DETROIT (Oct. 5, 2009) — As far as auto industry “grand experiments” go, Saturn lived a long life.
From the time General Motors Corp. Chairman Roger Smith incorporated Saturn Corp. in 1985 until October 2010, when GM officially will bury the brand, it will be 25 years.
(Last week GM said it will begin to phase out its Saturn unit after bidder Penske Automotive Inc. failed to secure a source of vehicles to keep the brand afloat.)
DaimlerChrysler A.G. lasted nine years and yielded the Chrysler Pacifica. Ford Motor Co. owned Jaguar for 19 years and gave us aluminum-body Jags. BMW A.G. owned Rover Group for six years and brought forth the Mini Cooper. Yugo lasted just six years in the U.S. and left only a lingering legacy of late-night TV punch lines.
Point being, in the wildly spinning and unpredictable auto industry, 25 years of anything is a pretty good life expectancy.
Saturn gave us dent-resistant body panels; the three-door coupe; the no-haggle sales approach; a working model for friendly union-management relations; low-cost aluminum casting techniques; the concept of multiple-store franchises; environmentally oriented car advertising; dealer participation in factory issues; the science of color-matching paint-free plastic molding; GM's first female CEO; the automotive application of “black box” recorders; and an alumni association of GM career men and women who spread throughout the corporation with a new kind of culture of management enlightenment.
But the auto industry is merciless to players who don't change rapidly enough. And Saturn was whipsawed by a changing marketplace from the day it was born.
Saturn planners targeted their model to go after the Honda Accord. But between when they began planning and when the car reached showrooms in October 1990, the Accord had grown in size and horsepower. Honda anticipated a new era of demand for vehicle roominess and horsepower. Saturn did not.
As Saturn continued to chase small-car buyers, Americans rushed headlong into SUVs, pickups and minivans. By the mid-1990s—as Saturn dared to attempt an export run at the impenetrable Japanese home market—even Japanese consumers were finding SUVs cool.
And, finally, just as Saturn entered the SUV market, the segment began to implode.
In 1998, it embarked on a plan to consolidate dealerships into a publicly traded retail company. But the idea ran into a chilly Wall Street reception for new public offerings.
Saturn's timing never quite clicked. Divisions and subsidiaries of large bureaucratic corporations are often hampered from responding to the market. Roger Smith's insistence in 1985 that Saturn be a separate GM subsidiary with its own CEO and chairman was intended to allow Saturn to make its own business cases and go wherever it saw dollars.
But as soon as Mr. Smith had retired—one month after Saturn debuted—that independence was challenged at every turn.
In the end, Saturn morphed from subsidiary to mere GM brand “to help it compete in the future,” executives explained. But helping it compete could not keep it alive.
Its customers remain zealous. Its dealers remain committed. Its managers remain standing at attention in the unlikely event the dead might rise again.
In the brutal world of the car business, the sad reality is that, in the words of a poet, “Death comes to all, but great achievements raise a monument which shall endure until the sun grows old.”
This story ran in Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.