In the early 1990s one of Hollywood’s biggest action star pestered a US defense contractor to sell him a truck the US army had famously used in a war in Iraq.
And so, America got the Hummer. The angular militaristic go anywhere truck became an emblem in the 1990’s pop culture. A coveted status symbol sort by celebrities and a sometimes mocked and vilified example of just how far America’s new-found love for sport utility vehicles had gone.
The hummer was huge, brash and often brightly colored and it became a favorite choice for adventurous buyers who didn’t mind attracting attention. And then it was gone as parent company General Motors collapsed into bankruptcy.
The hummer had a brief life spanning just under two decades but it made a lasting impression.
The vehicle that will come to be called a hummer actually began as the US military’s High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. The names cumbersome acronym HMMWV landed the truck with its nickname Humvee.
It was first developed in 1981 by US defense contractor AM General. It was most notably used in the first golf war but the kind seen on roads and highways later on came about because as the story goes movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger saw a convoy of hummers while filming a movie in Oregon while filming a movie and decided he had to have one.
Upon seeing them he later said he could see himself driving the vehicle in the mountains and in the desert.
Schwarzenegger reportedly lobbied AM General repeatedly for one of the vehicles. At first, he demanded one of the same Humvee AM General had sold to the US military but he was refused since the truck was not street legal. Then he began asking AM General to make a civilian version. He even flew out to the company’s headquarters in South Bend Indiana to make his case.
The contractor eventually created a civilian version in 1992 and named it the Hummer. Schwarzenegger was there for the unveiling of the vehicles and drove one of the first specimens off the assembly line.
By many measurements the hummer outdid every other passenger vehicle on the market. It had a full 16 inches of ground clearance that’s over 9 inches more than the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. It was also 7ft wide, almost as wide as the biggest street legal semi-trucks. Making it stable and resistant to rollover despite its Height.
The civilian version came with a more comfortable cabin geared for cruising and commuting rather than combat but the truck did retain some of the features found on the original version.
And the Hummer was a success for a while. GM bought the brand in 1999 and expanded the lineup with progressively smaller models called the H2 and the H3.
Eventually every celebrity seemed to have one. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself owned at least seven at one point, heavy weight boxer Mike Tyson had six. At its peak in 2006 Americans bought 71,524 Hummers.
The vehicle was an oddity in the market place. Huge, blunt, and aggressive. But that appears to be part of what people liked about it.
However, there was also backlash against the truck which critics viewed as an obnoxious gas guzzler. The original Hummer H1 got about 10 miles per gallon. The smallest of the lineup H3 got 14 miles per gallon with an automatic transmission in the 2010 model year.
To activist and other critics, the vehicle became a symbol to excess and the American addiction to fuel at a time when crisis began to climb and the country was fighting wars in the oil rich middle east.
In one high profile case, a dealership in West Covina California was vandalized including 20 Hummers valued a about $50,000 each. The perpetrators spray painted messages on several of the damaged trucks including “gross polluter” and “fat, lazy Americans”.
Apart from the environmental backlash, rising fuel prices and a grueling recession spoiled America’s taste for big vehicles.
Hummer sales fell from their 2006 high to 55,986 in 2007, 27,485 in 2008, and just 9,046 in 2009.
To make matters worse, General Motors itself had collapsed. The largest US auto maker filed for bankruptcy in 2009. GM put several of its brands to the axe including Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saab, and Hummer.
Hummer in particular was worse. All of the things that had made it appealing – its big, loud, brash attitude became liabilities.
GM will later try to sell the brand to Chinese investors but that deal fell through. The strange thing is that as prices have fallen from an all-time high set in 2008 and as the US has pulled out of the recession, customers have run back to sport utilities and trucks.
It is possible the brand could have a second life. At least two reports have said GM is considering bringing the hummer back as part of a fleet of electric and hybrid sport utilities and trucks. But GM had no comments on reports to bring back the Hummer.
However, if this were to happen, it will allow the automaker to capitalize on the Hummer’s military heritage and adventurous image while keeping in line with what GM CEO Mary Barra calls GMs all electric feature.
Reviving the Hummer could also be a relatively inexpensive way for GM to broaden its truck line up at a time when Americans are scooping up pickups and sport utilities at an unprecedented rate.
Moreover, several industry watchers say the shift towards sport utilities and trucks in the new car market is here to stay. If the is true, automakers are more likely to keep trying to carve out new niches to distinguish themselves and squeeze higher margins out of each purchase.
Big, off-road ready vehicles are once again the order of the day. The longtime off-road favorite Jeep Wrangler has climbed from 84,615 units in 2008 to 240,032 in 2018 and Jeep added the Gladiator pickup truck to its Wrangler line up for the 2019 model year.
While GM has off road capable vehicles, it doesn’t really have one that directly replaced the Hummer nor one that could directly compete with the Wrangler.
Having a dedicated off-road oriented brand could be a boon to GM in its ongoing war for truck and SUV dominance with its Detroit rivals.
The Gladiator is actually a revival of a pickup tuck jeep sold in the 1960s. in similar fashion, Ford plans to revive the Bronco another once popular utility vehicle.
Toyota brought back its Supra sports car, Honda also pulled out its Passport name out of its archive for a new SUV.
Usually, when auto makers reintroduce brands, they take advantage of nostalgia and at the same time saving money they would have to spend introducing customers to a new product.
It’s obvious throughout its lifespan the Hummer was a polarizing vehicle but reviving it in this market may just turn out to be a smart decision.