Legends from the Saturn Detail Bay: Part 1

Back in high school, I had two jobs to keep myself afloat: Three days a week at a local garage and another three at Saturn of Raleigh. SoR was an honest dealership hawking a “different” car to off-beat, yet loyal customers. This was the early 2000s, and the Saturn dealer—with its plastic-panel-beating antics—was a busy place. Management was always looking for high schoolers to employ, a need expressed via ads in the local paper. It was not particularly engaging work, but there was a steady schedule, free popcorn, and $7 per hour to be earned.

Looking back on it, perhaps the longest-lasting payment it offered was the memories it generated. So please, grab some free popcorn from the machine, sneak a customer-only hot chocolate (just between the TV and wall of 5×7 glossy photos of crashed cars), and come with me down memory lane.

saturn of raleugh
Editor’s Note: “A Drug Free Environment” is a phrase in need of a clarifying hyphen. Matthew Anderson

My duties were as follows: When a tech came around the building with a freshly serviced car, one of us (among the two or three young guns working that day) would scrub the wheels and bumpers, put a carnation in the center of the dashboard, and run it through the car wash before handing the keys back over to the owner.

The carnation on the dashboard was intended as a symbol of friendship and loyalty we extended to the customer. Some regulars would put in a color request—pink, yellow, or red—with the service writer …. who would tip off the mechanic … who would trickle the information down to the detail crew. We’d pick a flower in the requested hue to help soften the blow of an oil change or head gasket repair bill. If there was no request for a particular color, we’d draw the least withered and broken bloom from the black bucket of stagnant water, snip off the end, dry it off, and Bob’s your uncle. It usually went over pretty well with the owner.

In one particular case, it did not. The customer read the gesture with a, let’s say, unique subtext.

As I pulled around in his dripping L100 sedan, a gruff, arms-crossed man with a crew cut stood stoic and eyed me as I backed the car under our service awning. I left the keys in the car, greeted him, and headed back to get the next car in line.

“Hey, what the f*** is this supposed to mean?!” he yelled, elevating the carnation over his head by the stem.

“Everyone gets them, sir,” I explained. My hope was to extinguish his notion that this was some kind of bizarre, random act of flirtation. Nevertheless disgusted, he huffed, “Well, I don’t f***ing want it!” and threw the carnation on the ground before driving off.

Right-o. Let the record show that the next guy didn’t seem to have a problem with his re-gifted carnation.

saturn of raleigh dealer
“Every plastic fender the light touches is part of your kingdom.” Matthew Anderson

Driving a countless stream of nearly identical Saturns through the same carwash, over and over, was monotonous. Doing so, however, provided a wealth of statistical data on Saturn’s demographic breakdown. In my estimation, there were four categories in the Raleigh area:

Saturn Type #1: Religious Iconographers

Whether it was a hanging rosary, and air freshener of JC, a bumper sticker encouraging Buddhism, or a tribute to patron saints of auto safety, GM managed to strike a spiritual chord with its owners. Saturn people were usually kind, clean, quiet, and (with one notable exception) never swore at me for giving them a carnation.

Religious Iconographer Radio: Often tuned to NPR or a station from which a fiery preacher bellowed through the speakers.

Saturn Type #2: Dog People

You’d smell it as soon as you got into the car. There were other clues: the line of smudges painted on every window at dog-nose height, the fur that stuck to and embedded itself in your branded Saturn jacket. I’m not sure that I ever saw these dog/Saturn owners with my own eyes; I’d usually bail out gagging and beating the hair off of my clothing.

Dog Person Radio: Off and smudged.

Saturn Type #3: Chain Smokers

I specifically remember getting multiple requests through the service department to clean the windows of cars that had clearly been Virginia-Slim-hotboxed since new. The thick, yellow tar would take at least a dozen paper towels to clear from the window glass, compared with a Dog Person Saturn that took three and a Religious Iconography Saturn which usually took two. Mountain Dew cans filled with damp cigarette butts haphazardly tossed in the back seat—that wasall the anti-smoking campaign your then-teenage author needed.

Chain Smoker Radio: The non-CD-player optioned cars were usually dialed into an AM news station.

Saturn Type #3: College Students on the Right Track

A Saturn was not the car with which to engage in juvenile, hooligan activities. It was better suited to the track-and-field meet or debate club sort of kid. A purple Saturn SL1 automatic coupe was a fitting and respected reward for a 4.0 GPA and scholarship student bound for Wake Forest. Even though it was probably not legally their car, these young people always took an interest in the services the mechanics performed to their car. They’d also often ask us lowly detail scrubs when the car needed to come back next.

College Student on the Right Track Radio: One of the 60+ CDs suspended from the sun visor would play automatically upon key-on, always at 9/10ths volume.




We had several characters working on and off in the detail area: Pat, an aspiring rapper from the country, spent every minute of his idle work time detailing his grandmother’s gleaming, black Olds Ninety-Eight or polishing friends’ vehicles. (The latter were strategically hidden in the lot to resemble unprocessed trade-ins, thus avoiding Management Detection.) Pat was a serial side-hustler. He’d buy half-gallons of sweet tea from the neighboring Bojangles for $1.89, spike them with peach brandy stored in the trunk of the Oldsmobile, and flip them to the sales and service team members for $7. Seven bucks seemed steep for such a thing, but for a handful of hungover salesmen who had no other means of relief on a slow Saturday, it was sweet nonetheless.

In general, everyone at the dealership was well-behaved. But temptation and opportunity did get the better of two staffers—a detail manager and a salesman. It happened when they became stranded in an ice storm while working late one Friday. With the highways all closed, the duo hiked over to the gas station and set themselves, procured a case of beer, and got to drinking. In the morning, they awoke to a showroom littered with empty cans amid the usual buffet of gleaming plastic cars. Unfortunately there were still several inches of snow on the ground, and thus, still no way to get home.

One of the many fringe benefits of working at Saturn of Raleigh was the opportunity to be on a dealership-sponsored “race team” at Wake County Speedway. Basically, we’d drag a heavily beaten Saturn SL2 Coupe to races. As a group of people, we were more like a legion sworn to defend one another in a pit brawl than a proper motorsport team.

Sacred duties included supporting the cars—one of the few front-wheel drivers out there at the time—and, of course, fighting people in defense of our composite body panels. The car itself landed in our midst because of a buyback involving several automatic-transmission-equipped coupes and a corporate recall campaign. Rather than be scrapped (as corporate suggested), our SL2 got a five-speed manual swap and a safety cage. Race prep included power-washing the car, buying beer, and making weapons to fend off panel thieves.

In a time where Pintos and Fox-body Mustangs dominated the circle track, our competitive and wrong-wheel-drive Saturn was absolutely despised. Couple that with the rowdy folk who frequent Northeast Wake County and it race days frequently involved calls to the local constabulary.

saturn sl2 coupe raleigh race car
Matthew Anderson

On slow days, or after hours, it was considered okay to tinker on your own stuff.  My co-worker, Jordan, had an E30 BMW with a fresh Maaco spray job—clean as could be. Pat’s Olds was spotless, too. Rob’s brand-new V-6 Mustang was pretty cherry … until he spaced off the exhaust flange with washers and later cracked the transmission case while changing his gear oil.

My stuff? Well, my Studebaker and Corolla were always spotless, but one or the other was always waylaid for some repair or modification. One evening, about a half-hour before closing, one of the dealer’s mechanics loaned me his air tools so I could tear down a junkyard 4A-GE twin-cam motor. (I had just bought to rebuild and swap into my track-prepped Corolla.) What better place to do this than in a spotless mechanic’s bay? I hooked up the gun to the hose we used to blow out vents and ash trays, from there ugga-dugga-ing the motor to bits. Just as the pan and windage tray came loose, so did three quarts of oil and no fewer than three cylinders worth of connecting rods and pistons.

Should have pulled the drain plug first, I guess.

I spent the next two hours listening to the drone of the local NC State radio station, repeatedly spraying the floor with ‘Purple Stuff,” and mopping up my failure.

olds ninety eight
My Studebaker Hawk. Matthew Anderson

I could go on and on. And if you want me to, I will, in subsequent articles! Would I go back and do it again, dog-nose smudges and all? You bet, but maybe not for hot chocolate and seven bucks an hour.




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    Mrs. DUB6 had two Saturns in her past. She didn’t fit into any of the categories, but perhaps it’s because she bought hers used, and then because they were a) cheap, and b) relatively economic to drive, and she drove 48 miles each way to work six days a week. However, in reading through the Saturn Types, I realized that the last one (an L200) had previously belonged to a Type #3. The FIRST Type #3, I mean (go back and look if you didn’t catch it the first time).
    I actually picked out the car for her (’cause she was at work). It was one of three on the lot that had been turned in – they were fleet cars and had been driven by traveling salespeople of some sort. It absolutely reeked, but it had the least amount of miles and exterior wear and tear, so I picked it. I scrubbed and vacuumed and deodorized for hours before she got home to her “new” car. It however took months for the smell to dissipate, and even then she couldn’t leave it parked in the sun with the windows up – for that’d bring the smell back out again.
    Let it be known that I’m not against smokers – you do you, I say – I’m just giving a bit of credence to Matthew’s observations. I suspect his “Saturn Types” are pretty much based on fact!

    Oh man…my first job ever was as a lot attendant and detailer at the local Chevy/Cadillac dealer. I think 90% of the entire sales staff and most of the managers churned over in the first (and only) year I was there.

    Great article! I think a lot of today’s generation (Z’s?) should have to work crap jobs like this. I know I did. So did everyone I grew up around. I think it teaches respect and a sense of gratitude when you get older. It helps you be a bit nicer to people who have to work these lower jobs. (Old man rant incoming) Kids today need to get out there on their own, out of the basements and work, doing whatever is necessary to get by. It builds character and maybe makes you realize not everyone with a computer can become a Zuck or Musk or whoever the newest tech star is.

    I’m like a lot of the readers of this column, I suppose. I worked at service stations, a car lot, car washes, a movie theatre, and on the handle-end of many a lawnmower and snow shovel when going through my teens and early adult life. I think I gained perspective on the things you list while doing so. Many of us think that today’s kids can’t/don’t/won’t work, and it’s true that times have changed since I was a young man. However…
    Fortunately, all is not lost. There are still some “crap jobs” (your words, not mine 😊) out there and there are still some young folks who are taking them. I agree that those more menial – and often lower-paying – jobs can instill some learning-of-life’s-lessons on youngsters (and I’m an old man, so maybe this is me agreeing with your rant).
    Within my personal realm, I know of five people under 20 (three of them under 18) who are working in those types of jobs, AND keeping up with school. I give them a lot of credit. BUT I also give their parents even more credit for saying something like, “you are NOT going to just live in my basement and eat my food and use my electricity forever – you are going to do whatever it takes to learn how to make a life for yourself”. I applaud parents who help prepare their offspring for adulthood!

    That was a fun read, thanks. I worked at several dealerships through the years, and the variety of people who work there and come through as customers was as wide and varied as humanity gets. I’m still friends with some of the guys I worked with, 40 years later; maybe something akin to wartime service but without the physical peril. I have amusing stories, stories I can’t put in print, and tales of frustration and anger as well. And I’d bet that’s a common result.

    Having worked at Chevy, Subaru and Lexus dealerships I saw a wide variety of people. You definitely see patterns in the people who come over. I also took advantage of the work on you own car on a lift bonus. That was fun.

    First car-related job was lot organizer/car washer at a Dodge dealer. Got to work on our family car on Saturday’s after I washed the used-car lot. I got good at managing that in 1/2 a day (summer was easy as you were mostly washing the dust off) and then I could spend the rest of the day detailing Dad’s car!

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