We all know the automotive world is changing. Fuel economy and emissions have replaced the zero to 100km/h and top speed figures as the reasons to justify the purchase of a set of wheels.
The age of the high-powered SUV is dead and buried. Yes, some people still enjoy owning cars like the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 and Mercedes Benz ML63 AMG, but these models are part of a range that also offers sensible diesel or hybrid options.
Not giving in to the environmental legislation demands set by various countries can have dire consequences. Take, for instance, the now defunct brand, the Hummer.
Its story starts way back in 1979. The US army had to replace its fleet of ageing military vehicles and wanted something larger, more threatening and more capable off the beaten track than the famous Jeep it had been using for so long.
A list of specifications was drawn up and handed over to possible suppliers, and after a long elimination process, AM General, a division of the American Motors Corporation, won the bid.
The model it produced was called the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV. The soldiers, not wanting to use that ridiculously long name, nor the tongue-twisting acronym, simply called it the Humvee.
The vehicle was first used as a personnel carrier during the US invasion of Panama, but it did not become a household name until Operation Desert Storm during the first Gulf War.
The Humvee served its purpose very well and it was lauded as an exceptional military vehicle, but that simply wasn’t enough to turn it into an icon. It only achieved that status because of media coverage.
The Gulf War was the first in which journalists were “embedded” with their country’s forces, reporting live from the front lines. Every night, millions of Americans sat in front of their television sets, staring in awe at footage taken from inside a Humvee of their troops fighting the bad guys.
From a marketing point of view, it was solid gold free advertising. The “Governator”, Arnold Scwarzenegger, also pleaded for a production model of the vehicle after he saw a convoy drive past while he was filming one of his many action movies. Obviously it made good business sense to go public with the Humvee. Ownership of such a vehicle would be the four-wheeled equivalent of hanging the Stars and Stripes outside your house, and the company had the endorsement of one of the biggest movie stars.
The Gulf War ended in February 1991 and a year later, under new management, AM General started production on a civilian Humvee, called the Hummer. It was an exact replica of the military vehicle, but included a few everyday luxuries such as gloss paint, sound insulation, decent upholstery, wood trim, air-conditioning and a sound system.
The original Hummer, now referred to as the H1, did not sell as well as AM General had hoped it would. Patriotism is all very well, but it can’t pay for a car that cost anywhere between R400 000 and R1.5 million.
The H1 had a few problems as well. It had trouble fitting into anything smaller than the desert it had fought in and the fuel consumption was horrendous. Hummer never stated what the claimed figure was, but the smallest engine you could buy was a 5,7-litre V8 petrol unit coupled to a four-speed automatic gearbox. The biggest engine was a 7,3-litre V8 diesel with a three-speed automatic. Couple that to a body mass of 2,7 tons and you have the recipe for an insatiable appetite for fuel.
In 1999, General Motors came to the rescue. It bought the Hummer name from AM General, but contracted them to continue building the H1.
Work began immediately in addressing the major criticisms of the H1. A smaller, more fuel-efficient model was needed, and so began the age of the H2.
It took GM around three years to get the H2 on showroom floors, but once it did, the sales numbers started rising. In 2002, Hummer sold 19 000 vehicles and by end 2003 the figure had improved to 35 000 a year. The H2 was a hit and celebrity endorsements came rolling in.
Back in the early 2000s, you weren’t a proper gangsta rapper if you didn’t own a yellow Hummer H2 with large spinning alloy wheels. Even so, sales began to decline and by the end of 2004 they had dropped below 30 000 a year.
A pick-up version was added to the range in 2005. This did its part in getting sales back on track, but there was no escaping the fact that the H2 was haunted by the same problems that had plagued the H1. It addressed the criticisms about safety and lack of luxury, but it was still a large, lumbering mass with an oversized engine that had a gargantuan appetite for fuel.
Hummer needed something even smaller, and so the H3 was born. It was, by far, the smallest Hummer ever built and it made its debut in 2005. It was also the first Hummer to be built in-house by GM, right here in SA.
The H3 was launched with a relatively small 3,5-litre five-cylinder petrol engine, with 160kW and 305Nm on tap. This engine was replaced in 2007 by a 3,7-litre unit with more power, which made it even more capable off road.
In 2009, a 5,3-litre V8 model was added to the range. This massive powertrain had impressive output figures of 224kW and 434Nm of torque, but fuel consumption was, once again, the major drawback. Hummer actually provided a combined consumption figure for this model, but as it turned out to be 17 l/100km, it should perhaps have been kept a secret.
The introduction of the V8 H3 could not save the floundering Hummer brand. It was a dinosaur in a modern world. Ten years earlier it might have been a sales hit, but the green lobby was now in full swing and Hummer had a product nobody wanted to buy. The world was in the midst of a recession and the last thing it needed was a V8 4×4.
The H1 had been dropped three years before, because it didn’t meet new emissions regulations, and the H2 was on its last legs. The burden was too big for the H3 to carry by itself and as a result, Hummer imploded.
Strangely, GM held on to the brand for as long as possible. There was talk of selling it to a Chinese company during 2010, but the deal fell through and dealerships started shutting down. The last civilian Hummer was built in May 2010.
The US military is in the process of replacing its fleet of Humvee’s with a range of modern, environmentally friendly military vehicles.
Hummer, it seems, is dead, and we see no way of resuscitating it. Its core brand values are too deeply ingrained in the public’s mind, and they just don’t belong in a modern world. Excess is out, frugality it in.
Even the Governator had to agree, when California became “the greenest state” in 2003. After his two terms were up, Scwarzenegger bought a Mercedes Benz SLS.
Revamping the Hummer brand would be a futile exercise, but apparently that is not going to stop GM from trying, as one of its designers recently revealed. Will it work, or will Hummer get the recipe wrong for a fourth time? And even if it does come up with something acceptable, would you want a compact crossover Hummer?
Some things are best left alone, and the demise of the Hummer is one of them.