Created for the US military in the early 1990s the Hummer became a lifestyle statement. Now a deal to save the brand has fallen through. But some say the all-terrain vehicle will never die.
End of the road for the Hummer
ABU DHABI // It was born to war and grew up to adorn the garages of drivers who didn't worry about gas prices or global warming. And in the end, its death was inglorious. But the Hummer will retain its imperfect legacy as a car with machismo and attitude.
General Motors announced this week that a proposed sale of the Hummer brand to the Chinese carmaker, the Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company, had fallen through. The car will be dropped. The Hummer is dead. It was a vehicle that revelled in its own excess, a symbol of two decades of war and cheap oil. The Hummer attracted its most fervent following in the Middle East, where a heady mix of affordable petrol and aspiration fuelled sales.
Since it was introduced here in 2006, the UAE became the second largest Hummer market outside the US. Before the global financial crisis, sales were even surging in Baghdad, where its militaristic aesthetic proved popular among the populace most exposed to it. In 2008, sales of the Hummer increased there by 50 per cent from the year before. The car beloved by Arnold Schwarzenegger and rap stars began its life in the early 1990s during the first Gulf War. The vehicle was created for the US military and was known as the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), which was shortened to Humvee. Its earliest versions included gun turrets while other versions were fitted as troop carriers.
Watching the vehicle in action whetted the American appetite for a civilian version as the age of the gas-guzzling SUV began. In 1992, the civilian Hummer was created for the rough back roads of the American heartland. When General Motors bought the brand a few years later, it was renamed H1, shortly followed by the pared-down H2 and H3 versions. "It's a shame that we are losing the Hummer. It's an iconic car and very popular in the Emirates," said Zlatko Mulabegovic, the director of Top Performance magazine in Dubai. "It's definitely a lifestyle statement."
In the four years it has been sold here, the off-road vehicle improbably developed a certain glamour. "If you look at the US market, the Hummer is driven by hip-hop artists and players of American football." To drive a Hummer, he said, is to make a statement. For Robert Liddington, an oil company employee and Hummer owner, sometimes that statement was more of a demand. "You don't get too many cars pulling out in front of you," he said.
"I'm not sure if it's out of respect or fear. I'm not sure if I were driving in another car that I would want that thing bearing down on me. It's quite impressive." The Hummer, he added, has its perks. "I remember going on the weekend to a hotel in Fujairah. I pulled up outside the hotel and there were two or three other cars being unloaded ahead of us. They stopped everything and started to look after us. It was certainly flattering to my ego."
Other Hummer owners were not so moved when they heard the Hummer would be no more. The vehicle, said Firas al Rumaithy, a 23-year-old Emirati, "is actually a bit of a disappointment". "It's not as nice as our X5 or Rolls-Royce. We have so many other cars." Mr al Rumaithy, 24, along with his younger brother Khalifa, 23, were getting their Hummer repaired at a shop in Musaffah after its transmission broke while they were in the middle of the desert.
The older of the brothers said they used it mainly to drive their mother because it was safe. "There was one accident here," he said while pointing to the front end. "You can see there's no damage. But the other guy, half of his car was like Gone with the Wind or something." Even at the height of its popularity, the Hummer had its enemies. The Sierra Club, an American-based environmental group, slammed it as one of "the most polluting gas guzzlers on the road".
Then there was the question of the driver's image. "Even if you do have money, you don't want to be so outré as to buy a symbol of such wretched excess when so many others are losing jobs," said David Booth, a North American automotive columnist, who said the brand had collapsed without fanfare or lament in the US market. The vehicle was less a car than a symbol, Booth said. "It said 'Ha ha, look at me consuming gas. Look at me I'm not going to go green or reduce my carbon emissions. I'm going to thumb my nose at those people.'"
While environmentalists decried the car's lack of fuel efficiency, some drivers criticised everything else. "The car was woefully underpowered. It felt like a Tonka Toy. The windows were small. There were huge blind spots, but you get used to it, I suppose," said Aaron White, a local blogger and former Hummer owner. He sold his in 2008 and now drives an Audi Q7, a car with a little more prestige and better road manners.
"The Hummer didn't do corners very well, it wasn't quick and it was very loud." In addition, parking in the UAE's sometimes chaotic lots proved to be problematic for the Hummer. "Yeah, it had some dents," Mr White said. It was fun, he said. But he will not miss it. Likewise in the US, attitudes appeared to be changing. A Democrat was elected president and American carmakers faced bankruptcy due to the global financial crisis and short-sighted policies that sold ever-larger cars in the face of spiking oil prices.
Now the talk is of electric hybrids and fuel efficiency. Hummer sales have dropped dramatically over the past three years. In the US, just 9,000 were sold in 2009, compared to 56,000 Hummers two years earlier. Even in the UAE, dealers were feeling the hit. Ravi Nair, a sales manager at Liberty Automobiles, the country's official distributor, said sales of all vehicles, including the Hummer, were down by 50 to 60 per cent.
"Sales have dropped because of the recession. It's not only Hummers, it's cars all around," he said. Those who had recently purchased a Hummer can be assured the company will continue to honour the warranty and provide maintenance. The dealership is not ready to give up on the Dh120,000 (US$33,000) SUV just yet. "You never know what might happen. At the moment, we don't have information," he said. "But we're all optimistic. It's a very strong brand."
However, even Mr Liddington, who said he has owned more than 100 cars, does not entirely share that optimism. He said he had just looked at a Segway, a small electrically powered, open-air vehicle, usually with two wheels, that carries one person. He is impressed by what he has seen in electric engine technology. "An electric engine accelerates a whole lot faster than a petrol engine could ever do just because of the way the car is built," he said. "Maybe we're at the beginning of the end for petrol engine vehicles. It's a good landmark, the demise of the Hummer."