General Motors Corp. launched the Saturn brand at its plant in the tiny Tennessee town of Spring Hill nearly 17 years ago.
Designed to compete with low-cost Japanese imports, Saturn prided itself on its no-haggle approach to selling cars and initially developed a cult following, which included carnival-like “homecoming” celebrations in Spring Hill for Saturn owners.
But this week, the brand’s birthplace rolled out its last models for the Saturn brand as the plant gets ready to reconfigure its production lines to build new GM vehicles.
Close to 2,400 of the plant’s nearly 4,700 workers are being laid off for about 18 months while the plant is remodeled, though GM has promised to bring the workers back once the facility is equipped to produce other GM vehicles.
GM executives and union officials from Detroit met with employees at the plant Thursday and assured them they will get a new vehicle to build, GM spokeswoman Kate Neary said.
The GM officials told workers the product will be a Chevrolet crossover vehicle, according to people familiar with the meeting who requested anonymity because the automaker hasn’t yet officially announced its plans.
Troy Clarke, GM’s North American president, and Tim Lee, GM vice president for manufacturing and labor relations, attended the meeting along with Cal Rapson, vice president of the United Auto Workers union.
In December, GM said it would invest about $225 million in Spring Hill’s paint shop as part of its plans to build a new product.
State economic development officials and GM officials said this week they’re still negotiating on a tax incentive package for the improvements.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen issued a statement Thursday saying he was “pleased by General Motors’ decision to make this significant investment in the future of the Spring Hill plant and its Tennessee employees.”
UAW Local 1853 Chairman Mike Herron said employees are looking forward to building a new product at the plant.
“Anytime you have change, that’s going to cause a little bit of anxiety or concern because it’s different and new,” Herron said. “It’s the first time we’ve faced something like this. You’d have to be emotionless not to at least go through some emotions ... seeing the last Saturns being built.
“But I think all the workers out there are confident that they’re going to be coming back and there’s going to be a next new product.”
Saturn workers who are laid off will receive about 80 percent of their net pay, along with unemployment payments from the state, according to GM.
Herron said he and many other workers at the facility have worked there since 1990 when the plant produced its first vehicle, the Saturn S-Series sedan.
The S-Series, which also included coupe and wagon models, was produced at the plant through 2002, when S-Series production stopped and Saturn launched the Ion sedan and the Vue small sport utility vehicle.
Production of the Ion ended Wednesday, and the plant will roll out its last Vue on Friday.
Charita Tweedy, 47, a lifelong GM employee who moved to the Spring Hill plant from Flint, Mich., in 1991, said she planned to do more volunteer charity work while she’s off and is not concerned GM won’t have a job for her after the plant is remodeled.
“Something’s going to happen,” said Tweedy, who made $26 an hour assembling Ions. “I have confidence in this place. I believe something is going to be here sooner or later.”
When GM started building cars in this sleepy farming town, the Saturn plant was touted as a key component of the automaker’s vision for the future.
But as a result of stiffer competition, changing consumer tastes and rising labor costs, GM launched a restructuring plan over a year ago that called for closing 12 plants by 2008 and cutting structural costs. Those changes also changed the mission at the Spring Hill plant.
The world’s largest automaker slashed 35,000 — or nearly one-third — of its U.S. hourly workers in 2006 through buyouts and early retirement deals so that it can compete more effectively with Asian automakers.
Detroit-based GM reported a 2006 fourth-quarter net profit of $950 million, but the company still lost $2 billion for the year. It also lost $10.4 billion in 2005.
Saturn once billed itself as “a different kind of company” making “a different kind of car,” but after a promising start, it let the cars’ looks and technology get stale. New models were finally introduced to mixed results.
Saturn sales, however, picked up last year by 6 percent, and by fall, the brand will have a lineup with no models older than 20 months, including the Sky roadster, a two-seat sports car, the Vue, the Aura midsize sedan, and the Outlook crossover SUV.
The Astra, a small car to replace the Ion, was unveiled in February and is expected to go on sale in late 2007. Vue manufacturing is set to shift to Mexico, and the Ion is being discontinued.
Other GM plants that produce Saturn models are in Wilmington, Del., which makes the Sky; Kansas City, Kan., which makes the Aura; and the Lansing, Mich., area, which produces the Outlook.
Harvey Thomas, the site manager who oversees all operations at the Spring Hill plant, said most of its workers not being laid off will build engines for other GM plants and help convert the facility so it can move from manufacturing plastic to metal-bodied vehicles.
Thomas said workers are going to reconfigure the plant to build “multiple” GM models, though he didn’t know exactly how many.
“We’re going to retool the plant to build any kind of vehicle GM wants us to build,” he said.
To commemorate the last Saturn models rolling out this week, Spring Hill plant officials are throwing pizza parties and invited workers to bring cameras to work to take pictures for a memory book being compiled.
Herron said many workers have mixed emotions about Saturn leaving the plant but are confident about the facility’s future.
“I’m very sentimental about the Saturn brand,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of people that have a lot of heart and soul in this product. I’m very sad to see that go. But before you can have a new beginning, unfortunately you have an ending.
“I’d be much more concerned if there wasn’t a commitment to us with regard to the future. But knowing there is going to be a future ... I have a high degree of confidence.”