Lots of us probably only dimly remember Saturn as those sorta boring cars with dent-resistant doors that GM was selling in a novel anti-haggle dealer network back in the 1990s. What most people forget is that Saturn was selling sorta boring cars way back in 1979, too.
I found this very rare Saturn ad on the back of an old copy of Parade magazine (I think it had Jamie Farr on the cover) in the storage room of the Los Angeles Museum of Printed Circulars and Advertising Section Inserts. The ad is interesting because there's so little information about pre-'90s Saturns online, and this is really the one that started it all.
The 1979 Saturn Pioneer was named after the Pioneer 11 space probe, which had just completed its close fly-by of Saturn in 1979 — that's where the picture of the planet in the upper corner came from.
These first Saturns were essentially badge-engineered versions of GM's H-platform, which most of us know better as the Vega. GM had been producing a number of cars on this platform, like the Oldsmobile Starfire and the Buick Skyhawk, but by '79 sales were slowing and GM had lots of inventory to move.
To generate interest, the new marque Saturn was developed, to play on the increased attention to astronomy NASA's deep space probes were generating. The car was essentially the same as its stablemates with two key differences: entirely new front and rear fascias, and an unusual variant on GM's 2.5L "Iron Duke" four-cylinder engine.
The Saturn's Iron Duke featured an unusual dual fuel-delivery system, consisting of a carburetor for low-end performance and throttle body fuel-injection for higher speed use. The carb and throttle body were housed in the same large unit, and in some ways this was sort of like the combination port and direct injection fuel systems used on some cars today, only much, much crappier.
The system was experimental, and it was eventually decided that it offered no performance benefits and only added complexity. The front and rear styling changes were more successful, with the front end incorporating triple lights on each side. These included, in each bank, two headlights surrounding one yellow fog lamp. The width of the the triple-light units eliminated any space for an above-bumper grille, and as a result, these cars, when fitted with a front license plate, often ran hot.
Still, it did give the Saturn its signature grille-less, wide-lights with a narrow flat panel-in-between look that was brought back for the marque's 90s re-introduction.
I still can't believe how hard it is to find information about the '79-'82 Saturns online today. I wonder how much of that is because I just made all this crap up?
I guess we'll never know, really.