What’s Good for GM

Saturn always seemed like Exhibit A of the magnificence of General Motors, and of its folly. Here was a corporation of such scale and ambition, with such distant time horizons, that it would gamble $5 billion and several years on a giant experiment—a brand-new automaker (a brand-new brand)—to prove that America could still compete, and to breed ideas.

The first Saturn sedan rolled off the line in 1990—seven years after the company announced the concept that it would call “the key to GM’s long-term competitiveness.” From Saturn, GM wanted to learn how to design and build appealing small cars; how to foster collaboration instead of friction between management and labor; and how to bond again with customers for a lifetime. These were things, of course, that some of its competitors were already doing; GM wanted to reinvent their wheels—only better, naturally, since GM would be doing it—and win back those upscale, demanding customers who had abandoned its Pontiacs and Cadillacs for Hondas and Lexuses.

Alongside about 30 Oldsmobile dealers, I once tied on a blindfold and then stumbled, sweaty hand in sweaty hand, through a cow pasture near the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. It was 1994, and I was working on a story about how Oldsmobile, with its sales collapsing, was putting all its dealers through Saturn team-building exercises in hopes of touching off what it called, without irony, a “cultural revolution.” Olds wanted to remake itself as the next stop at General Motors for Saturn buyers ready to step up to a bigger car.

I’d spent much of my own boyhood bouncing around in the back of an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, so I was rooting for the brand. And the dealers gathered in Spring Hill were good guys, as car dealers generally are: beefy, gregarious, self-made. Though they grumbled that Oldsmobile’s problem was shoddy products, not their service, they gamely performed the Saturn trust falls, and chanted “hug, hug” as they embraced, and scaled a 40-foot “corporate wall” in teams of three. At the close of two days, each dealer burned an index card on which he’d scrawled the “baggage” he had resolved to leave behind in Spring Hill.

It didn’t work, obviously. Olds continued to disintegrate, while in Spring Hill the baggage piled up and the corporate walls closed in. General Motors had named Saturn for the rocket that carried Americans to the moon, but it maybe should have considered that Saturn was also the Roman god who devoured his young, as revolutions are said to do. Other divisions, jealous of the upstart, ganged up to starve Saturn of investment; after starting off with its unique sedan, the division blurred its image by selling as Saturns restyled versions of cars, and even sport-utility vehicles, offered by other brands; and Saturn’s workers eventually voted down its innovative labor contract.

Olds is gone now, closed by GM in 2004 after 107 years. General Motors has cut a deal to sell the Saturn brand—though not, interestingly, any factories—to the Penske Automotive Group. And GM has had to pass through bankruptcy to begin making, at last, the brutal but necessary choices among its many legacy commitments, to its divisions, its dealers, and its workers.

Now it is the taxpayers who are making the colossal bet, of $50 billion, that an American automaker can compete so that, as President Obama put it, “all of our children can grow up in an America that still makes things.” We’re betting that the new GM can create efficient small cars, harmonious labor relations, and loyal customers. For better or worse, General Motors has become our Saturn. And with our own commitments multiplying as our public debt grows, with no one left to bail us out, we now have to find a way to avoid becoming GM.