Saturn faces full eclipse, now ‘all but dead’

The fate of Saturn 417 in Ottawa, one of the few remaining auto dealerships in the country that sell the Saturn brand, was sealed this summer. But now Fred Claude, who has been selling Saturns for 15 years at the dealership, will likely be forced to watch the brand die, too.

General Motors Co. said yesterday it plans to kill the Saturn brand after talks to take it over fell through with automotive entrepreneur Roger Penske. The so-called “Captain at the racetrack” said he could not secure a new source of automobiles to feed the brand after 2011, a deadline GM set to stop supplying Saturn with cars.

“For a lot of us, the writing was on the wall,” Mr. Claude said yesterday. “I think you’ll find the people that are most heartbroken about this is the consumers. Saturn’s had its own following. It’s like a Harley Davidson club.”

Penske Automotive Group had said it intended to close Canadian dealerships by year-end if his plans to buy the brand were successful. Those plans to shutter dealerships will continue although talks fell through, said Stew Low, GM Canada’s spokesman.

Mr. Low said of the 66 Canadian Saturn dealerships that were around when the Penske talks began, only 30 continue to sell the brand. As of Dec. 31, the warranties on all Saturn cars will be handled by GM dealerships, he added. The U.S. dealers will have until October 2010 to wind down operations.

The decision means Saturn, the “different kind of car company” General Motors created almost a quarter-century ago in a bid to revolutionize the North American auto industry, is all but dead.

GM chief executive Fritz Henderson said the talks fell through with Mr. Penske and that the car giant would begin “winding down the Saturn brand and dealership network.” Mr. Henderson said the news was “very disappointing” after hundreds of Saturn employees worked for months to restructure the brand into a company that could stand on its own.

After it was announced that Penske Automotive Group would buy Saturn last spring, the only hitch was where the so-called “The Captain at the racetrack” was going to source new automobiles. GM was only committed to supplying new cars and SUVs until 2011.

Mr. Penske was due to take control of Saturn early this month, but never had a plan to keep any to keep dealers open in Canada.

For many, Saturn’s death is long overdue.

While the car brand sparked early devotion from buyers who loved its no-haggle policy, Saturn rarely had models that were seen as superior to their Japanese rivals. Over the past 24 years, analysts estimate Saturn may have lost US $20-billion.

“It may well be the biggest fiasco in automotive history since Ford brought out the Edsel,” said Jerome York, a former GM director told The New York Times earlier this month.

At different points this year and last, a money bleeding General Motors deemed Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer, Opel and Saab to be brands that could no longer be a part of the conglomerate as it headed for a court-ordered restructuring and government bailout.

Photograph by: Tim Boyle