Saving Saturn: A different kind of car collector
The most interesting car collection you’ve never heard of lives in a subdivision just outside Princeton, New Jersey. Nestled between patches of bucolic farmland and aging equestrian stables, in the cool shadow of a nature preserve, the neighborhood looks like any other. Drive past too quickly and you might miss the vast horde of Saturns, fanned out in the driveway of a single house like paint swatches in a catalogue. Before that rainbow array of plastic body panels stands its caretaker, a soft-spoken 26-year-old woman named Jessieleigh Freeman.
She fiddles with a scrunchie on her wrist and purses her lips as I wander, speechless, among the coupes, sedans, and wagons. “Seventeen of them,” she says, one hand idly playing with the Saturn pendant on her choker necklace. “I’ve got one in every body style—a few doubles, even.” The skateboard she carries displays the same two words you’ll find all over her Instagram: Saving Saturn.
How did Saturn get to the point that it needed her help? At the outset, the new brand lived up to its slogan, “a different kind of car company.” It was announced as the newest addition to GM’s household in 1985, the result of a bright-eyed dream that an all-American economy car with a unique approach could best Japan’s imports. Like the United States, Saturn was indeed a Grand Experiment. Most people remember the brand’s plastic body panels, meant to stave off rust, but Saturn’s true brilliance lay in the approach it took to people. Attempting to operate outside of the way Detroit had long done business, Saturn built its first plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Employees were recruited from various GM factories, and these people were eager to join an energetic culture offering the promise of a clean slate. Having signed up with Saturn, they then benefited from an unprecedented arrangement with the UAW chapter that allowed them to sidestep the complex web of union job classifications, participate in key decision making, and earn wages based in part on quality and productivity goals. GM even instituted a profit-sharing program in place of the traditional fixed-income pension. At retail locations, Saturn pioneered no-haggle pricing that immediately attracted thousands of hopeful customers.
This concept was so appealing that demand for new Saturns outstripped the Spring Hill plant’s production capability for the first five years. The brand’s early years were by and large successful, with massive customer satisfaction and an eclectic owner demographic that seemed all-in.
Not everyone at General Motors shared that enthusiasm. The rest of the company lived on the main deck of a corporate battleship—the kind of place where a proposed update to the bathroom tile might have to pass through multiple floors of executives—and it didn’t take long for resentment to boil over. Saturn was sucking up valuable resources, and as the brand’s initial momentum waned, the goodwill that had paved the brand’s road ran dry. The original S-Series ended production in 2002, by which point the larger L-Series line was being produced under traditional UAW labor rules in a Delaware plant. Soon after came the Vue SUV, the Ion sedan, the Relay minivan, and the Sky roadster—all of which were based on other GM models, and not unique to Saturn. An attempt to sell the brand to Penske fell through, and the dealership body closed for good in October 2010. That’s the end of it.
But not for Freeman. When she talks about her cars, she speaks slowly, surveying the breadth of her collection.
“I only collect the S-Series, because they’re pure—the real Saturn babies,” she says, giggling softly. The S-Series was built on a bespoke platform, what GM called the Z-body, powered by a 1.9-liter four-cylinder unique to the brand. That engine featured aluminum pistons and forged connecting rods, and it was sold in both single- and dual-overhead-cam variants.
“It’s weird having cars that are older than me be my obsession,” Freeman admits. “But part of it is that nobody else is collecting them to the extent that I am. Saturn was a baby company—a misfit that I don’t want to slip through the cracks.” This approach extends beyond her driveway; Freeman has been in touch with GM Heritage to donate many of her restored Saturns to the company’s collection.
Like most things in Freeman’s world, her journey with Saturns began through a love affair with all things Halloween. A pile of plastic skeletons lives between the stacks of wheels and shelves of interior bits in her garage, and a pair of vintage tractors piloted by a similarly bony crew is parked on her front lawn. Four years ago, her friend Ron Errickson let her drive his 2001 SC2 to a Halloween party. She found herself suddenly, inexplicably attracted to the brand and its underdog story. Errickson regularly drives a hearse, but he has owned some Saturns, and he encouraged Freeman’s passion for the cars. They’ve since rescued several Saturns from the tri-state area, often hauling them home with chalk on the rear window reading “saved from the grave.”
“I just love how they’re easy to work on,” Errickson says. “You can drop the entire engine and transmission cradle together, and aside from a few common issues, they’re mechanically solid.”
Freeman herself went to auto mechanic school in addition to earning a degree in music business; her knowledge of Saturn’s history and year-to-year changes is unparalleled. Paint, foglights, badges, fabrics, interior patterns—she rattles off differences in detail as she ambles across the driveway from one car to the next, citing the specifics of an arcane special edition or a paint code like a concours judge or museum curator. “Telesto is very special,” she says, gently touching the nose of a ’91 SC coupe. “It’s from Saturn’s first model year, and they made a lot fewer coupes than sedans. They were DOHC only, to start.”
Telesto is the car’s name. Each of Freeman’s Saturns is named after one of the planet’s moons. Her ’95 SL2 is Dione, and her ’99 SW2 is Janus. Other cars here—Pandora, Daphnis, Phoebe, Skoll, Rhea, Atlas—are all bound up in the same orbit.
Hyperion, a ’95 SC2 coupe, was one of the first Saturns she bought, arriving in her care with a damaged front clip. Taking advantage of GM’s replaceable body panel design, Freeman replaced the unsalvageable hidden-headlamp front end with the fixed-headlight one from a ’95 SC1. In the Saturn enthusiast world, this is known as an SC “1.5,” she says. “I felt like I saved that car’s life. Once I did that, I wanted to save a lot more.”
As we roam the driveway, Jessie’s dad, Richard Freeman, 72, sits in a lawn chair to observe the proceedings. The elder Freeman is an old-time drag racer—a veteran of Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, he says, which closed in 2018.
“Jessica was destined to love cars from the day she was born. She has more cars than I ever had, that’s for sure.” As her father once did, Freeman also owns a 1980 Camaro and a Chevy S10. Her NA Miata, Casper, was a father-daughter project that he helped her fix up.
Freeman says she most often rotates through driving four members of her fleet —a ’94 SW2 wagon, a ’99 SL2 sedan, an ’01 SC2 coupe, and an ’02 SL2 sedan. She’s quick to clarify the situation with the rest of the inventory. “None of my Saturns are parts cars,” she says. Way in back, under a cover, rests her first-ever Saturn, a 2002 SC2 that got sideswiped in a wreck. “Even that one I’m keeping, because every time I think about selling it I look at it and just cry. Most will be drivers and a couple will be show cars, but I’m restoring them all. Mechanical is the priority, aesthetics come after.”
Naturally, restoring 17 cars requires access to replacement parts. For that, Errickson introduced Freeman to a junkyard in Morrisville, Pennsylvania. S-Series cars tend to rust at the rear door sills, as well as near the engine and transmission cradle, a situation that often leads to a failed Pennsylvania inspection. The commonwealth’s loss is Freeman’s gain, and every two weeks or so, she visits the yard to assess fresh arrivals.
Freeman and Errickson head for the junkyard, driving together in his ’01 SC2, which has been panel-swapped to resemble a black-and-white California Highway Patrol car. Sticking out of the trunk is a grisly prop hand, giving the appearance of a corpse in transit. At a red light just after an off-ramp, on the grass next to the road, a couple of guys asking for money put down their cardboard signs and step out of their lawn chairs. They laugh, dangling their hands to imitate the rubber one flapping behind the Saturn’s windshield. Excited, Freeman and Errickson smile and wave back.
That Morrisville yard butts up against the proverbial railroad tracks, in a rough industrial district that also contains a train yard and several processing facilities for things like metal, foam, and concrete. The neon-pink corrugated metal fencing delineating the Pic-a-Part, however, stands out. In the parking lot we meet stacks of tires and trash cans, all spray-painted pink and white, along with a small and scattered collection of pink Power Wheels Jeeps. In the lot next to the main office sits a TJ Jeep Wrangler and a work van, both painted pink and emblazoned with a startling graphic of the establishment’s proprietor, a woman named Junkyard Barbie. The graphic offers both cartoonish proportions and the slogan, “JYB wants you to put your junk in her yard.”
Junkyard Barbie is Michelle Corbi, a brusque but friendly 55-year-old woman. When Errickson, Freeman, and I enter the yard’s small office, she is sitting at her desk with one leg elevated and a pair of crutches at her side. “Surfing, motocross,” she says, gesturing to the injured leg. “It’s called getting f***in’ old.”
Corbi has been running her yard for 19 years, and she has made a concerted effort to make it more welcoming, especially to women.
“Jessie is about the only girl I know who is this hardcore into what she’s into,” she says. “Certain people—maybe one in 500—are this dedicated. Nine or ten years ago, this place was full of Honda kids, and the Jetta boys are with it until the electrical problems. Then they move on. But with her it’s not some fad. Her and Ron have helped paint this place. They’re like family, like my children. Part of the yard, ya know?”
Outside, Freeman and Errickson beeline for the Saturn aisle and unload their tools. Jessie immediately sets to work on a 1999 S-Series, practiced and confident, angling for a tan glovebox that will match the interior of Callisto, her ’99 SL2 Homecoming Edition. “These are actually pretty hard to find, so this was a successful trip.” Before leaving, she also grabs a clean trunk floor—they flatten and shrink with age and moisture—as well as some spare tubing for the air-check valves found on the Saturn 1.9-liter engine.
When we return to the house, Freeman’s mother is there, greeting us in a pair of Halloween-themed socks embroidered with spiders and cobwebs. She asks if she should bring down “the box.”
Freeman disappears momentarily, only to return bearing a large Rubbermaid container packed with Saturn gear. Treasures are unearthed one at a time—hats, cups, towels, patches, to start, then a host of other items, all the result of Saturn’s zany marketing efforts. A copy of The Saturn Owner’s Cookbook. Then a DustBuster, cow bells, yo-yos, ice scrapers, foam footballs. Some of these items were dealer giveaways, but many more were keepsakes from the Saturn Homecoming, a 1994 owner’s meetup at Spring Hill that drew more than 40,000 enthusiasts. Freeman’s box also holds a hard hat from the factory tour, and a T-shirt that says, “If you don’t own one, you probably wouldn’t understand.” The people who once understood, one must imagine, are still out there, driving a Chevy Trax or some other soulless compact crossover.
In fact, the swag that didn’t come from eBay or one of the scrapped cars at Barbie’s were gifts from these very owners. Rather than leave an old Saturn keychain to languish in some drawer, they passed it on to Freeman. Who in the world could possibly appreciate it more?
Aside from the occasional word of protest or reflexive guffaw in response to one of Errickson’s teasing jokes, Freeman doesn’t say much. She prefers to let a careful silence or pointed stare do her talking. Perhaps laying out the full scope of her commitment to her Saturn mission brings a bit more to the surface. “My dad’s best friend was like my uncle, and my whole life he said I’d be a car girl. Even at one-year old I was playing with toy cars—a Hot Wheels set nobody could get out of my hands. The year before I got my license he told me he wanted to give me his Jaguar for my birthday, but he passed away before he could and didn’t think he would need to write it into his will. Everything that I do related to cars, it’s all for him.”
Cynics might write this stuff off—even the cars—as junk. And if it were any one Saturn S-Series, a beer koozie, or a bumper sticker floating alone through the cold void of post-GM bankruptcy, they might even be right. Lovingly gathered like this, however, Freeman’s largely forgotten plastic exists in anything but a vacuum. Something meaningful holds it together. A different kind of gravity, vibrating at a frequency that very few people can hear. And it’s worth saving.