Tyrades! Saturn: The Road Not Taken

Friday, October 16, 2009

It has been a rough decade for astronomy buffs. First, it was decided that Pluto isn't really a planet. Then it was announced that Saturn isn't really a viable brand of automobile.

The death knell of Saturn was announced earlier this month, after Roger Penske backed out of taking over the nameplate. So Saturn will join Plymouth, Pontiac and Oldsmobile in the brand scrapheap. (Thousands of workers are displaced in such situations, but still, David Letterman might at least have gotten a tax write-off if he had dropped brands instead of his pants.)

Even when Saturn was flush with success, my late father had his own misgivings about the whole phenomenon. In 1985 when it was announced that the Saturn factory would be built in Spring Hill, Tennessee, in neighboring Maury County, one of my father's customers at Easy Pay Tire Store expressed great jealousy that the project wasn't coming to Marshall County. Dad opined that he had spent his entire 60 years in Marshall County but would pull up stakes and move for parts unknown if all the congestion and headaches associated with such a project ever came here.

Maybe Dad feared another Yankee invasion, but you have to admire the diversity Saturn brought to Middle Tennessee. No school board meeting is complete without "Two little feet of snow? We used to handle that with no brakes, Bermuda shorts and a thimbleful of gasoline."

I guess Dad just didn't appreciate the mythic quality of the Saturn experience: a revolutionary upending of the traditional GM bureaucracy; unprecedented cooperation between management and labor; flexible work shifts; a separate retailer network; and no-haggle pricing.

Mythic? Okay, maybe it was more of a fairy tale. A Sleepy little town became host to a huge factory that supplied Happy dealers. Ultimately, upper management made some Dopey decisions and the union became less Bashful about asking for concessions that were nothing to be Sneezy about. Customers became Grumpy. Despite Snow White intentions, the company was knocked out by biting off more debt than it could handle When Prince Charming couldn't raise the company from its slumber, Doc was brought in to euthanize it.

Workers wanted the fairy tale to be more like The NeverEnding Story. The Wall Street Journal quoted former union leader Mike Bennett as saying, "I wake up at night sick, thinking about all the things that might have been." Yes, what might have been if Saturn had reached its Golden Anniversary in 2035? We would probably have seen ad campaigns such as "The S-series returns! S as in submarine! Who really needs polar ice caps when the 'road' is an open adventure?"

How about "The new 2036 models come factory-equipped on concrete blocks, because sitting in your car texting is so much more important than actually getting anywhere?"

Or maybe Madison Avenue would trot out "Our new model comes with extra-large ashtrays so you'll have plenty of room for yourself when you're brought back from your visit with the death panel."

Alas, we'll never know. The line created to repel the competition from Japanese automakers wound up having rings run around it.

*Sigh* We must settle for the slogan "A different kind of car company -- but the same kind of pink slip."

Note: Danny Tyree welcomes e-mail at tyreetyrades@aol.com.