Hummer would become a lightning rod for political and cultural divisions in 21st Century America.
The 1991 Gulf War was the global reality television event of the twentieth century(1). In response to Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and seizure of the small and poorly defended emirate’s oil fields, a US-led coalition of 35 countries began a counter-offensive on 17th January 1991. Operation Desert Storm began with an arial and naval bombardment, followed by a ground assault beginning on 24th February. In four days, it was all over. Saddam’s forces had been routed and the emirate, rather the worse for wear after the conflict, was returned to its rulers.
For overseas audiences, there was a strange air of unreality about the war. Such was the level of confidence in a swift and decisive victory that certain coalition military operations were scheduled to coincide with primetime US television viewing. The Gulf War coverage also created a new automotive icon, the Humvee(2).
The Humvee is an unarmoured or lightly armoured 4×4 vehicle, designed to carry troops and their equipment. It first entered service in 1983, but only really entered the public consciousness fully when it featured prominently in television coverage of Operation Desert Storm.
The Humvee is built by a company called AM General, based in South Bend, Indiana. AM General was formerly part of the Kaiser Jeep Company and was renamed by American Motors Corporation after it purchased Jeep from Kaiser in 1970. When Renault bought a controlling stake in AMC in December 1980, AM General, as a US military defence contractor, had to be sold off because US government regulations forbade even indirect foreign ownership of such companies. AM General was purchased by a US conglomerate, LTV Corporation, in 1983, then sold on to a US industrial holding company, Renco Group, in 1992.
Following its prominent role in the Gulf War, AM General decided to produce a civilian version of the Humvee. This was launched in March 1992 as the Hummer, with the first vehicle(3) being bought by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had lobbied AM General for its production. A derivative of the M998 Humvee, the Hummer was produced in a number of bodystyles including a four-door hardtop, an open-top, and a ‘slant-back’ that resembled the military Humvee.
The Hummer had rather unusual dimensions for a road-going private passenger vehicle. It had a wheelbase of 130” (3,302mm), overall length of 184½” (4,687mm), width of 86½” (2,197mm) and height of 77” (1,956mm). Compared with the contemporary Chevrolet Suburban full-size SUV, it was 35” (889mm) shorter, but 9½” (241mm) wider and 8¼” (210mm) taller. The imposing width and height, together with its military styling, made it a very intimidating presence on the road.
The Hummer’s off-road statistics were hugely impressive. Ground clearance was 16” (406mm). It could wade through water of up to 30” (762mm) depth, and climb a 22” (559mm) step. Approach and departure angles were 72° and 36° respectively. Of course, it is a moot point as to what proportion of the Hummer’s potential customers needed all (or any) of its extreme off-road capabilities.
Car and Driver magazine enlisted a rather improbable ‘celebrity’ to test-drive the Hummer in June 1995. Gordon Liddy(4) was President Richard Nixon’s ‘fixer’ and served time in prison for his role in the 1972 Watergate scandal.
Liddy was unimpressed by the Hummer. Firstly, there was its engine, a 350 cu.in. (5.74 litre) Chevrolet ‘small-block’ petrol V8, which was simply overwhelmed by the 6,766 lbs (3.07 metric tonnes) weight of the vehicle. Consequently, 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took 18.1 seconds and the top speed was just 83mph (134km/h). Such was the strain on the inadequate engine that it sounded “…as if it were lubed with sand imported from Daytona Beach.” The brakes were equally inadequate. The stopping distance from 70mph (113km/h) was 253 feet (77m). Liddy advised Hummer drivers to “wear steel-soled motorcycle boots and drag your feet.”
Petrol consumption was predictably frightening, no better than “7 to 9 mpg(5), and that was in predominantly freeway driving.” Thanks to a “wildly pessimistic” fuel gauge, that equated to an open road range of around 135 miles. Despite the Hummer’s extreme width, the interior accommodation was compromised by the “immense drivetrain tunnel(6) that separates the front seats”, in reference to which Liddy quipped that “…the driver is in Washington D.C. [while] the passenger is in Baltimore.”
Liddy described the finish as “first-rate, exactly as it should be for a vehicle costing $71,760.” For all its shortcomings, he concluded that, with a more powerful engine(7) and better brakes, he might drive one. As it stood, Liddy postulated that the Hummer had been “emasculated by the forces of political correctness” which was evidenced by its puny engine (and the various warning notices on the sun visors). Liddy may well have been playing to the gallery here, but his hard-right macho public persona(8) aligned perfectly with the Hummer’s image, and vise-versa.
Hummer civilian sales ticked along steadily during the 1990s, averaging around one thousand a year. This attracted the attention of General Motors, which bought the rights to the Hummer name and marketing in December 1999. The existing vehicle was rebranded with the suffix H1 in preparation for the launch of a second model. This arrived in 2002 as the Hummer H2.
GM had spotted an opportunity with Hummer, for which it supplied engines and other hardware to AM General. The H1 was simply too impractical for many potential customers, being extraordinarily wide and tall, yet having very cramped interior space. GM knew that the Hummer’s image held great appeal for a certain demographic, so it would build a much more conventionally dimensioned and practical vehicle that reprised the military-inspired styling of the H1.
It is sometimes assumed that the H2 was a smaller vehicle than the original, but it was in fact 5¼” (133mm) longer at 189¾” (4,820mm)(9) while sitting on a wheelbase that was 7¼” (184mm) shorter at 122¾” (3,118mm). It was, however, a substantial 5¼” (133mm) narrower at 81¼” (2,064mm) and just ¾” (19mm) taller at 77¾” (1,975mm). The reason for these changes in dimensions was that GM wanted to build a vehicle that was much more suited to on-road use than the H1, and the excessive width of the latter was problematic in everyday use, for example in typical car park spaces. It also wanted the H2 to be more practical and capacious than the H1, while retaining its signature styling motif.
The Hummer story continues shortly in Part Two.
(1) This is in no way intended to diminish the real suffering and loss endured by participants and victims of the conflict. It is merely a reference to the unprecedented scale of media coverage the Gulf War attracted.
(2) More correctly HMMWV, an acronym for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle.
(3) Schwarzenegger also bought a Humvee, modified to make it road-legal.
(4) G. Gordon Liddy (1930 – 2021) was a lawyer by profession. He worked as an FBI agent before joining the administration of President Richard Nixon in 1971. He orchestrated the burglaries of the Democratic National Convention headquarters in May and June 1972 and served 4½ years in prison for his crimes.
(5) U.S. gallons, which equates to approximately 8 to 11mpg imperial (33.6 to 26.1 L/100km).
(6) The extraordinary ground clearance of the Hummer H1 necessitated a very wide central tunnel bisecting the cabin to accommodate the drivetrain, forcing occupants to sit far apart in narrow footwells.
(7) Liddy nominated the 454 cu.in. (7.44 litre) ‘big-block V8 from his Chevrolet Suburban for the purpose.
(8) The Washington Post newspaper dubbed Liddy “The Darth Vader of the Nixon administration”, a soubriquet he clearly relished.
(9) The externally mounted spare wheel, when fitted, increased the overall length to 203½” (5,169mm)