The rise and fall of Hummer
- The Hummer became hugely popular in the 2000s, thanks to its military background and oversized design.
- Depending on the model, a Hummer could cost up to $100,000.
- It was especially beloved in Hollywood, and driven by everyone from Britney Spears to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- However, environmental activists protested against Hummers for being 'pollution machines', and some even set fire to them.
- When gas prices skyrocketed in 2007, followed by the financial recession in 2008, Hummer's sales struggled and General Motors shut down the brand in 2010.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: You know what car this is.
Matt DeBord: Everybody remembers the Hummer. Even though it's been gone for 10 years now.
Narrator: Its tough look and military background made it instantly cool. And everyone from Mike Tyson to Britney Spears was driving one. Hummers were seemingly everywhere in the early 2000s. But in 2010, all manufacturing and sales came to a halt. So, what happened?
Hummer's story begins with the US military. The military used the Jeep as its go-to vehicle during the world wars and through the Vietnam War. But around the '80s, it started looking for something more heavy-duty.
Matt: The Jeep didn't have a lot of power. Jeep couldn't pull a lot of stuff. It couldn't carry a lot of people. It had no armor.
Narrator: So the Pentagon gave AM General a billion-dollar contract to develop a fleet of High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles. Eventually called Humvees, the bulky vehicles were designed to transport troops and cargo.
Matt: The Humvee didn't have a lot of armor, but it was, you know, at least a little bit more survivable in terms of being shot at or having something blow up next to it.
Narrator: Humvees rose to fame after being seen in action during the Gulf War. They were also used in military processions, which was how they caught Arnold Schwarzenegger's eye. While filming his movie "Kindergarten Cop" in Oregon, the actor saw Humvees rolling by and immediately wanted one. In a 1991 Rolling Stone interview, Schwarzenegger said they reminded him of his younger days when he drove tanks while serving in the Austrian army. So he contacted AM General to try to get his hands on one. When he was turned down, the star pushed for a civilian version to be made. And AM General listened.
Matt: Because, you know, everybody, I dunno, was influenced by Arnold Schwarzenegger at that point in time.
Narrator: Schwarzenegger became the first civilian to own a specially made humvee. AM General even stenciled "Terminator" on the model. In 1992, a civilian version of the Humvee officially went on sale. Named the Hummer, the bulky vehicle cost up to $100,000.
Matt: It was ridiculous to be rolling around in that thing on the public roads. I mean, the wheels were too high off the ground. It, yes, it had air-conditioning, had airbags, but I mean, you know, to drive it, you're sort of, like, you're sitting up like this and then you've got this big, this big compartment sitting over. I mean, not organized for comfort or luxury or anything like that.
Narrator: The Hummer averaged less than 10 miles a gallon and weighed 10,000 pounds. It was so heavy that owning one meant you could claim a farm equipment tax credit with the IRS. True to its military roots, the Hummer's original design featured an engine button labeled "Fire" until company lawyers intervened. In 1999, General Motors bought the rights to market and sell Hummers from AM General. Thanks to the booming economy and low gas prices, Hummer's sales took off. Especially in Hollywood.
OG fan Schwarzenegger quickly amassed a fleet of the war wagons. From 1999 to 2000 alone, Hummers were featured in 32 movies. Which only increased the brand recognition the vehicle already had thanks to its military pedigree. And it was its association with the military that really drove up the Hummer's popularity in the US.
Matt: So, people saw it in active use during the first Gulf War for the first time. And they thought, well, if that thing can handle, you know, desert combat, then it could certainly be used for weekend camping trips.
I don't really buy the argument that it implied a sort of warlike mentality or anything like that, but that was definitely part of its overall DNA. So if you were kind of pro, pro-military, pro-US, if you were really into the advertising, how much you supported the troops, owning a Hummer or even an H2 or H3, because it had that Hummer look, advertised that you had that mindset.
Narrator: While the first Hummer model was basically a carbon copy of its bulky military predecessor, the second model featured a slightly sleeker design and cost about $50,000. Named the H2, it quickly became Hummer's top-selling model. And was followed by the H3, which was further scaled down in size and price to appeal to more consumers. Hummer's overall sales peaked in 2006, with a little over 70,000 units sold.
Matt: So that's pretty good. That's not crazy popular. It certainly pales by comparison with some of the pickup trucks and other vehicles that, you know, General Motors was selling through its various divisions at the time. But for an offbeat vehicle like that, that's kind of incredible.
Narrator: Hummers eventually came to embody America's "supersized" lifestyle and the people who aspired to it.
Matt: You know, they gotta, they gotta come, they gotta roll large everywhere they go. You know, the G-Wagen, Mercedes G-Wagen-type people. And for them the Hummer was just that turned up to 11 or maybe 11,000, you know, it's, like, the biggest, baddest stupidest, most obnoxious - it was completely inappropriate, most impractical in a lot of ways.
Narrator: But while Hummer's in-your-face quality initially drew consumers in, it soon led to its downfall. Hummers became a symbol of wasteful consumption.
Matt: People just saw it as a symbol of everything that was wrong with Detroit. Everything that was wrong with our American attitude about cars, everything was wrong with patriotism. Everything was wrong with, like, the militarization of American society. Everything that was wrong about the way we treat the planet.
Narrator: Hummer owners found themselves fending off critics and protestors who saw Hummers as "pollution machines." Some owners reported finding their Hummers keyed, and others said they got dirty looks in parking lots. "Eco-vandals" took things even further, breaking windows and slashing tires." Throughout 2003, protestors set fire to Hummers at a number of dealerships in Los Angeles.
And ironically, while one war helped make Hummers popular, another would bring it down. The war in Iraq shot up gas prices. Which made owning a Hummer seem even more impractical. Then, in 2007, the financial recession hit. And Hummer's parent brand, General Motors, was in big trouble.
Matt: So, General Motors, prior to the financial crisis had become a big mess. It had too many brands. It had stopped making money.
Narrator: In 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy and discontinued a number of its brands.
Matt: At that point, they had a bunch of brands, much more than they have now. And each of those brands needs marketing support. Each of those brands need manufacturing support. Each of those brands needs research and development. So they had to look at what they had, and they said, "Well, you know, Hummer is kind of a marginal brand."
Narrator: In 2010, GM attempted to sell the Hummer brand to Tengzhong, a Chinese manufacturer. But the deal fell through, and GM shut down all manufacturing and sales of Hummer. Effectively ending the life of its once beloved brand. Today, Hummers are seen more as relics of a bygone era. New models haven't been manufactured in nearly a decade. But should General Motors bring Hummer back?
Matt: So, Americans like big cars; they've always liked big cars. They're always going to like big cars. People in Detroit at the time, because of how dire the situation got around the financial crisis, were completely freaked out about their futures. And they forgot this.
Narrator: But since 2013, the market for big SUVs and large pickup trucks has made a robust recovery. And in response to consumer demand, luxury car brands from Rolls-Royce to Lamborghini to Aston Martin have all released SUVs.
Matt: Pretty soon we're going to have a Ferrari SUV. So for Hummer to come back as kind of a really rough-and-tumble luxury platform would probably be a halfway decent idea.
Narrator: General Motors is looking to expand its presence in the electric-vehicle market. And there's been talk that it might be considering resurrecting Hummer to do just that.
Matt: The business case for it is strong because it's an iconic brand. Everybody already knows about it.
Narrator: Arnold Schwarzenegger has already converted one of his original Hummers to run on electricity. Perhaps paving the way for Hummer once again.
Matt: The beauty of the brand is if they could get rid of all the bad baggage and replace and transplant good goodness in it, you know, you still have one of the toughest and possibly long-lasting vehicles ever. You might be able to operate that thing with regular battery changes for decades and decades and decades. We're fighting global warming right here. Look at this thing, you know, so it's not just fighting wars, it's fighting global warming too.
Narrator: So while people may have once associated Hummers with everything that was wrong with America, it could be time for a second chance.
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