If you consider yourself an auto racing fan, or even an automobile enthusiast, you have probably had a discussion with a non-auto person who fails to see the attraction of the sport. It is also likely they fail to see the validity of the sport noting, in their view, it is merely a loud waste of time and fuel while being an environmentally destructive activity. These critics have rarely taken the time to research their opinion. They only look at the surface and apply a self-righteous set of values to come to these conclusions. They do not recognize production car advances taken from the racetrack. Vehicle safety, aerodynamic design, engine and transmission technology, braking applications and fuel economy all come from track testing and refinement on racing cars.
That said, can we assume that knowledge, engineering and applications of building race cars from the ground up can directly translate to building production cars for the general public? We likely have our chance to find out. Roger Penske (Penske Racing) has signed on to take the Saturn brand from economically challenged General Motors. Penske is taking on a challenge but that is nothing really new. GM has failed the Saturn brand on several fronts leaving Penske open to rebuild the name as he sees fit. If he can keep cars running in NASCAR, INDY and GrandAm then this may seem like an easy win. He’s got a shot but not a guarantee.
General Motors launched Saturn in the mid 1980’s as a “different kind of car company”. Saturn quickly became a high ranker in consumer satisfaction. Their cars were attractive and held value. They were competing quite well with some of the imports know for economy and life span. So… what went wrong? You probably can not take one singular point as the problem but a high ranker could be the GM mindset of building one car with several labels. Saturns began to be built on the same platforms as other GM brands’ models. What was a “different kind of car company” became “the same car with a different badge”.
Enter Roger Penske. Anyone familiar with the Penske name will know he doesn’t jump without looking. It does not mean he never misses (Penske Car Care Centers…) but it does mean he sees something with potential. He has a deal with GM to basically supply Saturn models for the next couple of years. Penske will have to eventually set up or take over his own design and manufacturing facilities. Some current Saturn models are re-badged European models from Opel/Vauxhall. It has been rumored the Chinese are looking at the Opel label and it would seem unlikely that Penske would, with the facilities in place in the U.S., purchase a Chinese owned product just to drop his badge on it.
The questions remain and the answers may be some time in coming. Can Roger Penske succeed with Saturn? Will the Chinese take control of the Opel name which some of the Saturns are based on? Will Penske get control of manufacturing facilities inside the United States? What would a Penske design team put out to the American public? Will it continue to be “Saturn” or will we see a “Penske” brand take shape?
The answers to these questions will, hopefully, be very exciting for the American automotive public.