Once Notorious, the Hummer Brand Aims for Glory

Consider some of the models resurrected in the last dozen years: the Chevrolet Camaro and Blazer, the Nissan GT-R, the Toyota Supra. All led glorious lives and then died of natural causes, their names retired with honor to company archives. When the market looped around again, product planners exhumed those badges and applied them in ways designed to evoke an earlier renown. Except for the Blazer, but we’ll get to that.

Now consider Hummer. Born of war and hubris, the brand lived a notorious life, not a glorious one. It did not die of natural causes but of a financial cataclysm caused in part by war and hubris. General Motors didn’t file the brand name in a velvet-lined archive drawer. We suspect, as if it were a super villain, GM sentenced Hummer to a supermax prison while a relieved population believed Hummer would remain locked up forever.

Hummer’s civilian life lasted 18 years, the clock starting when Arnold Schwarzenegger drove the first H1 out of AM General’s South Bend, Indiana, factory in 1992.

2006 Hummer H1 Alpha

In 1999, GM bought the rights to the Hummer brand, debuting the Hummer H2 in 2002. And let’s be clear: when we say “Hummer,” the H2 is the model almost all non-owners think of. It was on sale for only nine years, and it’s possible no vehicle in the past 30 years has been more unjustly maligned than this rolling pillbox.

The H2 could not have been a better representation of U.S. culture at the time. The early Aughts were the budding years of a military enthusiasm now gone mainstream with tactical socks and letter openers. A flourishing economy and low gas prices made anything possible, and many believed the possibilities would last forever. According to the EPA, America’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy was worse in 2002 than in any of the previous 22 years, a nadir the H2 had nothing to do with. In 2001, then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that Americans using more energy per capita than any other nation was “an American way of life, and . . . it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life.”

Notwithstanding an issue of delicate tie rods, the H2 was better off-road than most people gave it credit for. Its approach, breakover, and departure angles rivaled those of a modern Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Deep-woods equipment included frame-mounted rock sliders that could support the truck’s weight, five skid plates, a new four-wheel-drive system, a two-speed transfer case with a 33:1 crawl ratio, and 34.5-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrains. All of that came before optioning an off-road package.

“Two days of off-roading and rock crawling outside Moab, Utah, convinced us the H2 can overcome obstacles almost as well as the H1 can (we know because we had an H1 chase vehicle) but in a much more civilized manner and for half the price,” we wrote not long after its launch.

The H2 was blasted for its size, but the 2003 Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe were both longer, and only about two inches narrower and lower, than the H2.

The H2 was blasted for its fuel economy. Its massive gross vehicle weight rating excused GM from providing official EPA figures, but magazine testing at the time returned between nine and 10 miles per gallon combined. The 2003 Tahoe and Suburban returned 13 mpg combined, and both stomped the H2 in sales.

But it was the H2 that aroused a vengeful, boundless hate that got it literally blasted when the Earth Liberation Front firebombed several Southern California Hummer dealerships in 2003.

Perhaps it was the drivers. An academic study from 2009 said an H2 owner considered himself a “moral protagonist” who was called on to “defend sacrosanct virtues and ideals from the transgressive actions of an immoral adversary.” Where Greek tragedy met truck nuts, there lived the H2.

By 2008, record gas prices and cultural backlash gutted Hummer sales. After trying and failing to find a buyer, GM announced the end of the brand in February 2010.

GM knows what Hummer could have been, and there might be enough wait-and-see sentiment in the market to give the right electric truck a chance. A decade on, many remain wary of the brand name, though, and there have been missteps with resurrected badges. A Chevy Blazer could have returned to a superheated adventure segment enlivened by a reanimated Ford Bronco. Instead, Chevy squandered the Blazer’s cachet on a family crossover.

Yet there’s a reason Automotive News asked two years ago, “Can you imagine what a global goliath Hummer would be today in this SUV-crazed market?” H2s have returned to the road. Used prices are creeping up, and a quiet fan base carries the torch. Companies such as Mash Motors still do diesel swaps on original H2s, and as of 2018 GM said it continued to make money off the brand thanks to “parts, accessories, and licensed products.”

GM is unlocking the cell doors, promising a remade and rehabilitated version of its former villain. No matter which way it goes from here, the tale of the electric Hummer will have one thing in common with its ICE forebear: it’s going to be a wild ride.

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