SATURN: Sad End to a Great Dream

“I wake up at night sick, thinking about all the things that might have been.” Mike Bennett, former Saturn union leader.

I remember back in 1985 when GM launched the bold Saturn experiment – to create an honest, affordable car with a friendly, no-haggle sales policy and unsalesmanlike salespeople who cheered when happy customers drove their new cars off the lot and into their lives


I remember those bold commercials that featured Saturn customers, “technicians,” officials and local yokels gathering for a huge family picnic in Springville, TN – and withstanding rain and gale-force winds together… their spirits undaunted… excited at the idea of making history.

I remember being skeptical.  My cynical side told me that this was likely just another sales ploy… an ad campaign disguised as revolutionary change… lipstick on the automotive pig.  And if the effort was sincere, said my cynical side, it’s unlikely institutions such as GM and the UAW could pull it off – or would want to, in the end.

According to Paul Ingrassia’s overview in the Wall Street Journal (Saturn Couldn’t Escape GM’s Dysfunctional Orbit), my cynical side was right and wrong.

I was wrong: the initial vision of Saturn was truly inspirational and revolutionary.

I was right:  the giant institutions of GM and the UAW could not sustain a revolution against the status quo they helped create.  In the end, they murdered their own love child.  According to Ingrassia, their patricide of Saturn, like some Greek myth, was their most successful collaboration.

Last week, an effort by Roger Penske to save the brand fell through, and the sound of the final nail being driven into Saturn’s coffin was heard by the 350 Saturn dealers who will soon have no more products to sell.  Saturn production is expected to cease immediately and the dealer network will be gone by October, 2010.

And while the failure of the Penske deal may have sounded the death knell, the Saturn dream had been dying from a thousand cuts for years.  Writes Ingrassia:

Saturn was killed by its creators, GM and the UAW. The company starved Saturn for new products, and the union waged war against Saturn’s labor reforms to keep them from spreading to other GM factories.

What do you think?  Share a comment below.

Photo: The logo of Saturn automobiles on a car at Chevrolet-Saturn of Harlem. General Motors announced that it will be discontinuing the Saturn brand. (Photo credit: Richard B. Levine)

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