General Motors Corporation has reached a preliminary agreement to sell its Saturn brand to Penske Automotive Group in a deal that could preserve dealerships and jobs, the companies said.
The deal will save nearly 350 dealerships and about 13,000 jobs related to Saturn, said Jill Lajdziak, Saturn's general manager.
"We expect to offer all 350 franchises a new franchise agreement," Mr Penske said in a conference call with Ms Lajdziak.
"We expect to take this network, which to me is one of the best in the business, and give an opportunity to each retailer to go forward," she said.
The tentative deal for Saturn, which the companies hope to complete sometime after July, would be the second sale of a brand by GM since it filed for bankruptcy on Monday in an effort to drop unprofitable lines and leave court protection as a leaner company.
Mr Penske’s company, the number two US auto dealership group, would acquire rights to the Saturn brand and other assets, while bankrupt GM would continue production of the Saturn Aura, Vue and Outlook on a contract basis if the transaction were completed, GM and Penske said.
The terms of the deal, including the price Penske will pay for Saturn, were not disclosed, Reuters newsagency said.
"This is a day that we have all been hoping would come together, since probably the end of November when GM made its first viability plan," said Todd Ingersoll, a Saturn dealer from Connecticut and a member of the Saturn dealer steering group.
GM created Saturn in 1984 to compete with Japanese vehicles in terms of quality and service and initiated no-haggle flat-price sales for its models.
The Saturn brand has languished for the last decade, and GM said in February that it would either be spun off or shut.
It currently sells an eclectic range of vehicles, some imported from GM Europe such as the Astra, and others include hybrid powered versions of GM models.
"The win for the Saturn team is that the brand lives and the win for the retailers is our investment and our belief that we work for a great company has been upheld by someone like (Penske Chairman) Roger Penske, who really mirrors a lot of the Saturn beliefs, that customers come first," Mr Ingersoll said.
GM had said that more than a dozen buyers had expressed interest in the Saturn brand and its retail network. Penske had also said it was interested in the Saturn brand in early May.
GM plans to narrow its focus to the Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac brands and trim its dealership network.
The automaker has notified about 1100 dealerships that it would not renew their long-term agreements after October 2010, about another 470 dealerships represent the brands GM plans to dump from its line-up: Saturn, Hummer, Saab and Pontiac.
On Tuesday, GM announced plans to sell its Hummer brand to little-known Chinese heavy equipment manufacturer Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery.
Mr Penske said he is in discussions with "a number of worldwide manufacturers" to broaden the line-up and those are understood to include the Renault-Nissan group.
"There are many worldwide partners today that have put their hands up," Mr Penske said. "It's hard to say right now who the final partners might be."