Hummer is the quintessential American brand — an allegory of everything right and wrong with our great nation. Now, after a failed sale to the Chinese, the brand is dead. So what does this say about America?
Hummer was the quintessential American brand — practical and well-meaning at heart, but perhaps a bit too narrow-minded for its own good. And while it's easy to decry the marque for being irrelevant and socially ignorant, to do that is to miss the greater picture: Hummer stands as a symbol of everything that we love and hate about America, and if we don't learn something from the brand's death, then we're more ignorant than those who failed to see it coming.
Tunnel-visioned product planners and greedy corporate parents may have killed the General's most notorious marque, but that doesn't mean that the brand was unlikable. Hummer represented the love-hate relationship that America has with its indulgent nature, and it couldn't have happened anywhere else. The youngest American marque was a perfect fit for the self-righteousness of the 1990s and 2000s: It embodied the kind of purpose-driven, self-centered thought that we both prize and despise in ourselves, and it succeeded, albeit temporarily, because Americans are narcissists at heart.
This is a compliment. But I digress.
In retrospect, the Hummer name was oddly appropriate. Did anyone care that the moniker was slang for an oral sex act? Of course not. We left it alone because it fit — driving a Hummer, like driving a sports car, isn't a public service. It's gratuitous self-gratification, and even the staunchest Sierra Club supporter will admit that steering a four-wheeled tank through traffic is entertaining. That an H3 offers worse fuel mileage than a Honda S2000 is simply a difference of detail.
As most people know, Hummer evolved from a vehicle designed for the U.S. Army. The AM General High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV, was introduced in the mid-1980s; it was commissioned to replace smaller machines like the aging M151 MUTT and M561 Goat. Soldiers soon shortened its name to the more concise "Humvee," and to "Hummer" shortly after that. When media coverage of Operation Desert Storm made the truck a household name, AM General saw an opportunity. It began selling a version of the HMMWV to the public in 1991, essentially repurposing a war machine as an urban status symbol.
The years that followed saw a significant amount of change. AM General sold the Hummer name to General Motors in 1998 but continued to build the truck for both government and civilian use. The Hummer lineup grew. The original Humvee was rechristened the H1 but given few mechanical updates; like its military twin, it handled public roads like the Queen Mary handles a swimming pool. The H2, which was essentially an amalgamation of late-'90s GM truck parts with staggeringly ugly bodywork, was introduced in 2003. The H3, perhaps the most practical and conventionally attractive of the lot, arrived in 2005. The latter was based on the Chevrolet Colorado compact pickup and saddled with a G.I. Junior feel and a cheap, bunkerlike interior.
What came next was both predictable and depressing: Hummer rapidly degenerated into a joke, a universal symbol for overconsumption and ostentatious excess. GM foolishly saw increased sales as the sign of a rock-solid trend;
the company's response was to up its dealer spending and dump piles of money into lavish, H-shaped showrooms. The H1, H2, and H3 were adopted by rap stars and actors alike, and they became a monument to the blind gluttony of the Have Money, Will Travel set. When fuel prices skyrocketed a few years ago, GM was caught flat-footed, burdened with an excess of stock. Dealers were left out in the cold. When a 100-mpg, plug-in H3 hybrid debuted at the 2009 SAE World Congress, it was little more than the punchline to a ten-year-old joke: "Look, everybody! It's the world's most irrelevant EV!"
Of course, it wasn't all doom and gloom. There were moments of cool, times when the brand seemed to have found its niche. When NASCAR racer Robby Gordon entered a silhouette H3 in the 2006 Dakar Rally, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. When the Army publicly up-armored its HMMWVs in the field to combat a lack of funding, we were reminded that Hummer still meant something to somebody, and that its core competency mattered. We were reminded that, flawed or not, the brand was rooted in purpose.
If pictures of tinfoil-covered Iraqi Humvees and faux H3s in rallying called up Hummer's functional appeal, then auto shows reminded us of the marque's emotional side. Concept cars are exercises in gut reaction; they're usually designed to incite raw feeling and build brand interest at the expense of production viability. Hummer concepts were no exception — they always offered a sharper, clearer picture of what the marque could have been, and they were almost always cool. If you were capable of walking by a Hummer show car and not picturing yourself in mud up to your ankles, then you were a cold soul indeed.
Finally, you cannot examine Hummer's failure without looking at Jeep. Both brands made a successful transition from front line to freeway, and both spent years lost in the proverbial woods. Only one is still standing. What did Hummer do wrong and Jeep do right? Before the former came along, we would have argued that the Army's endorsement of a vehicle sold to civilians was a guaranteed get-out-of-irrelevance-free card. History certainly had something to do with it — as a brand, Hummer always had a trying-too-hard, flash-in-the-pan feel — but anyone who believes that World War II memories are keeping Jeep afloat is sorely mistaken. Was it really as simple as mere opportunism, or was there something larger at work? What does the commercial below promise that the average Jeep ad doesn't?
To be fair, even in its darkest hour, Jeep maintained its authenticity where Hummer did not. Chrysler's recent spate of platform prostitution did little to damage the marque's credibility, and the Wrangler is still seen as a durable, credible vehicle, still immune to public abhorrence. When GM attempted to capitalize on Hummer's cachet, it essentially destroyed the trucks' bona fides.
For the most part, it doesn't matter. The era and mindset that produced Hummer are gone now, and for better or worse, we won't see their like again. Raise a glass, then, to the art of poor judgement: Hummer lived and died on our selfish whims, and it was, to coin a phrase, like nothing else. May we learn from its failings and say goodbye to the piece of ourselves that spawned them.
Photo Credits: AFP/Getty Images