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The end of the brand is a hard blow for dealers who remember its fabulous start.

In the middle of the showroom of Lokey Saturn of Clearwater sits a compact piece of automotive history: a blue SL2, the first Saturn ever sold in the United States.

Lokey was part of the original bunch of 16 Saturn dealers chosen by General Motors to launch the innovative brand meant to take on the Japanese imports.

Tampa teaching assistant Elaine Terry bought that first Saturn at 1 second after midnight on Oct. 25, 1990.

So the news Thursday that GM will phase out Saturn over the next year was an extra-hard blow for Paul Lokey, who operates Saturn stores in Clearwater, Port Richey and St. Petersburg.

GM announced that its deal to sell the name to rent-a-car bigwig Penske Automotive Group was dead. The scuttlebutt among dealers is that Penske had planned to buy and rebadge Nissans as Saturns but Nissan co-owner Renault axed those plans.

"I'm speaking for all Saturn dealers when I say we were excited about an innovative businessman like Roger Penske taking over," said Lokey, one of about 350 Saturn dealers. "I don't understand how that at the 11th hour and 59th minute everything went sour."

Lokey operates the three dealerships assigned to Pinellas and west Pasco counties. Ed Morse, based in Fort Lauderdale, runs the Saturn stores in Tampa, Brandon and Lakeland.

Saturn enjoyed a spectacular launch in 1990 as a seller of competitive economy cars. Lokey said the slogan - "a different kind of car company" - wasn't just advertising hooey. When engine trouble plagued one of its first models, the company offered customers a free replacement car.

"They told us, 'Do whatever it takes for these people. Wow them,'" Lokey said.

But within a decade, Saturn failed to diversify and the line grew stale. GM began meddling in what was supposed to have been an independent division. Lokey, which once sold 150 Saturns a month in Clearwater, watched sales taper off to fewer than 100. Saturn tried to revamp a couple of years ago with best-sellers such as the Vue SUV, but it was too late.

"We were red hot the first five years. They didn't provide any additional product," he said. "We sold a compact and subcompact. They needed to diversify and give us a midsize, full-size or truck."

GM, which will continue to honor Saturn warranties, will stop making Saturns as soon as possible, but no layoffs are expected, said spokeswoman Sherrie Childers Arb. Saturns are made at plants in Kansas City, Kan.; Delta Township, Mich., near Lansing; and Ramos Arizpe, Mexico.

About 13,000 people work for Saturn dealers around the country.

Lokey plans to focus on service and used car sales until the brand expires toward the end of 2010. Lokey employs about 100 at its three Saturn locations. It also runs Mercedes, Nissan, Volkswagen and Kia dealerships.

"We're talking to other manufactures," Lokey said. "But we can't say who they are yet."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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