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  • Writer's pictureTim Jackson

Saturn – Modernized car company built inside an old car company

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

The creation of Saturn Motors by General Motors was a significant event in the automotive industry. It was conceived with a vision to challenge the dominant Japanese automakers, who were gaining market share in the United States during the 1980s.

General Motors aimed to create a brand that would offer innovative and fuel-efficient vehicles, focusing on customer satisfaction and a unique buying experience. The leaders within General Motors who spearheaded the creation of Saturn were Roger B. Smith, the CEO of General Motors at the time, and Alex C. Mair, who was appointed as the President of the newly formed Saturn Corporation.

Under their guidance, a team of dedicated engineers and designers worked to bring the Saturn project to life. Saturn was envisioned as a separate division within General Motors, distinct from other GM brands, with its own manufacturing facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee. The plant was designed to be a model of efficiency, utilizing innovative manufacturing techniques such as teamwork and employee involvement.

The goal was to create a culture of quality and collaboration that would set Saturn apart from its competitors. When Saturn launched its first vehicles in 1990, it received an overwhelming response from the public. The Saturn S-Series, a compact car, was well-received for its excellent fuel efficiency, affordable price and high-quality build. The brand's commitment to customer satisfaction was evident through its "no-haggle" pricing policy and a strong emphasis on customer service.

In its early years, Saturn experienced significant success. It attracted a loyal customer base by delivering on its promises of reliable vehicles and exceptional customer service. The brand expanded its lineup to include midsize sedans, coupes, and later, SUVs. Saturn's innovative plastic body panels, dent-resistant doors and continuously evolving designs further differentiated it from other GM brands.

However, as time went on, Saturn faced challenges. The brand struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing automotive landscape and the increasing competition. Despite efforts to introduce new models, such as the Saturn Ion and Saturn Vue, the brand failed to capture the attention of consumers as it had in the past.

Further, the economic downturn of the late 2000s took a toll on General Motors as a whole, leading to a financial crisis. In a bid to restructure and stay afloat, General Motors announced the closure of Saturn in 2009. This decision was met with disappointment from Saturn enthusiasts and employees alike, as the brand had once held great promise.

The launch of Saturn created processes never heard of in automotive fiefdom. Some of these were:

Saturn Homecomings

Saturn's "Homecoming" events were a significant part of the brand's efforts to foster a strong sense of community among its owners and enthusiasts. These events allowed Saturn owners to visit the Spring Hill, Tennessee, plant where their cars were manufactured and connect with the people behind the brand. The first “Homecoming” in 1994 attracted 44,000 people. Owner enthusiasm went off the charts, as was demonstrated when nearly 100,000 owners attended two "homecoming" celebrations in 1994 and 1999.

Here is an overview of what the Saturn Homecoming typically entailed:

1. Purpose: Saturn Homecoming events were organized to celebrate the Saturn community, connect owners with each other, and provide an opportunity for Saturn enthusiasts to see how their cars were made.

2. Location: The events were held at the Spring Hill Manufacturing facility, which was Saturn's primary manufacturing plant. Spring Hill was chosen as it represented the heart of the Saturn brand.

3. Plant Tours: One of the highlights of the Homecoming events was the opportunity for attendees to take guided tours of the Spring Hill plant. These tours allowed visitors to witness the manufacturing process firsthand and gain a deeper appreciation for the brand's commitment to quality.

4. Meet the Team: Saturn Homecomings often featured meet-and-greet sessions with Saturn employees, including assembly line workers, engineers, and executives. This interaction gave attendees a chance to ask questions and learn more about the people responsible for building their cars.

5. Car Show: Owners often had the opportunity to showcase their own Saturn vehicles at car shows during the Homecoming events. This allowed enthusiasts to share their pride and passion for their cars with fellow Saturn owners.

6. Workshops and Seminars: Saturn sometimes organized workshops and seminars during these events. These sessions could cover topics such as car maintenance, customization, and insights into Saturn's unique manufacturing processes.

7. Entertainment: Saturn Homecomings were not just about cars; they often featured entertainment, live music, and family-friendly activities to create a festive atmosphere.

8. Merchandise and Memorabilia: Attendees could typically purchase Saturn-branded merchandise and collectibles to commemorate their visit.

9. Community Building: The Homecoming events helped build a tight-knit community of Saturn owners and enthusiasts who shared a passion for the brand. It created a sense of belonging and loyalty among Saturn owners.

Saturn's Homecoming events were seen as a testament to the brand's commitment to customer engagement and community building. Unfortunately, with the discontinuation of the Saturn brand in 2010, these events became part of the brand's history. However, they remain fond memories for Saturn owners and enthusiasts who were fortunate enough to attend and experience the unique Saturn spirit firsthand.

Saturn was originally founded as a separate company and bought out by GM:

According to Saturn, the idea for an all-new type of small car came from Alex C. Mair in summer 1982. By fall 1983, GM president F. James McDonald and chairman Roger B. Smith were on board with the idea. The first Saturn concept vehicle was released in fall 1984 and the company was officially formed in early 1985. At that time, it was a private company owned by former GM leaders but was eventually bought out by GM.

No Haggle Pricing:

Saturn's no-haggle price model immediately gained popularity with buyers both in the U.S. and Canadian markets. Saturn celebrated the release of its 500,000th car, which the company named Carla, in 1993, and its millionth car in 1996.

Saturn had one of the highest customer loyalty rates in the industry. Their No Haggle pricing was wildly popular with female buyers.

GM’s First Electric Car

GM's first-ever electric car was the Saturn GM EV1. Like many others, inside and out of the industry, I was intrigued by Saturn. I wondered about its processes, innovation and long term, practical strategies toward future industry change and success. During an unrelated planned road trip between conference in New Orleans and a recreational event in Southern Indiana, I planned my driving route slightly out of the way in order to make a swing through Spring Hill, Tennessee, just a few miles and minutes South of Nashville.

I found that that it was enlightening to see that within an old, somewhat stoic corporation like General Motors, it is possible to innovate and think differently. For that reason, and others, I was disappointed to hear that General Motors, under pressure from the Obama Administration’s famous Auto Task Force, added Saturn to the short list of brands to be terminated during the bankruptcy filing in May of 2009.

As the industry evolved, Saturn struggled to adapt, eventually leading to its closure in 2009 amidst financial difficulties faced by General Motors. Despite its ultimate fate, Saturn Motors will always be remembered as an ambitious venture that aimed to revolutionize the automotive industry.


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