Lindsay Chappell is Automotive News' mid-South bureau chief.
She did. She really wanted to get married - and in the midst of a hellacious rainstorm on General Motors' Saturn Corp. factory property in Spring Hill, Tenn. She didn't seem to notice.
She and the groom had met working at competing Saturn dealerships. And now she was asking Saturn Chairman Skip LeFauve - lifelong no-nonsense, Midwestern GM manager - to stand under the tarp with them and give the bride away, bestowing the magical Saturn aura over their union.
The mystique of Saturn had brought them together. The remarkable je ne sais quoi of the funny little car brand had risen out of a genie's bottle and bewitched 40,000 Saturn enthusiasts to travel to Spring Hill for a homecoming - just like all those cars arriving at the cornfield baseball diamond at the end of the movie Field of Dreams.
LeFauve, shaking his head in bewilderment, did as the bride asked and gave her away. The thunder crashed. The couple was wed.
That was 1994. Today, sadly, the couple has split up. LeFauve is deceased. His title of chairman was abolished. There is no longer a Saturn president or CEO title. Spring Hill, the country town that was turned into half of Saturn's DNA double-helix, is no longer referred to as "Saturn." Saturn engineering staffers were packed off back to Michigan. GM now wants Spring Hill to be known as "just a plant."
A dream slipped away
During the next two years, GM will put something new into Spring Hill. It might be a spectacular product, but it won't matter anymore. Because by then, GM - the no-nonsense, Midwestern auto company - will have utterly and finally destroyed Saturn's magic. And Saturn will be one more struggling brand, positioned somewhere below Buick and above Suzuki.
Score one for coloring inside the lines.
But it didn't have to end like this.
Saturn was one of those moments in life - like the comeback of a down-and-out boxer, like a second-hand racehorse with a shot at winning the Kentucky Derby. All of the awesome powers of GM's marketing and strategic thinkers had succeeded in fascinating America with an American car brand.
Owners didn't just like Saturn but fawned over it and recommended it to their family and friends, warts and all.
And then GM let the phenomenon float away.
Sensible GM was incapable of understanding the fairy it had captured in a jar. At the height of the mania, while customers were planning their summer vacations around road trips to Spring Hill, GM deliberated over whether it should even invest anymore. Inside her jar, Tinkerbell Saturn was struggling to breathe.
Plans existed from the beginning for a small Saturn pickup truck, a Saturn SUV and minivan. But those wouldn't be sensible enough, GM decided. Instead, Saturn would get the dour L sedan and wagon. And it would get them not from Spring Hill but from the sensible location of Wilmington, Del.
Ho hum, just another car
After that, the magic was lost. The Vue SUV was just another decent SUV. The Ion was just a car. The Relay minivan, built in Georgia, the upcoming Sky roadster, built in Delaware - will any of them make people want to get married in the rain? Will Robert Lutz's decision to replace Saturn's plastic body panels with steel make people want to drive to the factory with stars in their eyes?
GM can't seem to figure it out. It was never about the car. It was the spell that GM's marketing magicians had conjured up about a Neverland called Spring Hill. But GM's culture was too no-nonsense to accept that or to know what to do with it.
Back in the 1990s, when all this was becoming painfully apparent, Spring Hill's outspoken UAW leader, Mike Bennett - who got it - floated the idea that GM should allow Saturn to be spun off as a leveraged buyout. Spring Hill would direct its own destiny. That idea went nowhere.
But you can close your eyes and picture Bennett's independent Saturn today, a decade later: a renegade brand with components cherry-picked from around the industry; a hip clientele; an auto marketer's dream identity - one part youthful Scion, one part individualist Harley-Davidson, one part trend-wired Starbucks and one part heartland Americana.
Instead, GM's no-nonsense culture has triumphed. The brand will live on, but Tinkerbell is dead. The magic inspired by the little country town factory is floating away just because GM didn't know how to believe.
You may e-mail Lindsay Chappell at [email protected]