The Ode: Hummer (1992-2010)

The beast was born when Schwarzenegger demanded a street-legal Humvee. When he converted his Hummers to alternative fuel, it was an ominous sign.

The Hummer was born to AM General Corp. in 1992, and soon came to symbolize American excess. It was originally the civilian version of the M998 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (better known as the Humvee), the replacement for the army jeep. Widespread media coverage of Operation Desert Storm, during which the Humvee became one of the most visible symbols of U.S. military brawn, popularized it in the American consciousness. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for one, became transfixed by a convoy of 50 Humvees he encountered in 1990 while filming Kindergarten Cop in Oregon. “I put the brakes on,” he later recounted. “Someone smashed into the back of me, but I just stared. ‘Oh my God, there is the vehicle.'”

Soon he owned the first street-legal Humvee. The Hummer was to four-by-fours what the steroid-laden bodybuilder was to ordinary men. Manufactured at AM General’s plant in Mishawaka, Ind., its 6.2-litre, 150-horsepower V8 diesel engine provided ludicrous volumes of torque but could barely crack 100 km/h. The behemoth could climb a 60% grade, and its minimal front and rear overhangs allowed it to mount steep inclines without scraping a bumper. Compared to the Hummer, “other vehicles wind up looking like they’re made from chewing gum wrappers,” a company official crowed.

General Motors bought the Hummer brand in 1999 and renamed the original product the H1. AM General continued building that model until 2006, after which its plant went back to making Humvees for the military. (A total of 12,000 were sold.) Meanwhile, GM introduced a cushier model, the H2, in 2003, followed by the smaller H3 (about the size of other automakers’ largest SUVs) in 2005.

By 2006, Hummers were sold in 33 countries and recognized worldwide. They were manufactured in the U.S., of course, but also in Russia and South Africa. GM sold more than 70,000 Hummers that year, a record. (They delivered generous margins – reportedly as high as US$10,000 per unit.) GM also licensed the trademark, resulting in Hummer colognes, shoes and hats.

Needless to say, not everyone was eager to wear them. Weighing in at nearly 2,500 kilograms, the H1 guzzled diesel like a fraternity doing beer bongs on a Saturday night. Hummer sales collapsed as fuel costs skyrocketed. Compounding matters, filth belched forth from Hummer tailpipes. The brand came to symbolize everything that was wrong with American culture, prompting occasional vandalism toward the vehicle and rude hand gestures toward owners.

Hummer’s image became a serious liability for GM as its bankruptcy and subsequent taxpayer bailout approached. GM put the tarnished nameplate up for sale in June 2008. Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co., a Chinese industrial products maker, struck a tentative arrangement to buy last summer, but that deal (worth a reported $150 million) fell through in February after Tengzhong proved unable to secure regulatory approval. GM says it will continue entertaining offers, but at the moment it plans to wind Hummer down.

Hummer’s final years included an effort to polish its image. The company pointed to a group called Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergencies (HOPE), which promoted itself as Red Cross — trained Americans standing ready to help the nation in times of need. But there could be no greater harbinger of demise than Schwarzenegger’s repudiation. After becoming governor of California, he pushed for stricter emissions standards and converted three of his four Hummers to run on alternative fuels. Famous for vowing “I’ll be back,” Schwarzenegger constantly reinvented himself. His favourite vehicle could not.