Nearly 20 years ago, I had the chance to visit the assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., that made General Motors' Saturn cars and see the in-house injection molding operations.
Deep within the plant, the company turned out door panels made of polycarbonate and ABS and quarter panels of polyphenylene oxide and nylon — items that were a key part of marketing that Saturn termed "dent resistant" in advertising for the small cars.
You can find a 2004 ad for the Saturn Ion here as an example.
Beyond the normal quality checks for any exterior panel on a car, Saturn's plastic parts were also tested for extreme weather — to make sure they wouldn't crack if they were hit by a shopping cart during a Minnesota winter, for instance.
The plastics engineers I met then took a lot of pride in being able to marry their love of polymers and automotive. Since the Saturn brand was killed off in 2010, no other carmaker I can think of has fully embraced the possibility of thermoplastic panels on entry-level cars. But during its brief existence, the Saturn brand was designed to be "a different kind of car company."
That marketing line was developed by Don Hudler, a GM executive who helped develop and run the Saturn brand. Hudler died Dec. 16 at his home in Charlotte, N.C., at the age of 87.
The Spring Hill plant has been repurposed multiple times since I visited. In January 2020, GM announced a $40 million investment to increase capacity to make engines for its full-size trucks and SUVs.