I like cars to the extent that I enjoy watching Top Gear on the BBC (maybe the best show on television right now--or possibly ever) and I get pretty heavily into Formula 1. Outside of that, I'm not what you'd call a car buff.
Certainly, from a mechanical perspective, I'm totally useless, and I can't even really drive a stick. So, a grease monkey (or petrolhead, as our British friends would say) I am not. I am, however, awfully sentimental, so I let out a bit of a wistful sigh last week when the news broke that Saturn, a little principality on the edge of the crumbling GM empire, was almost certainly dead.
I had two Saturns in my pre-Europe days. My ex-wife and I had one in college that my parents essentially bought for us; we took it with us when we moved to Brooklyn and drove it north again when we moved to Stoneham, Mass. It was, to my memory, a gold 1996 SL1 (or possibly SL2) with tan interior. And it was a fantastic car.
The little Saturn could chug through anything. It survived the broiling heat of Texas; the salt, sand, snow and potholes of New England and the general abuse of New York City. Many were the weekends we drove it out of Brooklyn and up to my ex's parents' place in New Hampshire, and the little gold Saturn never so much as lost tire pressure. It was completely reliable, surprisingly comfortable and powerful enough to allow us to zip around on the highway with confidence.
In 2000, my ex and I needed to buy a second car because I started a new job, and my new office wasn't reachable by public transportation (which not many things are in Greater Boston, frankly). We drove to Saturn of Danvers without hesitation, armed with a $1500 down-payment bonus from my new employer and intending to buy another SL1 (or SL2--I still can't remember).
My need for a car was fairly urgent, and I was disappointed when the friendly salesman at the dealership told us that there weren't any used (new was not in the budget this time) SLs available--except for...a wagon. A wagon? For heaven's sake, I was 26 years old and didn't have kids. Why on earth would I buy a wagon?
The sales guy assured me that the wagon was just a regular SL--same length and everything--with a wagon back on it. I drove it--reluctantly--and loved it. It turned out to be one of the greatest cars I've ever had. The little maroon Saturn had all the comfort and capabilities of its gold older brother, but it also had an absolutely immense amount of room in the back.
Seriously, this thing had SUV-level storage without being an SUV, and it got great gas mileage and drove like a regular car. We could haul anything in it--and did. (There was a memorable camping trip on Martha's Vineyard for which the wagon was absolutely fantastic.) And I eventually came to embrace the notion of owning a wagon; it was so incredibly uncool that it verged on coolness, and it was an early "green" statement (although one I didn't really consciously intend to make) in the age of the massive SUV.
In late June of 2001, in preparation for moving to France, my ex and I sold our Saturns. To my memory, we sold both to Saturn of Danvers, and we didn't lose a penny on the deal--the gold one we owned outright (thanks, Mom and Dad), and the dealership bought out the entire loan on the wagon. I remember driving my wagon for the last time and really not wanting to let it go. The excitement of moving to France was tempered by the loss of a car I had really come to love.
Now, I could say that my Saturns represented a memorable time in my life, a time when my ex and I were still happily married, a time when we had great jobs and a bit of money and a life that we ended up tearing apart (with no regrets) by moving to Europe. But really, for me, this post is all about the cars.
I'm happier now than I've ever been before, so I don't look back with particular wistfulness on my Saturn days--just on the cars themselves. And when I moved back to the US from France in 2006 and needed to buy a car, I didn't go with a Saturn. I bought a Scion tC, a little two-door coupe made by Toyota...because it looked like (and, I still think, was) the best value for the money. I'm very happy with it. By 2006, Saturns (to my mind, anyway) had become a little bigger, a little clunkier and definitely more expensive. They were less Saturn and more GM. They had lost that unique feel that had attracted me and so many others to them in the first place.
I was never a Saturn groupie. I didn't make the pilgrimage to Spring Hill, Tenn. I didn't hang out with other Saturn people. I didn't have t-shirts or other Saturn paraphernalia. I didn't join a Saturn message board or subscribe to some sort of e-mail list.
But I did love those two cars, two late-'90s (I think the wagon was a '98) models of a unique vehicle the likes of which American producers had never really made before and don't really make now. I think I caught Saturn at its peak--after the company had had time to perfect its approach and its vehicles and before GM started to choke the life out of its little experimental branch.
I'd like to think that somewhere (I'm still looking) somebody is stuffing sports gear in my maroon wagon, and some family is happily scooting around in my little gold four-door sedan. (Both cars are probably in junkyards somewhere, but I'm trying to put a happy ending on this.) And I'm a little sad to think that GM and Saturn couldn't keep it going, couldn't make a good-looking, fuel-efficient, comfortable, Euro-style car with no-haggle dealerships and a dedicated following stick in the American market.
Or maybe I'm a little disappointed that they didn't try a bit harder. (It's certainly sad to learn, too, that 13,000 people will lose their jobs--not to mention the impact Saturn's disappearance will have on dealerships all over the country.) In any case, though, I'm happy and proud to have been part of the Saturn experiment, and my memories of it will always be good.
RIP, Saturn, 1991-2009.