To save face, General Motors should save Saturn

Dec 17, 2008 at 6:00 am

If you ever commit a serious crime, one that you perpetrate with others, if you are caught and urged to rat out your friends, remember this: He who makes the first deal gets the best deal.

That’s why Wall Street and big banking got $700 billion without so much as a stipulation attached, but Congress made Big Auto jump through SUV-sized hoops, including having to submit business viability plans and agreeing to oversight by a car czar.

The first requester gets the pass, and those subsequent get put through a myriad of paces.

It didn’t have to be that way. Once upon a time (OK, almost 20 years ago), General Motors quietly ignored its chance for a real turnaround. The automaker hit upon something magical. It happened one summer. Strangers from across the country, from all walks of life, saved up, took vacation days, packed up their families and drove to Spring Hill, Tenn. They camped out and picnicked, shared stories and made friends.

It wasn’t some Southern-fried Woodstock. The event was billed as a “Family Homecoming.” Only the people attending weren’t related — their cars were.

As dorky as it was, tens of thousands of GM car owners traveled to “Family Homecomings” to simply celebrate the fact they drove Saturns. They called themselves “Saturnistas.”

I’m one of them. I’m driving my third Saturn. A month ago I bought one for my niece. Even before I started to work for the company (and in the interest of full disclosure, I do advertise for Saturn), I was so hooked on the brand I convinced five friends to buy them, too.

Jeep owners wave when they pass each other on the road, as if they’re all in on some hip secret. BMW people nod. They believe they were racecar drivers in former lives. But when Saturn owners see other Saturn owners, they smile. They think, “Smart. He knows what I know.” 

If GM CEO Rick Wagoner were smart, he’d remember that the vision GM once had for Saturn is the exact vision GM needs now to survive.

Saturn was billed as a different kind of car made by a different kind of company. And it was. Saturn was created by GM to rethink everything about the automotive industry, from development to manufacturing to method of sale. Saturn boldly tried unproved ideas and considered global trends and environmental impact long before most anyone else. The brand was a radical departure from GM’s standard concept.

It had to be. Saturn was conceived to compete with Japanese automakers and produce inexpensive, fuel-efficient small cars.

Saturn workers opted for a non-standard GM-UAW contract. Instead of taking orders from the top, they participated in decision-making. By the time the first Saturn rolled off the Spring Hill assembly line on July 30, 1990, employees at every level of the company were fully committed to the Saturn philosophy.

Over the next several years, employees and customers forged a unique and contagious brand loyalty. Saturn treated customers impeccably, and that created emotional bonds that paid off in repeat business. 

And then GM executives screwed up Saturn much like they screwed up the entire company. The automaker didn’t stick to its business plan; instead, it was distracted by models that were quicker and bigger moneymakers.

Nevertheless, even as GM bosses let Saturn languish and deteriorate, the brand managed to win over foreign car drivers — and convert them so resoundingly they remained loyal even during the years when the models stagnated.

And today, just when Saturn’s style and safety are at all-time highs, GM has indicated that in order to cut costs, it will likely discontinue producing several brands — including Saturn.

That’s a mistake.

Saturn is the poster car for how to win and keep customers. Saturn’s quality and service resonate with buyers. Instead of shunning Saturn, GM should embrace its innovation and duplicate the resulting consumer confidence for the other brands in its automotive stable.

Last week, the Senate refused to give GM billions in congressional roadside assistance. GM’s survival is precarious. What is certain, however, is that if the automaker manages to survive, it needs to evolve into a different kind of car company in order to succeed in the long term.