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    Recounting the thrill of the very first Saturn

    By CHRISTINA COSDON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- When her husband said her 25th wedding anniversary present was a new car of her choice, Elaine Terry picked a Saturn -- before she had actually seen or driven one.

    It was the fall of 1990 and the then-Tampa resident had read a lot about the small car being built in her native state of Tennessee and touted as dependable and economical American alternative to the Japanese-made Civics and Corollas.

    "I wanted an American-made car and decided to give it a try," Mrs Terry said. So she put her order in at the new dealership in Clearwater, which didn't have any of the cars yet.

    When a handful of the four-door sedans finally arrived fresh off the assembly line, she test-drove one but couldn't have the blue one she selected, priced at $12,500, until the cars officially went on sale around the country on Oct. 25, 1990.

    Meanwhile, the dealership's owner, Paul Lokey, was pushing to become the first business in the Tampa Bay area and one of the first in the country to sell one of the new cars. He planned to make the first delivery just after midnight. To figure out who would drive off in that first car, the names of the eight people who had ordered them were put in a box. The name drawn was Elaine Terry.

    "They called and said I had to be in Clearwater by midnight," said Mrs. Terry, 55, who was then a teacher's assistant at Anderson Elementary School. USA Today and CNN were on hand for the event. Now retired and living in Tennessee, she and her husband, Ken, were flown to Clearwater last week by Saturn to participate in festivities celebrating the first decade of that first sale.

    Mrs. Terry's car, in a style that is no longer made, is back at Saturn of Clearwater and on display. The shiny blue car sported a big white bow for the party.

    "I kept it for 10 months," Mrs. Terry said, smiling as she looked it over, "and put over 5,000 miles on it. People all over the country wanted to buy the car from me. One man in Las Vegas was talking up to $100,000 for it."

    Because of its historical value, the Clearwater dealership wanted it, too. But Mrs. Terry wasn't going to give it up without some bargaining.

    "We gave her two 1992 cars of her choice to get that original car back," said Scott Harlib, general manager of Saturn of Clearwater, Port Richey and St. Petersburg, facilities owned by Lokey.

    It was a sweet deal, Mrs. Terry said.

    "I got a new car and the other one went to my son, who was in college at the time and needed a car," she said.

    As the "first" owner of a Saturn, Mrs. Terry showed up at malls and other places to talk about the car whenever Saturn called on her, she said. In the spring of 1992, she began working part time doing public relations work for the company. She worked for Saturn and kept her teacher's assistant job until September 1998, when both she and her husband retired and moved to her hometown of Cosby, Tenn.

    Today, she's driving her seventh Saturn, she said.

    "They're easy to drive and easy to handle and mine have been very dependable," she said. "Now I'm into the larger model and I'm really enjoying it."

    Since that first S series model came out, the company, which is owned by General Motors, has changed the style and added a 2-door version, Harlib said.

    Last year, the company came out with a larger sedan, as well as a station wagon, he said.

    The 2001 coupe has a new feature -- a third door that opens on the driver's side to make it easier to get in and out of the back seat, Harlib said. After next year, Saturn cars will feature only 3- and 4-door models, he said.

    Saturn's first sport untility vehicle will make its appearance next fall. "It's the size of a Rodeo with 17-inch wheels and tires," Harlib said. There are seven handmade prototypes on display throughout the country, he said. "Down the road, we have plans for a minivan and a luxury model," he added.

    These days, the Clearwater facility, which started out with six cars and five employees, keeps 90 new cars on the lot, as well as about 40 used cars, and has 40 employees.

    Clearwater sold 100 cars a month for the first four years, Harlib said. Now sales average 60 cars a month at each of the three Lokey-owned facilities, he said. During the 10-year period, the three facilities have sold about 15,000 new cars, he said.

    Total sales at the Clearwater facility in 1991 were $2-million, Harlib said. Last year's sales, including the Port Richey and St. Petersburg dealerships, totaled $70-million. "We're pretty much on the same pace this year," he said.

    The small Saturn was built to attract the baby boomers, Harlib said, and the larger coupe is aimed at the middle-aged and retired consumer. Fifty percent of Saturn buyers are women, he said.

    Along with modifications in the cars, their price tags have gone from the original $8,000 to $15,000 to today's prices of just under $12,000 to $23,000.

    Saturn still listens to its workers and customers for suggestions, Harlib said. "Workers can stop the line if he or she feels there is a problem with the car," he said. "And some changes to the interior of the cars have been made from customer suggestions."

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