Spring Hill, Tennessee — Looking Forward, Looking Back

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In 1994, I was winding down my law practice, having learned the hard way that America has a highly advanced legal system but lacks a justice system. The crusher was when a client walked in and asked, “Why are medical researchers using lawyers instead of rats in their experiments? Because they find they don’t get so emotionally attached to the rats and there are some things the rats refuse to do.” That was it. I went home that night and vowed to find another line of work.

My loving and supportive wife suggested I apply for a job as a sales person at the new Saturn store near me. Sales?!?! Oh, please, Lord. Not that!  Everyone knows sales is for pushy, high pressure types who wear polyester suits and sport pinkie rings. But my wife insisted Saturn was different, so I made an appointment.

I was sitting outside the general manager’s office waiting for an interview when a person bustled in to report a customer was having an issue with her new  Saturn. “What should we do,” he asked? The general manager asked a question in return. “What’s best for the customer?” Suddenly, I was a believer and spent the next 4 years spreading the gospel according to Saturn. I told my friends I was one of a select few who had raised their standing in the community by becoming a salesman.

People new to the Saturn experience were required to spend a week at the factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee. At the time, it was GM’s attempt to move beyond the contentious history between the company and its workers. The contract with the UAW at the Spring Hill factory was less than 5 pages long. Grievances were typically handled within 48 hours. There were no private offices for supervisors. Everyone aet the same food in the same cafeteria.

Employees were treated like adults. The were expected to clean their own work space. If they wanted to paint the walls, they were granted time to do so. Everyone who worked on the assembly line was authorized to bring a halt to production at any time if there was an issue that needed to be resolved.

Saturn unleashed a torrent of creative energy. The name Saturn was not chosen for the planet but rather for the mighty Saturn rockets that propelled NASA’s moon missions into space. Saturn was suppose to be the new division that would blast stodgy GM into the next century.

Everything Saturn did was different. Teams built entire cars from beginning to end, their tools and equipment moving with them along the way. Each car was built on a skillet — a platform large enough for a car and all the workers in the assembly team. The chassis itself was mounted on a scissor jack so it could be raised or lowered to suit the needs of every team member. If a 6′ 4″ fellow was installing wheels and tires, the chassis was raised so he wouldn’t have to bend over. If a 4′ 8″ woman was doing the same job, it was lowered to suit her needs.

Saturn engineers were the first to use lost foam casting to make engine blocks and cylinder heads that were so accurate, they required 90% less machining. They designed a transmission housing that was suitable for both manual and automatic transmissions. The parking areas around the factory were made of a special concrete mix that was so dry it could be applied using the machines normally used to put down asphalt. The factory itself was hidden by a ridge of Tennessee hills so it was invisible from the nearest road. Cows grazed on those hills and Saturn sold the milk at a profit. Things went very well for Saturn. Tens of thousands of happy Saturn owners attended the annual Homecoming celebration at the factory.

The Curtain Falls And Time Passes

When the first Saturn sedan was being designed starting in 1987, it was proportioned to fit women. Since women make the majority of buying decisions, the company would adjust its products and business plan to appeal to them. The no haggle pricing strategy existed because women said they loathed the traditional arm wrestling that goes on at a normal dealership. The showrooms were designed specifically to present an atmosphere of trust and transparency. All the sales desk were in open carrels right in the middle of the sales floor. Every office — especially the dreaded finance office — had glass walls. There were no secrets at Saturn. “What’s best for the customer?” was always central to the business model.

But there was trouble brewing in paradise. Senior executives at GM’s other division’s bitterly resented upstart Saturn. It was always assumed a larger car would follow the original SL but those executives saw to it that Saturn was starved of money to develop new products. The long knives were out in the GM boardroom and when Roger Smith — the CEO who conceived the Saturn project and saw it to fruition — retired, all the good will it created was squandered. Soon, Saturn ceased to exist and the factory at Spring Hill was shuttered.

SUVs To The Rescue

Cadillac LYRIQ side view cropped
Courtesy of Cadillac

Years later, GM realized it could not afford to leave the Tennessee factory idle, so it retooled it to produce SUVs like the Cadillac XT5, XT6, and GMC Acadia. It also produces internal combustion engines for various GM SUVs and trucks. This week, GM announced it will invest $2 billion to retool the Spring Hill factory once again, this time to build the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq all electric SUV that is scheduled to debut in 2022.

Currently the 7.9-million-square-foot Spring Hill factory employs about 3,400 hourly workers. The new EV operation won’t add any jobs but some production, particularly of the GMC Acadia will be transferred to the Delta factory near Lansing, Michigan. The paint and body shops at Spring Hill will see major expansions and the general assembly area will get new machinery, conveyors, controls and other equipment. Renovation of the plant will begin immediately, GM said in a statement.

Overall, GM has committed to spending $4.5 billion to repurpose existing factories to make electric vehicles. Beside the Tennessee facility, the Orion Township factory and Detroit-Hamtramck plant will be beneficiaries of that investment. Detroit-Hamtramck is where the newly announced all electric Hummer will be manufactured. In all, GM says it will have 20 all electric models on sale in the next few years.

A Personal Perspective

When I worked for Saturn, the company encouraged everyone to submit ideas about how to make the cars better. One day, I wrote a letter suggesting they add a small electric motor between the control arms for the rear suspension and add a smallish battery to power it. That way, the cars could operate in all wheel drive mode during those crucial moments when ice and snow make driving treacherous. It wasn’t intended to make the Saturn into an off road brute. It was more like the electronic stability control many new cars have today that only operates for a few seconds to control skids. I thought it was a helluva good idea.

Sadly, the company didn’t see it that way and nothing came of my idea. But it illustrates how Saturn could have easily become the electric car leader at GM if only it was allowed to stretch its wings. It could have been where the EV1 found a home and other electric vehicle ideas were allowed to flourish. Instead, we are back to a situation in which GM is just beginning to flex its electric car muscles and it may be too late to the party to be competitive.

For one thing, it will need to browbeat its dealers into selling electric vehicles. Most simply refuse to market the Chevy Bolt today just as they refused to market the Chevy Volt that came before it. Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet dealers will continue to do business the way they have always done in the past and whine about how no one wants to buy an electric car. The dealers are the weak link in the transition to electric vehicles and by the time they figure out that things have changed, it may be too late to save GM — or any of the other legacy automakers — from themselves.

One last note. A few years back, I was part of a track day event at Watkins Glen in New York, an historic track where I used to watch Formula One races way back when. I was joined for the weekend by friends who came from as far away at North Carolina and Kansas. Knowing I was going, I bought a used Saturn coupe on Craigslist, outfitted it with second hand tires also from Craigslist, changed the brake fluid, and drove the car to the track.

Track days are not races. No lap times are kept (well, not officially). There is no passing except in designated areas. But you get to go as fast as you dare, all with an experienced instructor in the passenger seat to give you tips on gear selection, braking points, and when to turn in. “Track in” and “track out” become part of your vocabulary immediately. And I managed to nudge the speedometer to just past the 100 mph mark on the front straight. Pure bliss!

Steaming up the esses after the starting line — the same esses negotiated by Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and other legendary racing drivers — is a thrill to be savored. After each run, people would come find me to gush about how great it was to see a Saturn out on track. They all had owned one at some point in their lives and they all had fond memories of their cars.

The destruction of Saturn by gimlet eyed bean counters and back stabbing senior managers was a tragedy and is why I am pretty certain GM may be circling the drain as the EV revolution picks up speed. I hope I am wrong but the resistance to innovation and slavish addiction to how things used to be may prove to be its undoing. In Detroit, all the major car companies suffer from “not invented here” syndrome, which insulates them from reality. GM has about 2 years to get its electric cars right. After that, it’s “Hasta la vista, baby!”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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