Saturn Car Company's Early Success

Saturn's first big product change occurred late in the 1992 model year: an optional driver-side airbag. The cars had been introduced with motorized shoulder belts to meet the federal require­ment for dual front-seat "passive restraints," but Japanese rivals were rapidly adding airbags and Saturn needed to match them. The motorized belts continued through model-year '94.

The driver-side cushion became an across-the-board standard for 1993, when four-door wagons and optional traction control arrived. The wagon, striding the same wheelbase as the sedan and otherwise identical to it ahead of the rear doors, came in sohc SW1 and dohc SW2 versions.

Also added was a lower-cost coupe, titled SC1, with the single-cam engine and exposed headlamps. The dual-cam coupe retained its hidden-headlamp face as the SC2.

The new traction control was available for just $50 on models ordered with ABS and automatic. There was hardly any hardware involved. Saturn simply wrote new software allowing the ABS computer to counteract wheel slip in three stages: retard spark timing to reduce engine power, shift the transmission to a higher gear, and interrupt fuel flow. Traction control was a Saturn class exclusive and thus a big coup for the brand; even many luxury cars didn't have it yet.

Saturn production finally hit full stride during model-year '93. Spring Hill ran two shifts to crank out some 244,000 cars, almost 75,000 more than the year before. But dealers were still short of stock and asking for more, so a third shift was added and all shifts rescheduled to four days a week, 10 hours a day. That had the plant going six days a week to squeeze out nearly 60,000 additional cars each year. The cars themselves were little changed for '94, but there was big news on the financial front. In January 1994, Saturn announced its first operating profit, achieved in calendar '93, though the amount wasn't made public. The workforce had grown to 8500 by then, and each employee received a profit-sharing check for about $5100.

Though Saturn was still a long way from paying back GM's initial investment, officials hastened to point out several benefits accruing from the new company. On the technology side were the lost-foam engine casting technique, a new water-borne paint process, and team-oriented assembly systems, all being adopted or studied by other GM operations.

In addition, Saturn's four-cylinder cars were earning valuable corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) credits for GM as a whole to offset sales of gas-guzzling V-8 models, including a fast-rising number of thirsty full-size light trucks.

Most important perhaps, 75 percent of Saturn sales represented "plus business," meaning they came at the expense of non-GM brands. More than half of Saturn owners said they would have bought a Japanese car instead, thus realizing one of Roger Smith's goals -- stealing customers from the likes of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan.

To say thanks, Saturn invited its customers -- all 700,000 of them -- to a "Homecoming" weekend in Spring Hill in late June 1994. It was another extraordinary thing for a car company to do, but even Saturn was surprised when more than 44,000 ­people showed up. All came at their own expense, some driving in from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii.

Drenching rains and muddy fields didn't dampen the family-oriented fun, which included plant tours, picnics, a concert, and sharing the gospel with fellow owners and Spring Hill workers. Two employees from Pennsylvania Saturn retailers got married during the event; Saturn President Skip LeFauve gave the bride away, plus a 1995 Saturn as a wedding present.

Beyond great PR, the Homecoming testified to how well Saturn was making friends and fostering customer loyalty. It was judged a success, despite the soggy weather and other problems, and would be repeated in 1999.

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