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High-Toned Hummer

Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

Kandahar had fallen, but rather than accept the surrender their leaders had negotiated, a convoy of Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers quietly slipped from the battered city, heading for what they thought would be the relative safety of the rugged Afghan mountains. They had no idea they were driving into the jaws of an American trap.

Waiting along the rutted road, potholed by bombs and mortar fire, a team of Green Berets lay in wait. As the convoy approached, the U.S. Army's hunter-killer team swooped down, opening fire from its heavily armed Humvees. The enemy never knew what hit them; their Toyota pickups, the favored vehicle of the Taliban fighter, were quickly obliterated.

It's not surprising that the truck formally known as the High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle would play a defining role in the first direct combat of the Afghan war involving American ground troops. Nicknamed Humvees by the soldiers who man them, these infinitely flexible vehicles have become the workhorses of the American military. From Kansas to Kandahar, the HMMWV performs as troop carrier, ambulance, mobile radar platform, rocket launcher and motorized mule.

First put into service in 1985, the Humvee replaced the military's original vehicle of choice, the humble Jeep, which had served with mechanical dignity throughout the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. Just as the Jeep found new life out of uniform, so has the Hummer been discovered by the civilian world. Its ability to overcome virtually any obstacle has made it a favorite of both off-road enthusiasts and urban commandos.

THE TERMINATOR

Times Square at noon can be nearly as chaotic as post-liberation Kabul. Horns blare, taxis jockey for fares, pedestrians dart into traffic from every corner. Yet suddenly, the flood of humanity parts as if Moses were approaching the Red Sea, but this time, it's an Austrian demigod inside a flaming orange, military-style truck jouncing down Broadway in Manhattan. He turns the corner onto 45th Street and drives right onto the sidewalk in front of the ABC-TV studios. Klieg lights blink on, cameras start to roll and reporters reach for their pads and pens. The Terminator is in town.

Few folks can manage an entrance like Arnold Schwarzenegger, though this time, the silver-screen superhero hasn't come to the Big Apple to promote his latest film. Instead, he's hawking a truck. Not just any truck, of course, but one with which he's been long and closely involved. The Hummer is the civilian version of the military's Humvee. "I feel I'm part of the Hummer family," the superstar declares. And for good reason.

Prior to the Gulf War of 1991 -- when the Humvee first made headlines -- Ah-nold decided to add one to his personal fleet. He approached AM General, the South Bend, Indiana, company that supplies the military's stock. Told the truck wouldn't comply with federal motor vehicle standards, Schwarzenegger started lobbying for a civilian version. It wasn't a hard sell with AM General. "We were very aware of Jeep's history, how they took a Spartan military vehicle and eventually transformed it into a successful line of consumer vehicles," recalls the company's chief executive officer, Jim Armour. But it was going to take more than simply slapping new bumpers and a set of seatbelts onto the Humvee. It also involved Pentagon cooperation. Fortunately, the timing was right, Armour notes. Embarrassed by reports of $1,000 hammers and $800 toilet seats, military brass wanted to commercialize technology. "The U.S. Army actually encouraged us to look at the possibility -- to spread the cost, spread the overhead and reduce the cost to the government."

And so, in October 1992, the first commercial version, dubbed Hummer, rolled out of AM General's plant complete with every- thing but the camouflage paint and 50-caliber machine gun. Schwarzenegger proudly took delivery of the first two, then added four more to his collection. It quickly became apparent you didn't have to be a movie star to develop a Hummer fixation. Frederick Chin, a Los Angeles-based real estate management consultant, bought four of his own, though he has since sold two. Chin uses one for day-to-day driving and the other for off-roading. "I don't really have a good reason. I just got to know what they're capable of and enjoy them because they're different," explains Chin, who is president of the national Hummer Club Inc.

Since its introduction, AM General has sold about 8,000 Hummers, with sales currently running close to 1,000 a year. That puts it in Ferrari territory as one of the most exclusive marques on the road. With prices ranging from around $70,000 to $100,000 and more, depending on the engine and options you choose, this vehicle isn't cheap. It's also not for everyone. It's the polar opposite of today's typical sport-utility vehicle, which has come a long way from the original Willys-Overland MB of the Second World War. SUVs are now as likely as not to be lathered in leather and wood and fitted with all the creature comforts you might expect from a high-end sedan. With rare exception, they're designed for the interstate highway, rather than a cross-country trail.


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