Hummer: Requiem for a heavyweight?
A couple of years ago, I parked a Hummer H2, in all its blunt-trauma enormity, in front of a coffee shop in Santa Monica. When I returned I discovered a note written on a paper napkin under the windshield. “This thing is so stupid! Why don’t you grow up?”
America just got the memo.
General Motors Corp. said this week that it was considering ways to downsize the brand -- last month, sales plummeted 60% compared with May 2007 -- sell it off or kill it outright. Chairman Rick Wagoner’s “all options” remark didn’t leave a lot of hope for fans of the quasi-military sport utility vehicle. Obituaries will be many and eulogies will be few.
“GM killed the electric car and now skyrocketing gas prices have crushed the Hummer,” said Arianna Huffington, who founded the Detroit Project, an effort to pressure automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars.
“The Hummer embodied the worst impulses of the American auto industry,” said Josh Donner, spokesman for the Sierra Club, which also created a shame-based campaign against the Hummer, including the satiric website Hummerdinger.com. “GM’s move this week shows the absolute bankruptcy of GM’s business model.”
And yet, Hummer lovers are a resilient bunch, and, while the skirmish line has moved, it’s clear many are not prepared to disarm in the automotive culture wars.
“Whatever the price of gas,” said Glen Peck, director of the Hummer Club, a national organization of enthusiasts, “we’ll drive them to hell and back.”
The fate of the Hummer brand is up in the air. GM, which bought the brand from military contractor AM General in 1998, has plowed a load of capital into Hummer, including $250 million for a plant expansion in Shreveport, La.
It has a pickup truck version of the mid-size H3, the H3T, in the pipeline for a summer release. Meanwhile, product development is well along on a Jeep Wrangler-size 4x4 called the H4.
Hummer is a charismatic brand with its own merchandising, including fleece jackets and flashlights. Even if the division operated at a fraction of its historical volume, Hummer could be an attractive proposition to a potential buyer. India’s Economic Times reported Thursday that India’s Tata Motors and Mahindra have each made overtures to GM about Hummer.
If this is the end of Hummer, it would close the books on what will probably go down as the most controversial vehicle since the Chevrolet Corvair.
Hummer was always unavoidably political. The name began as a soldier’s nickname for the “HMMWV” (High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee), the mega-Jeep that drove into America’s living rooms during news coverage of the Persian Gulf War. In the early 1990s, AM General, allegedly at the suggestion of Arnold Schwarzenegger, produced a civilian version of the enormous tractor-like truck. It was here that the brand’s cultural DNA was fixed as a twin helix of oil and militarism.
The H1 didn’t arouse much ire, however, because it was a relatively low-volume vehicle; at worst, an appalling curiosity. It was the H2, introduced in 2002, that became the lightning rod for criticism. A 6,614-pound, 6-foot-8 goliath, all armor and bolts and bumpers, with fenestration like gun slits and a grille like the bared teeth of a charging infantryman, the H2 set off a fury.
“It was just so over the top,” said Michael Marsden, an auto culture historian at St. Norbert College. “It had excess written all over it, the SUV times 10. Everything about it suggested not practical, not reasonable. It was consumerism at its peak.”
And fuel economy at its nadir. The H2 returned single-digit fuel economy at a time when the American body politic had largely squared off on matters of energy and the environment. “The eco movement needs a villain, and, unfortunately, the Hummer has been drafted to play the role,” said Bryan Pullen, a Hummer owner from Davis, Okla.
The H2 was also featured in a minor drama involving the U.S. tax code, which provided massive tax breaks for vehicles over 6,000 pounds that were used for business.
Clearly, for many H2 buyers, who never thought of taking the rugged trucks off-road, the H2’s excessiveness was part of its charm. Hummer prospered in part because it came along just as automotive culture was exploring the limits of wild, chrome-rimmed excess: bling. The Hummer was embraced by hip-hop stars, professional athletes and, of course, “CSI: Miami” detectives.
“I will have to admit that when I see some little blondie, obviously some older man’s princess, pile out of an H2 at the mall it makes me cringe,” said Otto Frederick, a Hummer advocate from Lakeland, Fla. “The H2 was not built to be a princess car, but that’s what it became.”
As the biggest, baddest SUV on the planet, it was natural that the H2 become the target of cultural blowback against the category, which came in many forms. Keith Brasher’s 2002 book “High and Mighty” psychologized big-SUV owners as vain, self-centered and insecure. The Hummer became shorthand for cynicism and excess, an indictment of the American psyche on wheels.
Whatever profit-and-loss realities are at work in GM’s announcement this week, one thing is certain: The company, now desperately tacking to get on a greener course, no longer wants to deal with the contradictions and image liabilities that Hummer represents.
“Cutting jobs is never good press, but for a company to go green is,” said Hummer owner Steve Scott of Plano, Texas. “This is GM’s attempt to do both at the same time.”
Hummer owners are feeling misunderstood. In spirited e-mail exchanges this week, many point out that although the H2 was a gas guzzler, the smaller, similarly styled H3, based on GM’s mid-size truck platform, gets better fuel economy than many competitive vehicles.
“When the H3 came along, it was branded. Hummer was synonymous with bad gas mileage,” Hummer owner Scott said. Advocate Frederick noted: “H3 owners resent the fact that many people can’t tell the difference between an H2 and H3.”
With all the controversy, it’s perhaps surprising to find that people are still buying the iconic H2. Tarek Abdellatif is now the lone salesman in the Hummer showroom at Clippinger Chevrolet in West Covina, where an arsonist firebombed Hummers on the lot in 2003.
“My sales manager quit two weeks ago,” he said. “People are jumping like rats from a ship, but I stay because I love Hummer so much.”
And for him, business is good. Abdellatif said he had sold “seven or eight” in the last month.
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OFF THE CHART: The Hummer 3 is so expensive and fuel inefficient that it wouldn’t fit on the chart at left.
Combined mpg: 15
Lowest price: $35,595
Sales in May: 1,467