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Fewer ‘buy American’ options left

 

Fewer ‘buy American’ options left

Jack Markowitz, FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW

 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

About the writer

 

 

 

 

Retired business editor Jack Markowitz’s columns are published on Sundays and Thursdays. He can be reached

 

 

General Motors better watch it doesn’t discontinue the public. GM is discontinuing its Saturn brand of cars.

And this isn’t the first. In 2004 it quit producing Oldsmobile. By yearend ’09 its graveyard of nameplates will welcome Pontiac. And next year Saturn.

In each case the giant enterprise we all own – as bailout taxpayers, remember? – is surrendering a brand name that took decades and marketing millions to build. Thousands of workers too. Hundreds of dealers and multitudes of repeat customers. Dropping an established product leaves a hole.

Trouble is, Saturn couldn’t make a profit. A potential buyer wrestled and wrestled with keeping the brand alive but couldn’t see any way to make a profit either. That’s a sobering thought to the millions of us who’d still like to "buy American."

Because Saturn brought out some nice features when introduced in 1990. A fairly original design in the economy class, light and arrow-like, for fuel mileage competitive with the Japanese and Koreans. More revolutionary yet, a sticker price that stuck. What it said on the window you paid, which was more pleasant for shoppers (most of us, probably) who hate to haggle. And a car body that wouldn’t rust. The "sheet metal" of its panels was fiberglass-reinforced plastic. Steel is stronger, yes, but a crash at any speed crumples them both, everybody knows that.

Saturn also offered a clean slate in labor relations. GM’s strategy to beat the Japanese was to manufacture far from the habits and hatreds of Detroit. The plant at Spring Hill, Tenn., was built from the ground up. Saturn was even a separate corporation. Management and the United Auto Workers would pull together and show the world.

Twenty years later it’s over. Books may have to be written to explain why. Why a company once the greatest in the world and still not far from the biggest couldn’t make money on cars selling anywhere from say $10,000 to $20,000 or more, not exactly pocket change.

So another nameplate in the most American of industries – car manufacturing, for heaven’s sake – limps away in low gear in great if ghostly company: Packard, Hudson, Nash, Studebaker, Willys, Rambler, Plymouth, Olds, Pontiac et al.

General Motors, so buffeted by regulatory, environmental, management and labor abuses that it’s now under government and union ownership, will stake tomorrow on its Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC brands.

Saturn owners are assured future service and parts. But there’s an unavoidable twinge of abandonment.

Funny there’s never been public discussion of an employee buyout of Saturn. Or even a substantial – make that a really substantial – rank-and-file and management sacrifice. Like knocking $10 an hour off labor costs, perhaps $100 million a year. Then maybe a profit could be made selling an American economy car in America. Saturn at least started out to do that. Sorry to see it go.

 

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