Divide and conquer?
Saturn was a division of car manufacturer General Motors (then alongside today’s survivors like Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac) that was started in 1985 as a semi-autonomous company with its own models, designs, dealer network and manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
This was a bold move, because at the time GM was famous for “badge engineered” cars (models in multiple divisions largely distinguished with different noses, tails and trim packages) to save development costs.
The move was also timid. In Saturn, GM had decided to compete with the Japanese manufacturers without doing the hard work of making all their divisions competitive.
Rings around the competition
The original Saturn cars emphasized the advantages of their dent- and rust-resistant plastic body panels. These panels were both a blessing and a limitation.
Competing cars almost universally used unibody construction, where the exterior panels provided strength and rigidity. Instead, the plastic panels of a Saturn instead were adhered to a space frame beneath, and this method of construction led to vehicles that were heavier and cramped inside. The panels fell victim to paint peeling and large panel gaps due to their expanding and contracting more than steel panels in the heat and cold, negatively impacting their fit and finish.
These limitations led to GM slowly phasing in badge engineered versions of vehicles from other divisions, reverting to steel unibody construction, and diminishing the distinctiveness of the brand, at a time when the value of a wide portfolio of brands within GM was being questioned.
Finally, like Pontiac, Geo and Oldsmobile, Saturn became a dispensable brand and was shuttered in 2009.
More than one way to skin a truck
The aluminium-bodied Ford F150 pickup is selling like crazy, thanks to nearly 700 lbs of weight savings introduced by the change of body construction.
As discussed earlier, the downside of plastic panels is that they require body on frame construction. Pickup trucks are largely body on frame, so why not take advantage of the dent- and rust-resistant body panels for a pickup? GM had all the skills in house to do this, it might have saved some weight, and pickup trucks are built to last.
It’s not uncommon to see a 20 year old pickup cruising down the highway, its rusty body panels flapping in the wind. A plastic-skinned pickup would be like-new. Why no plastic Silverado/Sierra?
GM built the Saturn division to be different from its other divisions. It was intended to be a proving ground for new technologies that would leapfrog the Japanese competitors who were producing pleasant, reliable and economical small vehicles.
GM built Saturn vehicle bodies with plastic panels instead of steel ones. This was lighter than body-on-frame construction with steel panels and eliminated rusty bodies.
C is for Combine. It can also ask the question, what if we break it up, for example create a new division?
Contemplating the use of Saturn-style plastic panels on pickup trucks, is an example of adapting an idea found elsewhere.
Innovation and risk
General Motors went bankrupt in 2009. Part of its restructuring efforts was disbanding Saturn. Was it innovation, or a lack of innovation, that bankrupted GM?
It’s easy to find fault after the fact. In the years leading up to 1985, GM had a mixture of unibody and body-on-frame cars. When Saturn came on the market I did not predict that plastic body panels would ultimately be a disadvantage. It was a gamble, but not a foolhardy one, nor was it a fatal one.
GM’s product line didn’t compete head on with more sophisticated Japanese cars. Instead, they grew dependent on a profitable line of SUVs and light trucks – a strategy that worked well until a sudden increase of fuel costs. This, along with pressures from unions, pension and medical liabilities, is what brought down GM.
Had GM’s product line been more broadly competitive (perhaps with an infusion of funding that was instead earmarked for Saturn), it might have fared better.