Ever since the Hummer burst onto the scene in the early 1990s after its coming out party during Operation Desert Storm and the Persian Gulf War (and with a little help from then-Terminator, now-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), the public has had a love-hate relationship with its super-sized combination of size, power, utility and consumption. More than any other car in the past two decades, the Hummer has come to represent the best and the worst aspects of American culture (depending on what political and cultural lens you happen to be looking through). To ecologically conscious progressives, the Hummer epitomized the bloated, overweight, aggressively militaristic characteristics of an empire whose citizens had become enamored with having the biggest toy on the block. To the right-leaning rugged individualist foreign policy hawks, it was a symbol of American ingenuity, military prowess and man's domination over nature and a harsh, unforgiving environment. So, after learning this week that GM would be closing its Hummer division for good after a deal to sell the brand to a Chinese company fell through, it is with mixed emotions that we look back on the life and death of the Hummer.
As the father of the Hummer we know today, the Humvee (or High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle for long) was first conceived in 1979 as a military personnel and light cargo transport vehicle to replace the outdated, under-equipped jeeps that had been used up to that point. Although mass produced a few years later, it didn't see any combat until the invasion of Panama in 1989. After some of its vulnerabilities in combat became apparent during subsequent urban guerrilla warfare campaigns, such as the Battle of Mogadishu, the army decided to beef up its capabilities and add protective features - such as bullet resistant glass, full armor and strengthened suspension. Along with additional modifications and improvements over the years, the Humvee became the de-facto military transport vehicle and one of the most visible symbols of the American military.
The Gulf War
Although the Humvee was widely used and recognized by the military population, it took the Persian Gulf War in 1990 for it to become popular with non-military enthusiasts. While the Humvee became one of the faces of the Desert Storm due to the increase media coverage of the war, it wasn't until actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became enamored with the vehicle (apparently after seeing one on a film shoot) that AM General (the company that produced the Humvee) decided to have a go at producing the vehicle for civilian use. With its soaring popularity and exposure from the war, the Hummer H1 civilian four-wheel-drive utility vehicle began production in 1992. The Hummer quickly became the accessory of the moment for celebrities and athletes due in part to its aggressive appearance, as well as its high price tag. Over the next few years, the Hummer became as ubiquitous on the streets of high income neighborhoods as it was on the field of battle.
The Price of Oil
The history of the Hummer as a civilian vehicle has been inextricably linked to the price of oil. During the years after the Gulf War, crude oil prices sank to their lowest levels since the early 1970's - a fact that coincided with the emergence of large trucks and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles) as one of the fastest growing segments of the automobile market - of which the Hummer was definitely the biggest and the baddest. With oil prices at historical lows, car buyers didn't really mind that these larger vehicles got such poor gas mileage. And at barely 10 miles per gallon, the Hummer was one of the least fuel efficient cars on the market. But honestly, who cares when you're riding in 8000lbs of steel, right? It wasn't until oil prices started rising again in the late 90's and early 00's that the issue of fuel economy became one of the Hummer's biggest drawbacks.
What a Difference a Decade Makes
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when, where and how the Hummer brand turned sour. Whether it was the terrorist attacks of 2001 that highlighted our country's growing dependence on foreign oil, a growing awareness of climate change and the role that vehicle emissions play in global temperature increases, or the steady increase of a gallon of gas (to almost $4 a gallon in 2008), a number of factors came together to produce a climate in which the Hummer was reviled and ridiculed just for its mere existence. In response to some of these issues, General Motors (the company that took over production of the Hummer from AM General) decided to come out with the H2, a smaller, slimmer and more inexpensive version of the Hummer that, although not as bulky as the original, still got barely 12 MPG and had virtually the same look and feel it's older brother. Produced in 2006, the H3 cut the size of the Hummer down even more - making it closer to some of the mid-sized SUVs and trucks on the market. But regardless of the ways in which GM tried to make the Hummer smaller, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly, something about the Hummer brand just didn't seem to resonate with the new political and cultural realities and mood of the nation.
The Deal Falls Through
With Hummer sales dwindling (only 325 sold in 2009), GM (which had just recently emerged from bankruptcy proceedings) tried desperately to sell their beleaguered brand to a willing buyer. After an initial agreement with Chinese heavy equipment maker Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machines Co. to buy Hummer, it was announced on Wednesday, February 24 that the deal had fallen through and that GM had no other alternative but to phase out the brand. And so with a whimper, one of the most meteoric rises and falls in automobile history came to its inevitable end.
The Moral of the Story
As critics and auto columnists argue about the reasons and meaning behind the decline of the Hummer brand (as they inevitably will over the next few months), it'll be hard to avoid the obvious culprits (high gas prices, the environmental movement, etc). But as the fall of the Hummer seemed inextricably linked to the troubles of the American Auto Industry over the past decade, it's important to realize that all products have their time and place; their window of relevance. When the Hummer made its debut to fawning media attention and celebrity, it was the right car for the moment. It gave people a sense of security, dominance and strength. But as the world (and eventually the U.S.) began to realize the true cost of that false sense of security, they started to turn against the brand that had given them that feeling of power. And as the Hummer brand slinks off into the sunset and the American auto industry tries to reposition itself with fewer brands and more fuel efficient cars, it's hard not to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for a vehicle that served (and continues to serve) our country admirably and probably was never meant to be used by the general population.