Say goodbye to Saturn. And Saab and Hummer, for that
matter. Pontiac, too, for all intents and purposes.
Unless buyers (a few million of us -- or maybe just a
couple of really adventurous billionaires) step forward,
three of General Motors’ eight brands are now destined to
join Oldsmobile in the history books. A fourth will be
relegated to “niche” status, says GM. The company, until
last year the world’s largest automaker, announced plans
Tuesday that would drastically scale back its operations in
order to stay alive.
Production of Saturn cars would stop in 2011 if the brand
hasn’t been sold, GM said. Execs will decide whether to
pull the plug on Hummer at the end of March, though rumors
of Chinese interest have emerged (and been discounted)
several times. The company says Saab will be an
“independent business entity as of Jan. 1, 2010.” Take that
to mean “dead” unless a reluctant Swedish government can be
convinced to step in. Pontiac will emerge as a “highly
focused niche brand” sold through Buick and GMC Truck
All necessary steps, for sure. And insignificant, compared
with the long-term future of the workers who make them and
the towns that depend upon them.
Yet we’ll mourn these brands even if we won’t miss them.
Pontiac was long General Motors’ coolest brand, its
Firebird, Grand Prix and Bonneville as hip and relevant in
their heydays as any BMW or Honda today. Its GTO was the
first true muscle car, its Trans-Am the only legitimate
reason to watch “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Saturn once represented hope for a new way of doing
business at General Motors, with distinctive plastic-bodied
cars and a warm, almost nurturing sales environment. For a
time, its “Different Kind of Car Company” shtick worked:
Its Homecoming gatherings in 1994 and 1999 drew 75,000
visitors to Spring Hill, Tenn., for a lost weekend of plant
tours, country music and sheer differentness.
Hummer? While they might feel as outdated as a coonskin
hat, they’re still a lightning rod for eco-terrorists
(cops, too) and a raised middle finger to everybody in a
Camry. At least you know where a Hummer driver stands,
There was a time when Saabs were charming – ugly, obstinate
and tough as hell -- but that came long before General
Motors entered the picture in 1990. Its offerings today:
rebadged GM generics with the ignition switch relocated to
For good or bad, GM has chosen its horses: Chevrolet,
Cadillac, Buick and GMC. Would those be yours?
Don't expect a fire sale on doomed brands. There already is
one, or close to it.
Once factories begin to be shuttered, the balance of supply
and demand begins to tip the other way. Don't wait too long.
GM expects its dealer count to fall from 6,246 in 2008 to
4,100 by 2014, mostly in metro and suburban markets. What
it will cost GM to disentangle itself from a politically
powerful dealer body wasn’t specified, but it spent more
than $1 billion earlier this decade to shut down its 2,800-
dealer Oldsmobile division.
GM was the largest U.S. corporation by revenue as recently
as 2000. GM held 50% or more new-car sales for decades,
peaking at 55% in 1956. In 2008, that figure fell to less
than 22%. Market capitalization peaked at $52 billion in
2000. Tuesday, after GM revealed its survival plans, that
figure was $1.33 billion.
Whatever your feelings about Hummers, General Motors or
cars in general, it's an astounding fall.