NASHVILLE -- Roger Penske's 11th-hour decision to pass on acquiring General Motors Co.'s Saturn brand marks a sad continuation of the same problem that has dogged Saturn for a decade: a lack of products.
Penske had the bold proposal of keeping Saturn alive by creating a virtual automaker. GM was not going to sell Penske any auto factories, and Penske was happy not to have to own any. In taking over the ownership of the Saturn brand name, Penske would get a logo, parts inventories and a field staff -- but no designers, stylists, engineers or r&d labs.
That meant Penske's staff would have to perpetually wander the earth seeking other automakers to make cars of Penske's description and specifications for Saturn showrooms.
In canceling the deal Wednesday afternoon, Penske told GM that it had become apparent -- after a single proposed third-party automaker had nixed the deal -- that his “virtual automaker” proposal was too risky and uncertain.
The conclusion should not have been a surprise: The world is full of excess auto factory capacity. The real magic of the auto industry is coming up with specific models that trigger consumers' lust for painted sheet metal.
What killed Saturn
The difficulty of getting exciting new products is what killed Saturn in the first place.
GM slowly suffocated Saturn by killing the brand's product plan soon after the brand was launched in 1990.
Saturn went to market with a compact sedan and coupe. The second phase of the plan was to have churned out a Saturn minivan, pickup, SUV and other models.
Consumers were responding. Saturn's superb customer satisfaction ratings were the envy of every other GM division. The new brand was drawing the import intenders it was created to target.
It is a basic tenet of business: You strike while the iron is hot.
But the recession of 1991 and the resulting turmoil at GM nixed all that. There simply wasn't enough money to keep feeding the fire at the hot new brand, especially when Oldsmobile executives, Chevrolet dealers, Cadillac customers and Pontiac salespeople were clamoring for new products.
Derailed from its product plan, Saturn lost its momentum like a house party running out of beer and nachos.
New products came, but they invariably were a day late and a dollar short.
A wagon based on the first sedan appeared in 1993. And in 1999, nearly a decade after the brand's launch, Saturn proudly unveiled its first new model: a less-than-enthralling mid-sized sedan called the LS. Under cost restrictions, Saturn had to base the car on the European Opel Vectra and re-engineer it for America.
Incredulous audiences pointedly asked: Another sedan? Don't you guys read the newspapers? Where is Saturn's SUV?
Saturn would not get its SUV until 2002. That was one year before the SUV market peaked and six aimless years after the U.S. introductions of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. By that time, Saturn's role in the segment was pleasant but unremarkable.
The pattern was clear: A distracted GM was begrudgingly tossing Saturn the occasional bone.
Finally, a pulse
It was not until the middle of this decade that the heroic appeals of brand executive Jill Lajdziak finally found powerful ears at GM and the giant began putting its heart back into the Saturn product plan. GM product czar Bob Lutz's Saturn Sky roadster was GM at its best: stylish, fun and respectable.
Unfortunately, the Sky was more than a decade late. Saturn dealers should have had the Sky in 1993 to take on the imported Mazda Miata, not in 2006 to compete against its twin, the Pontiac Solstice.
GM has spent the past 20 years tying itself in knots over new-product development approaches. Unfortunately, those 20 fitful years happened to coincide with the launch, initial success, sea change and ultimate abandonment of its Saturn brand.
After all that history, in drawing up his plans this summer, Penske was shrewd enough to know not to count on GM for Saturn's future products.
But what apparently surprised him Wednesday afternoon is that outside automakers wouldn't be much help to Saturn either.
Mid-South Bureau Chief Lindsay Chappell has covered Saturn from Nashville since 1985.