HUMMER, An Obituary: 1999-2010

February 24, 2010

HUMMER's dead.

Short of a last-minute rescue by an unlikely, as yet unheralded white knight, the newest GM brand to the fold will be folded, like so much of its trucks' hard-edged sheetmetal.

It's been about 12 years since the notion of buying the rights to AM General's Hummer products took hold at GM. Back then, gasoline was under a buck a gallon, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Humvee owner and fan, not the Governator. In case you haven't been patched in, change has come to America--in the form of war, rising oil prices, higher fuel economy standards, and more government say in what you'll drive in the next ten years.

Change has roiled the auto industry, too. Just in the past year, just at HUMMER's parent company GM alone, wrenching change already has shuttered two storied brands with more skin in the game than HUMMER--Pontiac and Saturn. And it's evicted Sweden's Saab from the empire, into a vaguely shady deal with minuscule sportscar maker Spyker. Chalk it up to GM's Lost Decade--the one that saw market share drain away as "more brands, more vehicles" took the inevitable toll on the company, ballooned its debt, and sent it packing into bankruptcy with four or more essentially dead brands around its neck.

All along, HUMMER might have been destined for failure. GM executives thought a HUMMER brand would have legs beyond the iconic Humvee, and it didn't. Even with warnings from within their own executive ranks--and a few Cassandras who accurately predicted its military image would backfire on it someday--GM set up an expensive network of dealers and a hungry product pipeline to fill. They could have built the singular H2 concept; instead they planned a whole Jeep-baiting brand of symbolically challenged, metaphorically troubled tanks.

I spent a lot of time with HUMMER's godfathers soon after the brand launched, among them Wayne Cherry, Mike DiGiovanni, Ken Lindesmith. In my book, HUMMER: How A Little Truck Company Hit the Big Time, Thanks to Saddam, Schwarzenegger, and GM, I found out why GM even ventured into the HUMMER concept and turned it into a brand. During the Ron Zarrella regime and the faddish days of the late 1990s, new nameplates like HUMMER were seen as GM's ticket to salvation and out of the doldrums, while it visibly brought down nameplates like Oldsmobile by removing logos from the cars it sold.

2004 HUMMER H1

2004 HUMMER H1

First a concept, the HUMMER had a brief moment in the sun. For a while, it was the four-wheeled equivalent to the American flag, or the Statue of Liberty. AM General Humvees had rolled across CNN for weeks during the first Gulf War, inspiring the whole idea of franchising the look in the first place. The GM concept won fans, among them a young upstart car guy employed by rivals--Bob Lutz. GM put the H2 on sale in 2001, and soon enough, war resumed in Iraq--turning hazy glory into discomfiting reminders of pax Americana's limits.

Then, of course, it became the flashpoint for controversy. Tree huggers reviled it so much, HUMMER dealers were firebombed. Ford had its own melodrama with the "Exxon Valdez" Excursion; GM had the HUMMER. By 2005, even the folks at CNN knew HUMMER's days as an icon were numbered; when they asked me if HUMMER wasn't simply an appealing fantasy for wealthy guys, I couldn't refute it.

Even the introduction of the smaller H3 didn't soften its diehard image; neither did a grassroots "HUMMER Helps" effort that some of us thought was more whitewash than red cross.

Angular Front Exterior View - 2008 HUMMER H3 4WD 4-door SUV Alpha

Angular Front Exterior View - 2008 HUMMER H3 4WD 4-door SUV Alpha

Try as I might, I can't think of a more broadly told morality tale than that of HUMMER. An All-American allure gave GM a glib counterpunch to Jeep's Wrangler; the comeuppance came as the HUMMER turned into a cameo player in a wartime drama, and a fuel-economy pariah in a leaner, meaner time. GM didn't ever have to egg on its critics; HUMMER did it for them, even if most of the punches it took were unfair.

GM's Chapter 11 was the final call for HUMMER. One could argue GM could do better with HUMMER than with GMC, which it chose to save. I've often thought HUMMER would have been a better long-term strategy than GMC--it's more clearly defined from Chevy's truck lineup. But cold cash trumps all, and GMC turns in hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, while HUMMER drains the company's coffers--financially and politically, but mostly symbolically.

So what's left for HUMMER? With the shaky sale to Sichuan Tengzhong called off today, GM says HUMMER will get an orderly wind-down along the lines of those planned for Pontiac and Saturn. While Saab was saved at the last minute, there's almost no chance HUMMER will escape the guillotine. Only the state of Louisiana or Indiana, where some HUMMERs are built, could find any value in what's left, and neither seems a likely savior. That's particularly true of Indiana, since it already has Honda, Subaru and Toyota plants humming within its borders, though AM General still builds military vehicles near South Bend.

Sure, I'm disappointed there's no "mission accomplished" chapter to tack on my book, and for the team that's tried to rescue some future for HUMMER, we send our condolences. After all, HUMMER is in a better place. With all the political backwash, it never was an easy vehicle to swallow. China Inc. ownership would have hamstrung its uniquely American bona fides. And jingoism doesn't have all that much elbow room in America anymore, anyway. Even the Army is getting out of the Humvee business. That's a death knell even the Liberty Bell couldn't outring.

HUMMER's triumph and shame were simultaneous: it was pure emotional appeal, and didn't try to be more. For better or worse, HUMMER's future never was anything but its own.

And sometimes self-determination bites you in the ass.

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