By Matthew DeBord
Saturday, July 12, 2008
When General Motors announced that it would subject its Hummer division to what in the automotive business is known as a "review," you could hear the tree huggers, the unreconstructed hippies, the postmodern Greens, Al Gore's organic peanut gallery, every single customer at the Pasadena Whole Foods and the United Prius Owners of America shove aside their alfalfa sprouts and commence clapping.
GM probably didn't see that coming when it purchased Hummer as a brand name from AM General Corp. in 1999. AM General developed the Hummer in the late 1970s as the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, for tactical military applications. On the battlefield, it has enjoyed a successful 20-year run, despite issues regarding armor that have emerged during its service in Iraq. The civilian version that AM General builds for GM is another story.
Still, it would be a mistake for GM, assisted by the raving grease-monkey CPAs of Citibank, to sell the brand to an upstart carmaker in India or China or to breed it as a hybrid, as some have suggested. GM desperately needs an obnoxious, attention-grabbing brand to keep from turning into a dreary shadow of its former self. And America needs the Hummer to remind us of what has always made our automobiles stand out, from the tailfin 1950s to the muscle car 1960s and '70s: swagger. Americans don't just drive their cars -- they proclaim something about themselves by driving them.
It takes a certain kind of man -- it's almost always the owner of a Y chromosome -- to take a gander at the Hummer, in all its broad, burly, paramilitary gas-guzzling glory, and see himself behind the wheel, striking fear and loathing in the hearts of ecologically sensitive motorists. Oprah does not drive a Hummer. But Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a proud owner. As has Sylvester Stallone. The Hummer appeals to large men of even larger ego, men who aren't worried about their carbon footprint and believe that obstacles in life are meant not just to be surmounted but squashed flat. They like owning the beast because, when it bears down on lesser rides on the freeway, those lesser rides -- even the Teutonic triple threat of Porsche/BMW/Mercedes -- get out of the way. Every once in while, you see a little guy clambering out of a Hummer, painfully in need of a ladder, and you realize that it can also be viewed as a $57,000 ticket to enlarged self-esteem.
Of course, Hummer never ruled out female ownership. When GM launched the smaller H2 model in 2002, the advertising agency Modernista created a campaign that advised potential female owners to "threaten men in a whole new way." That was clever enough to inspire sales of around 30 percent to women. Still, the majority of Hummer owners remain defiantly male. Even the further downsized H3, the Hummer with broadest appeal, was briefly marketed as a way to "restore your manhood."
If this all sounds like caricature, that's because it is. The Hummer is a cartoon, more symbol than actual vehicle. Its off-road performance is extraordinary. But it's such a ridiculously over-capable ride that it greatly exceeds the requirements of most customers who aren't considering a run at the Dakar rally. Its sales are pathetic compared with pretty much any normal automobile.
Yet GM has kept it in the portfolio because it's, well, cool. Just go to an auto show. People love to climb into Hummers and take in the sights from the driver's platform. While they're up there, indulging their visions of Norman Schwarzkopf, they might spy another GM vehicle that would better suit their daily needs, like a Chevy Malibu.
The problem for GM is that, despite a decade of profits on the truck side of its business, it now sees its future primarily in passenger cars. The company management is betting that cheap gas will never come back and that promoting the virtues of a brand that averages less than 15 miles per gallon probably isn't worth the cost. So the Hummer is being picked to pieces by bean counters, an ignominious fate for a vehicle that's the street-legal version of the warrior class.
Unfortunately, GM is rapidly managing itself into a shadow of what was once the greatest manufacturing enterprise ever created. With bankruptcy an ever-present threat as sales flag, it believes it has to reengineer its mojo and downgrade a century's worth of ambition. If all goes according to plan at GM, in 10 years the great corporation will consist of three main brands: Chevrolet, GMC for trucks and Cadillac for luxury cars. Corvette will be the only exotic thing left. Meanwhile, somebody like Tata Motors in India, which is on the cusp of introducing the world's cheapest car, the Nano, and also recently purchased Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford, will get to have all the Hummer fun.
GM has hinted that, alternatively, it may convert the gas hog to hybrid status. But that would be like putting Rottweilers on a diet of celery and watermelon ("Let sip the dogs of war!"). The whole point of the Hummer is that it chugs fuel, and chugs it proudly, devoid of any sort of neurotic preoccupation with gloomy prophecies of Peak Oil or gas at 10 bucks a gallon.
And here is where its symbolic fortitude is most threatened: For American life to work, the illusion of endless abundance must be maintained. Sure, we must adapt to a future of less-abundant natural resources. Our vehicles will need to become radically more efficient. But we require vestiges of the old dream to sustain our national optimism, which in turn nourishes our national character.
This is what GM owes us, and what the company owes itself -- a ridiculous machine crammed with emotional content, the sort of contraption that Detroit has always done well but increasingly seems to have decided it is incapable of ever doing well again. What GM must remember is that, as much as competitors have altered they way we think about what we drive, it's depressing to contemplate a future filled with dreary transportation appliances. Here and there, the grandiose legacy of a country in love with freedom of movement must be celebrated, even as we figure out new and more efficient ways to get around. Now, more than ever, we need Hummer, in all its defiant, obnoxious, thoroughly American glory.
Matthew DeBord is a writer in Los Angeles.