one of its biggest threats. "The automaker clearly has a winner on its hands," said BW. "Now, the question is: Will GM know what to do with it?" Unfortunately, the answer was no.
Saturn demonstrated early on that having a good product was only one of the ingredients needed to make a happy customer. Passionate employees, a knowledgeable sales staff, and customer-friendly service personnel who work tirelessly to solve your vehicle's issues right the first time are essential to building a satisfying ownership experience. Saturn was quickly rewarded with a high level of success because it always put people first. Many companies claim to be customer focused, but few obsessively focused on the customer experience as Saturn did. The brand built its reputation by consistently over-delivering on promises. From throwing recall parties when vehicle problems were discovered, to hosting "Homecoming" celebrations at its plant in Tennessee, to giving back to the community through charitable initiatives, Saturn always strived to do the right thing in an effort to make its customers happy.
Unfortunately happy owners of reliable, well-built cars don't replace their vehicles very often; they keep them for a long time. And despite its success, GM was slow to let Saturn expand its lineup for fear it would cannibalize sales at its other divisions. By the mid-1990s Saturn's explosive sales growth stalled and eventually began to decline. One-by-one Saturn's coveted import "conquest" buyers left the fold and went back to Honda and Toyota. With a lineup of aging small cars, Saturn struggled to draw a significant number of new customers into retailer showrooms. To make matters worse GM was facing its own internal problems, and as a result, it cut costs by stripping Saturn of everything that made it unique and different. Features that once made Saturn stand out in the market – namely recyclable polymer body-side panels that didn't rust, dent, or ding, steel spaceframe safety cages, and an innovative UAW labor agreement – were all scrapped so that GM could standardize processes and procedures across its divisions. Years later when GM finally did give Saturn an impressive array of new product, the vehicles were quickly cloned and shared with its sister brands. Inconsistent brand messaging and a lack of advertising funds needed to adequately promote its vehicles added to Saturn's inability to boost its sales in the face of a continuously improving crop of high quality vehicles from Japan, Europe, and South Korea.
That's not how the Saturn story was supposed to play out.
I first read about GM's top secret "Saturn Project" back in 1985. At the time, Japanese import cars were beginning to put a significant dent in American automakers' sales. American car companies feared that if they couldn't lure small car buyers into their showrooms, they would lose an entire generation of customers who would never consider buying a domestic make. Saturn was created to reverse that trend by giving consumers a credible alternative. I was 10 years old at the time, and was excited to see GM planning to build a car that could battle the best of the imports. I was intrigued by the idea of an American car company going back to the drawing board to do things – from engineering, manufacturing, and selling cars – completely different in order to fight back.
As the Saturn project matured, more and more information leaked into newspapers and magazines. Back then, I collected articles and spy photos in 3" binders. Now most of my reading comes from online news sources, but my collection of offline Saturn material continues to grow. Today my Saturn archives are measured by the number of boxes, not binders. The advent of the Internet during college gave me even greater access to Saturn information. In 1996, I created a small homepage while teaching myself HTML that helped me share my data with other people. The original name of this website was chosen because of an ancient Roman festival that I learned about in my middle school Latin class. It's a stretch, but "Saturnalia" was originally designed to be an online carnival for Saturn owners and enthusiasts. In 1998, I hosted my first "Saturn Fest" virtual homecoming for owners who weren’t able travel to Tennessee for the real celebration (myself included). In 1999, I purchased the "SaturnFans.com" domain. But it wasn't until the fall of 2001 that I officially joined the Saturn family when my wife and I purchased a white 2002 L300 midsize sedan. We later purchased a 2005 Vue Red Line and an Outlook crossover in 2008. What began as a simple page featuring a list of news stories and bookmarked web sites evolved into the interactive community you see online today with hundreds of thousands of pages and more than 10,000 daily visitors. Needless to say this hobby of mine took on a life of its own and grew into something larger than I ever imagined.
I've never worked for Saturn or GM (I'm an electrical engineer in real life), but over the years I've come to know quite a few folks who did. I empathize with those who lost their job and retirement savings as a result of the shutdown and bankruptcy proceedings. For 25 years, I've followed Saturn's every move, tracked their new model introductions, and documented brand's metamorphosis from a wholly-owned, independent subsidiary of General Motors to just another GM division in the years before it was shuttered. It was a labor of love, and I'm going to miss it. There were good times and bad, ups and downs. It's been quite a ride.
I will remember Saturn for the ideas it represented, the people who believed in the concept, and some of the opportunities it gave me as a mere fan of the company:
- Hosting Saturn's top executive, Jill Lajdziak, in our home to discuss future product plans and to interact live with other enthusiasts in the SaturnFans.com chat room
- Riding shotgun in a 2-door Saturn Astra XR hatchback and talking cars with former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz behind the wheel
- Getting a behind-the-scenes look at the Saturn and General Motors corporate headquarters – as well as the GM Heritage Center Museum – in Detroit
- Meeting with Saturn's San Francisco-based ad agency to discuss vehicle marketing strategies and customer concerns
- Traveling to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash facility to watch a high-speed side-impact crash test of the 2008 Saturn Vue
- Receiving media credentials to attend auto shows and vehicle launch events
- Touring Saturn's innovative Spring Hill, TN manufacturing facility and GM's Saturn Outlook assembly plant in Lansing, MI
- Talking about Saturn throughout the years with news outlets such as CNN, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today
- Having SaturnFans.com featured in official Saturn corporate material (new owner pamphlets, Saturn Signatures magazine, and corporate website)
These were all things that happened because of you – the tens of thousands of folks who were so active in the SaturnFans.com community. Thank you for being a part of my little creation and for sharing your ideas, stories, and opinions. You helped me build SaturnFans.com into not only a respected community, but the largest and most visited "unofficial" Saturn site on the Internet. There was never a shortage of data that I could share with Saturn or the news media whenever they were looking for feedback on any given topic or issue. While I don't know how much GM appreciated your comments, the folks at Saturn did. They were listening and fought a good fight to keep the company as closely tied to its roots as possible. I was honored to be your ambassador, and I was looking forward to the start of a new chapter in the history of Saturn.
Instead we've come to the end of this story. We fought a valiant fight to help Save Saturn; one that was recognized in the media and at the highest levels within GM. But in the end Saturn's business model couldn't be supported by a bankrupt General Motors, and unfortunately, Roger Penske's plans to buy the company fell through when he couldn't secure a manufacturing partner within GM's tight timetable that could build new vehicles.
Concerned visitors still write me asking two questions: is there anything else we can do to bring Saturn back and what's going to happen to SaturnFans.com? Unfortunately Saturn is gone for good, but I plan to keep the site online as long as visitors find its information useful and advertisers are willing to help cover the costs of running the site. While there haven't been many updates to the front page of the site over the past year, I do plan at least one more major site upgrade. The changes have been in the works for more than a year, and should make it easier to find information while streamlining maintenance on the backend. I look forward to continuing to interact with all of you for many years to come.
I cherish the friendships that I've made through SaturnFans.com, and I truly appreciate all of the support each and every one of you have given me over the years. I'm especially grateful for my wife's understanding and for her help in pursuing this passion of mine. And finally, I'd like to also thank all of the people at Saturn and GM who helped make Saturn the "different kind of car" and "different kind of company" that so many of us came to know and love.
Thanks for the memories.
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