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Lesson of Penske's bid for Saturn? It's tough getting started

Roger Penske's abrupt cancellation of his Saturn purchase is a stark reminder of how hard it is to enter the automotive business.

How hard?

Consider this: When 32 million units of auto production capacity sits idle, one of the most capable executives on the planet can't find a manufacturer willing to deliver a couple hundred thousand new vehicles two years from now.

Penske's pure-distributor scheme -- to buy the Saturn brand from General Motors and use the dealership network to sell vehicles built by an outsider -- was always risky. Penske wouldn't own any product development capability, or design studios, or test tracks. He had a deal for GM to build existing Saturn products for the first two years, until he could find another manufacturer to provide products. He would have one really strong asset: the Saturn dealer network: Savvy dealers with newer facilities.

But even Penske couldn't make it work.

In private, Penske and his top lieutenants beat the bushes worldwide to find a provider to sell him worthy vehicles at a reasonable price. There was speculation that France's Renault was interested, maybe Chinese or Indian automakers looking for a way into the U.S. market.

But with global excess capacity running at 37 percent this year, it's a rare automaker CEO that didn't at least contemplate doing a deal with Penske.

But nobody came through. Didn't want to dilute their own brand, or didn't have a product to meet Penske's standards. Maybe didn't have enough time to develop and homologate products. Or enough capital. Or afraid of creating a new competitor. Or killing the traditional automaker business model.

Like I said, an automaker startup without government support is tough.

Remember the apocryphal story about Henry Kaiser, who made a fortune building Liberty ships during World War II and spent it entering the U.S. auto industry in the late 1940s.

Kaiser, the story goes, came to Detroit to announce his entry, pledged to devote "one hundred million dollars" -- a lot at the time -- to launch his car company, only to have the chairman of GM supposedly state "Give the man one chip."

Kaiser lasted only a few years.

The point of this folk tale was that only existing automakers, or perhaps governments, had the capital to successfully launch an automaker.

Penske may have failed, but at least he provides a fresher tale of warning than Henry Kaiser.

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