Saturn was a different kind of car company and a different kind of car, at least before it became an Opel with a different kind of badge. Though, early in its history, it had a stretch of successful years in the U.S. and dreamed of making it big in Japan.
Haven’t heard of this plot to fight imports through exports?
General Motors’ desire to sell Saturns in Japan materialized quite early in the brand’s history, in 1992. By that year, Saturn had already built prototypes of right-hand drive (RHD) cars for the Japanese market, including a coupe, sedan and wagon. And planned to open dealerships by the mid 1990s. The cars were to be produced at the main Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and would be shipped to Japan and sold through actual Saturn dealerships. The effort itself was sparked by GM’s desire early on for Saturn to be an exportable world car, aiming for countries much further away than Canada.
GM had some good cause to think this would be possible. Saturn was a surprise hit in the U.S., and was selling several hundred thousand units domestically. Saturn’s launch stateside coincided with a domestic recession, giving budget-priced cars the advantage, and it had a big enough launch to saturate the entire country in dealerships filled with several models very quickly — something that other marques new to the U.S., like Hyundai, were struggling to accomplish as quickly.
GM also had a success on its hands with the Geo brand stateside (despite a few missteps in Canada, including the Passport and Asuna brands), leading it to feel that it could turn the tide against imports with its own captive imports. The next step in that battle would be selling cars of its own design in Japan, under one of its own brands. And out of its own brands, Saturn was judged to have the best shot at doing so.
But it took a little while for this plan to get rolling. Despite building prototypes in the early 1990s, sales in Japan started only in the spring of 1997 because GM still needed infrastructure to make this happen, and this required some investment and was its own challenge. Just 19 Saturn locations were opened in the country, offering the coupe, sedan and wagon in right-hand drive.
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For reasons all too understandable, Saturn sales in Japan never quite took off. The brand managed to sell just just over a thousand vehicles in the first year, and a grand total of 4,324 cars over four model years, stretching from from the 1997 through the 2000 model years. An economic downturn in Japan that coincided with Saturn’s launch didn’t help matters either, one which was prompted by a consumption tax that caused the private car market in Japan to shrink by over 10 percent.
Needless to say, this volume of sales was not enough to cover the investment in right-hand drive versions of three models, and some kind of other outlet was needed that didn’t involve more launches in more countries.
Sales targeting the U.S. Postal Service came to a mild kind of rescue, as Saturn sought to compete in the very narrow niche of providing right-hand drive vehicles to rural route carriers — a demographic catered to almost solely by Subaru and Jeep in the 1990s.
Sales to mail carriers did not salvage the investment that GM made to sell Saturns in Japan, in case you’re wondering, but it did shed some light on a little known fact in motor vehicle legislation: Right-hand drive vehicles were not “banned” from sales in the U.S. They were legal, as long as the cars themselves conformed to DOT and NHTSA requirements. Furthermore, it was not a requirement that they had to be operated by a government agency of some sort. They would also have to be eligible to be sold as used vehicles to new owners. Otherwise, new buyers would not be so willing to shell out money for a wagon that they couldn’t sell at some point in the future.
While postal sales did not save the endeavor, they are now a few rarities that can still be found for sale with some effort. Of course, rarity does not equal collectability, but if you want to live the JDM lifestyle American-style, this is one of the cheapest ways to make this happen.
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