Waving Saturn owners stream to Tennessee for car-nival THE ROAD HOME

June 25, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Correspondent

Spring Hill, Tenn. -- The rain shrouded I-65 as the final leg of the road trip began yesterday morning. But then, as they took the Saturn Parkway exit and began winding through rolling countryside for a cluster of festive tents in the distance, the rain suddenly stopped and a rumor of sun began to shine.

Is this real life, or another soft-focus, sweetly sentimental commercial that has made the Saturn car one of the marketing marvels of recent years?

Rain is simply not allowed here in the sunny world of Saturn -- although it did manage to break through sporadically during the day -- especially since some 10,000 car owners and their families and friends have accepted the invitation of this General Motors division to come home for a two-day festival of plant tours, country music concerts, craft booths and, mostly, a chance to meet other similarly devoted Saturn-maniacs.

From coast-to-coast, as well as Alaska and Hawaii and even Taiwan, they pointed their mostly shiny Saturns -- the oldest date only to 1991 -- to this tiny hamlet south of Nashville and north of nowhere.

"This is just bizarre," admits Aviva Sinay, 19, who spent two days on the road with her friend, Marilouise Gollery, 18, in a blue 1992 Saturn SL2 that took them about 730 miles from their Baltimore-area homes. "It's a car. Have you ever heard of people doing this for a car?"

Ms. Gollery, of Arbutus, has commandeered the car from her father, Thom, and warns he may never see it again. "You expect me to come home? The car wants to stay here," Ms. Gollery joked. "I love seeing the mountains, and I just love seeing all the Saturns with different license plates from all over."

Like others, they put a sign in their window to introduce themselves to their fellow fans. "Aviva, Weez and Jeremiah Bullfrog [from] Baltimore hon!" said theirs. (The bullfrog was there only in song. As in, ". . . was a good friend of mine.") In the lane next to them as they crawled into the festival entrance -- try getting 10,000 cars into a town of about 3,500 -- another Saturn has this painted on its windows: "San Antonio to Spring Hill, Texas to Tennessee, Happy Homecoming 'Phoebe.' "

Yes, this is the kind of car that gets named. It's the cocker spaniel of cars, lovable, doesn't bite. When you ask Saturn owners about their cars, they don't confuse you with talk of independent MacPherson Struts, transverse front engines and all those other car-geek things that no one really understands anyway. No, they tell you how nice their dealer is, how they didn't have to haggle over the price, how they can call a toll-free number any time they break down on the road and actually talk to a human being.

"Everyone's a walking commercial," said Ruth Morrissey, who took her "Pearlie Mae," a new, limited "homecoming" edition Saturn that is painted a pearly white color, from Sioux Falls, S.D., to its birthplace 1,400 miles away. "We all love our cars."

That's why they wanted to come all this way to see where it all began. And Ms. Morrissey didn't even travel the farthest of the estimated 25,000 attending the festival.

"We are very surprised at this beautiful town, that this is where Saturn builds the cars," said Wang-Shih Chen, who, with about 30 other owners and dealers of Saturns, came all the way from Taiwan to see their cars' birthplace. "Spring Hill is beautiful country."

Indeed, the mist-blurred landscape is as lovely as, well, a Saturn commercial, those charming vignettes that tell of barbers and teachers and moms and pops and all those everyday Joes and Janes who are Saturn's best spokespersons. Customers who write in their praises often end up in ads. The current TV and print commercial, for example, features four doctors in their blue scrubs and their four Saturns. All are from the Baltimore area and bought their cars from the Glen Burnie and Owings Mills dealerships. Or, rather, "retailers."

That's part of Saturn culture, to even replace the word "dealer," with all its baggage, with the more neutral "retailer" appellation. It goes further. When Saturn had one of its recalls, for example, a spokesman told a Sun reporter it was not a recall, it was a "voluntary customer satisfaction campaign."

General Motors' response to Japanese car quality, Saturns have been cited in dependability studies as formidable competitors in the small-car market. For the second year in a row, J. D. Power and Associates ranked Saturn No. 1 in total customer satisfaction among domestic carmakers.

Here, at its home base, the culture is most intense -- everyone from the president of the company on down to those staffing the festival booths are wearing red and white baseball-style jerseys that identify them as "Home Team 2." If you ask them who is Home Team 1, you'll be told, in all seriousness and a distinct lack of irony, that the customer is.

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