Legends from the Saturn Detail Bay: Part 2

Matthew Anderson

As we covered in my last article, “Legends From the Saturn Detail Bay: Part 1,” in high school I worked at a Saturn dealership in Raleigh, North Carolina. One $400 paycheck at a time was enough to keep my awful project cars on the road. Challenging work it was not, but the overall experience proved both formative and informative. What better way to get a glimpse into how the compact, plastic-paneled sausage was sold and serviced? So go ahead, grab a complimentary instant apple cider, another scoop of free popcorn for good measure, and join me in Raleigh, autumn 2001.

Saturn of Raleigh circa 2001
Saturn of Raleigh circa 2001, complete with 2001 digital image quality. Matthew Anderson

As demonstrated in the ads of the time, the impact from a shopping cart or golf ball was impervious to Saturn’s polymer, dent-resistant panels. Salespeople, as you might expect, didn’t rely solely on daytime TV to make sure customers were aware of said dent resistance. Dealership visitors were often handed a felt-covered mallet (after they’d gorged on complementary popcorn) with which to whack a car door.

These demos started off timidly. A tentative bump, an unconvincing “w…w… wow!”

“Come on, you can hit it harder than that, can’t you?” the salesman would implore, adopting the manner of a carnie manning the High-Striker stand.

Eventually, the sales staff would wield mallet themselves and beat the car senseless. Genuine amusement and cheers followed.

Saturn dealers touted their no-haggle policy, but that didn’t rule out the practice of playing games with trade-in values and options. A good example of a high-margin upsell was a “paint and interior protection system” that, in reality, consisted of the following:

  • A half-dozen squirts of a wonderful-smelling anti-stain agent on the interior fabrics
  • A very thin wax coat on the exterior.

The longest part of my job in this operation was just drying the car well enough that I could properly apply the wax. The wax was high-end stuff, and we didn’t skimp on applying it, but I do remember being totally floored by the many-hundreds price tag people paid for the service. (An extra carnation for every sucker, I guess.)

No-haggle pricing was the official posture, but numbers could be shuffled from one column to another to make the financials work. A prime example of this shell game was to take a true jalopy on trade-in and give it a non-zero value, say $5, purely as a means of closing a deal with a customer. It amounted to courtesy disposal, and it made the customer think they were pulling one over on the salesman. But the dealership had an ace up its sleeve: Nothing got people flocking to the dealership faster than a newspaper ad for a $99 car.

These vehicles were usually so bad that we couldn’t even wholesale them, so they really were promotional in the truest sense . The most memorable promo car was a sun-faded Cadillac Cimarron with three hubcaps and a blue haze leeching out of the exhaust. (To add insult to injury, the dealer wouldn’t even sell it to me for $200!) Most promo cars would be gone in a matter of hours, but not before a handful of hopefuls got caught on the line, came to the dealer, and opted for a better used car on the lot in the $1200 range.

One time, in the trade-in lot at which our junk cars lingered, Pat was busy working with a white Mitsubishi Montero on 20-inch chrome wheels. Twenties were about as big as wheels came in those days, so this was a notable flex for the trade-in lot. (The copious profanity applied to the pearlescent paint, apparently with a pink rattle can, also made it an anomaly.) Pat finally admitted that this was a bit of a side hustle; a gentleman from his inner circle had wronged someone special in his life, and the pink-scrawled evidence needed to be erased. It took about 30 trips between the bay and the third row of the detail line to corral enough acetone and clean rags to erase all the angry messaging. Favors of this sort were more common than management was comfortable with, which led to periodic dismissals. Pat was eventually among them.

In our service writing area, where customers discussed maintenance and repair plans with a representative, there was a coffee ring-stained Plexiglas case housing a completely destroyed S-series twin cam motor with the valve cover removed. Where the valve cover should have been was a hydrocarbon bundt cake of baked oil froth. A small epitaph read: “44,000 miles without an oil change—have you scheduled your service?”

As the story goes, someone bought a brand-new car and drove it through the entire warranty period with zero maintenance. Its exploded innards were rendered useful as part of this scare-tactic awareness campaign.

Slow Saturdays. When all the race cars got detailed. Matthew Anderson

Major engine issues were rare but did occur. Thrown rods were common with serious service neglect, for example. The aluminum blocks were strong enough, but due to the lost foam method of casting, the Styrofoam impression on the outer surface of the block made it appear as though they were cobbled together from single-use fishing coolers. Additionally, there was an odd defect in base-model, single overhead cam heads that would cause some of them to crack at the cam journals and turn the motor into a chocolate Frosty machine.

Post-head change, our most frequent (and effective) method of cleaning out all the engine sludge was to screw a garden hose to a plastic T-fitting on the heater hose, park the car near the dumpsters, and jam a broom between the seat and accelerator. The 4,000 rpm rev limit in Park would do the rest while a milkshake of gradually thinning consistency could be periodically drained. The 1Hz resonance of the fuel cut-off, humming directly next to the detail bay, was annoying we could ultimately tuned it out with WKNC 88.1’s metal hour.

Saturm of Raligh, like most dealerships, suffered the occasional bad tech. But in our case they didn’t last long, and good techs were the overwhelming norm. One of the great ones, Chris, was the ghost of an automotive engineering professor trapped in the body of a big ol’, grey-bearded country boy. He coached me through the conversion of my carbureted Corolla to fuel injection with zero judgment or impatience. Telediagnostics-wise, he was a genius. My fellow detailer, Jordan, had a ’92 Suburban with an intermittent running issue. He pulled Chris aside for 30 seconds to ask some questions and right away had an accurate diagnosis and part cost estimate—to the dollar. Chris was the single most knowledgeable tech on the shop floor, not to mention the backbone of our morale. His scream-singing of country music and made-up lyrics fed the positive mood in the service department. We suspect its effect in the context of a customer-facing role may have been the opposite.

Jordan’s Suburban in front of a line of new Vues. Matthew Anderson

Whenever the night janitor called in sick, Jordan and I would switch off taking the biweekly floor mopping duty. The extra-pay gig started around 7:00 p.m. and could stretch well past school-night bedtime, depending on the body of work done in the shop over that fortnight. The job paid $60, which at the time seemed like a good payout for one single task, though you’d have to expect that buying yourself dinner at Bojangle’s would come out of those earnings. Pat, the aforementioned service manager, was particularly insistent on no mop marks. I remember telling myself on many occasions that the supplementary job was “totally not worth it” after each night scrubbing, but I kept going back for more than $60-an-evening killers.

Working at Saturn was the first of several vantage points I’ve had in the auto industry. My perspective started from the bottom of the barrel, but I still remember the important insights it gave me: how customers were delighted, how cars were sold, and how beneficial relationships were developed. Saturn is no more, but happy customers, handshake deals, and lasting employee relationships remain the heart of any healthy industry.




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    Growing up working at a full service mechanic shop and around dealers the stories that could be now told now the statute of limitations are out.

    Let’s just say where I worked it was a tough neighborhood. If we made a movie it would be x rated violence and nudity.

    These dealer stories are bringing back memories I have tried to suppress. But they come back.

    My days could start with Coffee with the CEO of Firestone, to dropping off a customer to bring his car back for work. But he had to transact a brief case swap on the way. Who knows what was in the case.

    We had three bars around us. One redneck joint, one biker and one lesbian bar.

    We serviced cars for the ATF and FBI. But sold gas to our neighbors the Hells Angles. Got to meet Sonny Barger once.

    Being a mechanic or working in the auto industry is not what many think it is. Depending on who you work for and where it could be an adventure.

    I am sure others here could share some fun stories. I know I could write a history book on this area.

    I have managed to make it to this point in life with never having purchased a new car. It was originally born out of necessity, but I have grown to appreciate older cars with a little history and character. Also, the more I hear about the new car experience, the less I am interested in having it.

    Totally agree!
    I believe that a new car should be flawless and problem-free, but since that’s as rare as a unicorn, I always avoided buying new.
    Coupled with the barely-legal slimy practices of the staff, it’s fairly certain that all I missed out on was apoplexy and ulcers.

    My first and only experience working at a dealership is slightly skewed as I’m a truck & coach tech. I spent 3 years at an International dealership where 90% of the techs were about 18 to 26 years old. We were excellent at what we did, but MAN was that place like the dealer equivalent of Animal House some days.

    I still miss the “friday night church meetings” where we’d close at midnight, shut all the gates, and then we’d pull in our own cars to work on and sip a brew or two for a couple hours.
    Did wonders for team morale.

    Takes me back to my dealership days, Pontiac GMC in the 90s. I remember the finance guy selling my customers the $299 undercoating protection service. That service entailed old Willy hitting everything under the car with a can of R&S Strauss undercoating for about 5 minutes straight. What a deal!

    I actually bought (leased) as my first new car a 2000 Saturn SL1. Gold with crank windows. It actually served me well for 3 years as a rescue for not driving my Firebird to work in the winter. 199 a month…300 bucks down! Now that’s a deal!

    I was the F & I mgr at two NJ Saturn stores. Our paint and fab included a yearly lifetime detail. Customers loved it and so did sales and service because it got them back in the store.

    Saturn could have been something. It started off well then GM turned it into yet another brand of badge-engineered cars. Many people I knew thought well of Saturn dealers in a way they did not for the other domestic dealers.

    In 1964 a good friend of mine was working “new car service” at a Pontiac dealership, One weekend when I was off and he was working I got a call from him. He informed me that the first GTO had come in and I should come over and he’d take me for a ride. In those days when the car was delivered to the dealer it had to have the carpets installed along with kick pads. Also lug nut torqued, all fluids, hose clamps checked along with function of anything on the car. Naturally the car had to be road tested, At the end of the invite he said “oh … you better bring a change of pants”. I went and he was right. At that point in my young life that was the fastest car I had ever been in. A 389 with the four barrel and a four speed in a Tempest. Wow.

    Dealership technician from 1980 to 2009 at 7 different dealers ( not many by some standards ). Got to know so many people and experience so many different personalities, and yes, some of those used-car salesmen were real dirt-bags. Made some great friends, had the greatest experiences with them. Had to deal with the computer-controlled vehicles from the beginning. That whole flat-rate income experience turned into a real meat grinder those last 10 years. Been working as the head of maintenance/repair for 80+ vehicles and equipment for facilities at a college for the last 15 years. It’s like I have been semi-retired compared to the pressure at those dealerships.

    Those Saturn’s were a nightmare for the most part, especially for a body man. Damage didn’t show much and cars with what looked like a minor refinish job / repair usually ended up being way more substantial .

    Odd ball wheel and tire sizes were a thing too with those too , along with everything else associated with that car , glad those went the way of the dinosaur to be honest .

    I worked at a Ford dealership late 60s early 70s. Lots of clunkers got traded in. I got to detail them after they came back from the “paint shop”. Lipstick on bondo queens! The shop never ever installed bananas to quiet a noisy rear end. I heard that worked until the warranty ran out.

    Very well done article. brought back some fond(?) memories. I certainly can relate to this article. So, I’d like to provide my story. I do not want to offend anyone in the automotive dealerships but wanted to share my thoughts and experiences.

    I worked in the service department of a Nissan dealership (12 years). Honestly, it was one of the most trying and difficult jobs to perform. I had to open up the shop every morning and get things ready for the throng of customers coming in with their service “situations”

    We would have the customers come in for their designated appointments. Then you’d have the “walk-ins” who didn’t have an appointment and wanted work done. When you would explain that we are fully booked up the customer would go upstairs to either their salesperson or the dealer principle and complain. Then that individual would come down and in front of the customer give you a “dressing” down and expect for this person to “be looked after.” So, you then have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. This doesn’t go over well with the technicians as you “squeeze” another job onto their already hectic days.

    Having lived in Northern Canada we can have some pretty harsh winters where the temperature would drop down to -20F. This is why cars have block heaters installed. You actually plug in your car so that it keeps the oil in a state that you will be able to turn the car over. Otherwise, the engine would only barely turn over and not start. So, we would have several vehicle towed in as not being able to start. Meaning we had to bring them into the shop to “warm/thaw” out. Then there are the customers who don’t warm up their cars, go to the local coffee shop for takeout and gets the window down but will not go up. The window motor is frozen. When the customer pops in to inquire what they should do my answer was: “It appears you didn’t warm up your car enough as it appears the window motor is frozen. I guess that coffee was important.” Then they would ask “so what should I do?” And my answer: “well you’ll have to leave it for the day so that we can warm it up to get the window up.” Some would leave their car while other’s leave in a huff.

    During my employment there I saw allot of not so nice car deals made by the sales department. They would do anything in order to sell a vehicle. Even stretch the truth certain things about the car. They would offer a special of 4 free oil changes. But when they come in for their service appointment and tell us that it’s free we would have to search the information in the file. When we couldn’t find anything we’d approach the salesperson who may/may not remember. So, we’d obviously look pretty stupid and end up giving the free oil change to the customer and making the appropriate notes in or file. But we would tell our accountant to charge this oil change to the sales department so as it didn’t come out of the service departments profits.

    Many years ago dealerships were selling anti-rust modules. This is a device (box) that is connected to the vehicles battery with 2 leads that are attached to the body of the car. The box has a flashing light to signify it is doing its job as “rust prevention”. The dealers would buy them for $100 each from this company and then the salesperson would charge the customer $599 installed (takes under 15 minutes). Talk about a scam.

    Having worked at this dealership for 12 years I’ve seen so much that I could go on and on. One day my service manager and I counted 32 salespeople during those 12 years. This indicates that there certainly were problems in selling vehicles. I felt so sorry for new people coming in with cigar and a good attitude to be shot down by a sales manager (who gave them no training just brochures) and not be able to sell a vehicle. The longest salesperson lasted 1 full year and that was a record then.

    The automotive industry is forever changing. Technology is totally state of the art but, even that has its flaws. Techs can have a difficult time to find out the customers problem, as they have a short window of time. Techs are forever playing “musical toolboxes” as if they are not happy they leave and go to another dealership. Vehicles are being run by sensors and computers so techs are just in some cases, replacing parts. There is no pride anymore. Everyone is stressed to their limits. Pricing of new/used vehicles is getting out of hand. But we need transportation to get around as this is our way of life. This is only a small fraction of what I had to deal with on a daily basis.

    I would like to tip my hat to all of the service and parts departments, technicians and warranty administrators to say “Keep up the best you are doing”. You certainly do not have an easy job.

    Second great Saturn story, Matthew – was a Sales Manager at a Saturn store and loved every minute of it! Got emotional each time we gathered the whole dealership around to deliver the cars – customers too – was a special time and have fond memories. Thanks for bringing them back!

    Great story. Love dealership stories. Your experiences certainly taught you something about the public persona and the many faces of. We were a three Saturn family (2 new, 1 used). They were super reliable and trouble free for us. Dealership experience was great as well. Keep up the good work, fun read!

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