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Architecture + Branding: SATURN (re)set the stage for a different dealership experience

1-Automotive moon shot

After several years of faltering small car sales in its home market, witnessing their market share being unmercifully eroded at the hands of Japanese manufacturers, American automobile manufacturer, General Motors (GM), embarked on a novel experiment that would involve evaluating, challenging and rethinking everything it knew about the automobile business. This would be, to paraphrase former US President JFK, General Motors’ moon shot.

What began as discussions of a “revolutionary new, small-car project codenamed ‘Saturn’” in June of 1982 would evolve into the founding of the Saturn Corporation in the first few calendar days of 1985 (source: wikipedia). The linchpin of the plan was the requisite objective to recapture buyers who had shunned General Motors brands in favour of their Japanese rivals.

Unlike General Motors established automotive divisional organization, Saturn was to operate as a distinct and separate entity, fundamentally separate from the GM parent company. The Saturn Corporation would have its own assembly plant, manufacturing process, labour contract, unique models, and dealer network.

Saturn LOGO (with Retailer reflection beyond)

Additionally, by locating the dedicated Saturn specific assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, physically remote from the entrenched operational base in Detroit, Michigan, GM provided Saturn with a clean sheet to achieve its lofty goals.

2-From different to division to divestiture

Initially, Saturn cars proved to be popular with buyers. However, with 41% of Saturn buyers already owning a GM vehicle, it turned out to be Pyrrhic victory as sales were cannibalistic (source: wikipedia). Moreover, Saturn’s operational independence combined with its $5 billion start up cost, which ultimately diverted financial resources from other divisional projects, lead to growing resentment within the sprawling GM universe.

Saturn S-Series, First Generation, SL Sedan model

The S-Series, which consisted of a 4-door sedan, wagon and 2-door coupe, all built on the same platform, was the first Saturn model line. Touted as “different”, the initial Saturn models featured dent-resistant plastic body panels. Surviving in part on the strength of a single model line, the S-Series would be complemented by the larger L-Series, introduced in 1999. Built at a non-Saturn plant and sharing a GM-derived platform, the L-Series would prove to foreshadow the undoing of the Saturn experiment.

Saturn L-Series, First Generation model

In the subsequent years, General Motors would reset Saturn under a divisional arrangement, thus stripping its independent operational status, and fill the product pipeline with shared GM designs. Launching with a single American-built model line, the Saturn brand found itself flush with multiple rebadged European sourced products across several model lines in its final year.

General Motors, struggling for its survival during the financial crisis of 2008, declared its intention to divest the Saturn brand. Although a deal had been announced in June of 2009, the sale to Penske Automotive Group proved to be unsuccessful. The Saturn division and all dealers were scheduled to shut down by the end of October 2010.

3-Laying the groundwork

When Saturn launched, it was revolutionary for General Motors. However, except for the space frame and the use of plastic body panels, the initial Saturn cars were widely panned as being rudimentary and raucous. What the cars lacked in refinement would be compensated for in customer experience at the dealer level.

Saturn Vue, First Generation model

Part of the Saturn offensive involved offering premium customer service, something common in the luxury automotive dominion, but unheard of at the lower end of the pricing spectrum, Benchmarking the hospitality industry for customer service, Saturn quickly gained a reputation for best-in-class sales experience, even though it was hampered by a portfolio of average product.

Committed to changing consumer perceptions about small cars, particularly, American-built small cars, as well as the sales experience, Saturn became a champion of the “no-haggle” pricing policy. Saturn effectively removed the negotiation component of car buying that many consumers found off-putting. The sales process was transformed, and became welcoming, inviting, no-pressure, removing significant apprehension for many would-be first-time buyers.

Saturn Retailer, 9415 av Papineau, Montreal, Quebec (source: maps.google.com)

Building the brand from the ground up, Saturn presented an opportunity to recast everything. The dealer body would be all-new, and every Saturn dealership could be clearly consistent, and on-message for the nascent brand.

Saturn Retailer, 814 Guelph Line, Burlington, Ontario (source: maps.google.com)

In Saturn parlance, dealerships would consistently be referred to as retailers, as the customary confrontational sales process would be turned onto its head. Catering heavily to first-time buyers, Saturn would need to introduce and define the brand, as well as have an opportunity to shape the buying experience for many consumers.

The architectural approach of Saturn retailers would help to define this experience in many subtle and not-so subtle ways.

4-Setting the stage

Irrespective of the Saturn naming convention for dealerships, the retailers still required the functional trappings of standard automobile dealerships. Showroom area, service bays, sales areas, support functions, large parking areas for warehousing cars, all the traditional components of a typical automobile sales operation would need to exist in the Saturn experience.

Thus, a fairly simple, functional, cost efficient geometric building shape would be anticipated. Capable of accommodating vehicular access and interior circulation, a large column-free showroom and service area, the architecture would be limited by additional factors such as lot dimensions, orientation, street access, and other zoning and planning requirements.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), 3/4 Rear View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Nonetheless, it would still be possible for Saturn to be “different”.

A hallmark of the Saturn approach was transparency, in the sales process, and in the manner that the company sought to interact with its customers and stakeholders. General Motors having made a significant investment to form Saturn from the ground up, its activities were being closely scrutinized, internally and externally.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), 3/4 Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

The architectural identity highlighted this need for transparency with squat buildings with large glass expanses, resulting in a respectable glass to overall mass ratio, opening up the storefront of the retailers.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Another fundamental architectural element of communicating transparency was the distinctive protruding customer delivery and inspection area. Completing the delivery process inside, while providing some protection from the inclement weather, allowed for an added dimension of the Saturn sales process. Recasting the process indoors, Saturn created a de facto stage setting, elevating the delivery into an emotional event, rather than a simple transactional one.

FORMER Saturn Retailer, Front View Right, Genesee Street, Syracuse, New York

Saturn retailers earned a reputation for performing customer reveals inside the delivery area, unveiling the customer’s new Saturn by pulling off a car cover with much fanfare and glitz, engaging staff and onlookers to witness the event. Putting the customer on the spot with an enthusiastic souvenir photo opportunity, complete with instant Polaroid photographs available from the Saturn retailer, added to the overall experience.

Upon taking possession of the vehicle, the exterior scenery in the background and foreground, visible through the wall of glass, customers could figuratively picture themselves driving off in their new Saturn. In most instances, the process was quite literal, the large aluminium and glass doors permitting the vehicle to be driven straight out of the delivery area.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front (far), Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front Left, Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front Right, Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

From the exterior, the projecting delivery area commanded immediate visual attention, and with its glass box aesthetic, allowed for would-be window shoppers to peer upon the activity within. Conversely, with such a prominent architectural appendage, it could easily be mistaken for an oversized vestibule area at the principal entrance.

Saturn Retailer, 19550 Langley Bypass, Langley, British Columbia (source: maps.google.com)

However, the main entry typically proposed a covered walkway, or cantilevered roof element, framed by columns and tie-backs, reminiscent of one half of a suspension bridge. Additionally, a similar element would be repeated to form the roof element at the delivery area.

5-leading the way

Unfortunately, as the brand matured, the product range grew tired, and competitors started copying some or all of Saturn’s customer service practices, such as no-haggle pricing, too few customers were finding the entrance to Saturn retail stores.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View at Entrance, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

In 2005, Saturn would attempt to restart its stumbling sales numbers by revamping their dealership experience. Embracing multimedia displays and new technologies, improving interactions with sales staff and adding new interior themes and aesthetics, Saturn’s ultimate salvation hinged on new products. The transformation was more than aesthetic, as Saturn needed to be reinvented into a full line automobile brand, selling everything from entry-level vehicles to SUVs and performance vehicles to survive and thrive.

Saturn badge

After having starved Saturn product development for several years, General Motors finally recommitted to the Saturn brand and by the latter half of the decade would source European influenced (2007 Saturn Aura), and European designed (2008 Saturn Astra/Opel Astra, 2008 Saturn Vue/Opel Antara) for sale in North America.

Weathered and damaged Saturn Customer Parking Only signage

The decision could not have been more ill-timed, as the recession of 2008-2009 would soon take hold, crimping credit and decimating car sales in America. General Motors would wind down the Saturn brand before the first full decade of the new century was complete.

Saturn Retailer (Now converted to MINI Dealership), Mount Laurel, New Jersey (source: maps.google.com)

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now MINI Dealership), Mount Laurel, New Jersey (source: miniofmtlaurel.com)

The Saturn legacy lives on in business practices adopted throughout the industry, as well as the democratization of high levels of customer service as a luxury vehicle exclusive experience. Furthermore, the protruding glass appendage delivery enclosure stands as a prominent architectural testament to the brands ideal of transparency.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario


All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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