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.
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.
FUNCTION OVER FORM
When it first envisioned the Humvee, back in 1979, the military wanted a vehicle that put "a high priority on function and a low priority on form," Armour says. "It was designed to be very capable off-road with only secondary attention paid to its on-road capabilities. That's exactly the opposite of how every other sport-ute on the road is designed."
As a result, what you get is a vehicle that is distinct both visually and functionally. Forget swooping curves and subtle creases. The Humvee -- and Hummer -- have the design finesse of a brick. The windshield stands stark upright. There are plenty of exposed bolts and hinges. At 86.5 inches, the vehicle is almost 30 percent wider than a Jeep Wranger and with 16 inches of ground clearance, it stands so high off the ground that a Mazda Miata could nearly drive underneath. Officially, Hummer and Humvee are rated to traverse a 22-degree slope, but they easily handle the 31-degree slope on the 325-acre test track near the Indiana factory.
There's not a trail that's impassible, proclaims aficionado Chin, still amazed by his Hummer's capabilities. "The only time I ever got stuck was when I sank in a river." He was in the backwoods of Oregon and didn't realize how deep he'd gotten. "I started taking water in the cab, and the current started moving me downstream." A couple other Hummers quickly pulled him out. The cabin was flooded, but he just popped out the drain plugs and kept going. "Sometimes you get into a bit of trouble, but a Hummer will always limp home."
True, AM General has acceded to current trends by adding air conditioning and a stereo system -- which you can almost hear over the clacking of the diesel -- but bottom line, a Hummer is not meant for comfort. And that's exactly what its fans want, though admittedly not what they necessarily need. At most, 20 percent of Hummer owners ever drive their vehicles down anything rougher than a dirt road, acknowledges Marc Hernandez, the marketing chief at General Motors' new Hummer division. (That doesn't mean the rest are poseurs. Many use their Hummers commercially, as a rugged alternative to a pickup or sport-utility vehicle. But there's also what Hummer insiders delicately refer to as the "Starbucks crowd," who in one manager's words, "simply want to be seen.")
In keeping with its tradition, AM General retained the rights to the military Humvee when it completed a complex transaction with GM in late 1999 that gave the Detroit automaker ownership of the Hummer brand name. AM General will continue to build the civilian version of the Humvee, which is now being renamed H1. That's because a second model will be added to the lineup in July.
HUMMER'S NEW TUNE
Dubbed H2, it will be built at a new factory operated by AM General in Mishawaka, Indiana, and will cost somewhere between $50,000 and $55,000. The H2 will feature an aircraft-influenced "cockpit" loaded with an array of high-tech and luxury features, and lavished in leather and chrome. It will also boast a markedly more comfortable highway ride. "Luxury was put into the underpinnings of the vehicle," boasts Hernandez. Plenty of attention was paid to reducing what automakers like to call NVH, short for "noise, vibration and harshness." A Hummer's brick-like shape doesn't make that easy. "When we went into a wind tunnel (with the H2 prototype), we set a record -- the highest level of drag they ever recorded," laughs program manager Ken Lindensmith. Poor aerodynamics translate into lots of wind noise, though you won't have to shout to be heard by fellow passengers.
Despite the attention to comfort, GM took pains to retain the original's toughness. "We had to make sure [the H2] wasn't just a Hummer in looks," says Hernandez. "It had to have the capabilities and functionality one would expect of something called a Hummer." Indeed, the small and tight-knit development team has taken great pains to keep the vehicle from being compromised by a GM system that has, after all, produced such strange concoctions as the Pontiac Aztek. They even kept the Hummer's number one fan in the loop. "I want to make sure the [H2] has the ballsyness and ruggedness of the original [Hummer]," notes Schwarzenegger, who has served as an unofficial consultant since GM began work on an early H2 concept design.
The H2 is certainly going to be more manageable on-road. It's notably narrower than the H1, though it's still a big, brutish vehicle. Visually, it retains the original Hummer's boxy, function-over-form design, with key styling cues, such as the nearly vertical windshield, the "waterfall" grill and the grab handles on the hood -- though you won't be able to use the ones on the H2 to hoist the vehicle up by helicopter.
The basic dimensions are similar to the big Chevrolet Tahoe. But H2 program manager Lindensmith bridles at the slightest suggestion that this is a sheep in wolf's clothing. True, the design team has borrowed a lot of pieces from the GM parts bin, primarily switches and other minor components. And only a few bits were modified and carried over from the H1, such as the rear tow bars. Still, virtually every engineering detail has been tweaked or changed to meet Hummer's incredibly demanding specifications, down to the H2's underlying frame.
The floor pan is a good example, redesigned so the front end could be shortened by eight inches in comparison with the Tahoe. This increases what is known as the approach angle, enabling the H2 to maneuver over big rocks and steep climbs. With the vehicle already sitting higher off the ground than any previous GM truck, key components, such as the transmission and exhaust system, have been raised out of harm's way and shielded against rock strikes. So far, Hummer engineers have tested the H2 in water more than 20 inches deep and expect that by the time the first one rolls off the line, it will handle streams somewhere from 24 to 26 inches deep. The H2 will be shod with the largest tires ever put on a GM light-duty vehicle, with triple sidewalls designed for extreme off-roading.
The final vehicle is likely to weigh in at nearly 6,400 pounds. It will have a gross vehicle weight, a measure of cargo capacity, approaching 8,600 pounds, and will be able to tow a 7,000-pound trailer. (Besides the normal tow hitch in the rear, a front one will make it easier to push a boat or trailer into place, rather than maneuver it while the Hummer is in reverse.) To handle that load, the H2 will be outfitted with a big 6.0-liter engine and an oversized 4-speed automatic transmission. Among the long list of options, two suspension packages will be offered, including one that can increase ride height by two inches off-road, then automatically settle back to normal height on the highway.
"One thing we're looking at is the way Harley-Davidson markets its motorcycles," confides Lindensmith, which means you'll be offered a huge array of options and accessories, including the clothing and accoutrements to match your new, more rugged lifestyle. That clearly makes sense. Hernandez points out that the average H1 owner spends between $6,000 and $8,000 to customize his vehicle.
As the Hummer gets ready to hit the road this summer, a shake-up on the retail side is taking place. Fifty of the 80 dealers in the distribution network have been bought out. But as many as 100 new retailers will be added before July. They'll borrow their design not only from Harley, but also Land Rover, which has transformed the showroom into a sort of "experience center," complete with test track, as well as accessory store.
MORE TO COME?
While no one's revealing the purchase price, it's clear that General Motors wants to beef up Hummer sales to recoup its investment. The new Mishawaka plant will be capable of producing up to 45,000 H2s a year, if demand warrants, though Hummer General Manager Mike DiGiovanni insists the project will still be profitable at the projected volume of 40,000 a year.
Longer term, "I expect there will be a full series," suggests AM General's Armour. "It makes a lot of sense." Barring some un-expected setback, a third model should follow in 2003. A variation of the H2, called the SUT, or Sport-Utility Truck, it will feature a shortened pickup-style bed in the rear, rather than the H2's enclosed cargo compartment.
Officially, there's no such thing as an H3, DiGiovanni says emphatically. But he also slyly admits he'd like one in the lineup -- "if we can come up with a vehicle that's true to the Hummer brand. I won't have a badge-engineered version of some other GM SUV." Insiders say DiGiovanni put his job on the line by refusing early demands by the automaker's top brass to rush a compact Hummer to market. But feasibility studies are quietly progressing, and there appears to be a good chance an H3 will make it into the lineup by mid-decade.
Hummer's competition seems quite willing to cooperate. The original off-road brand, Jeep, is planning to shift its focus to more car-like, highway-ready models. Even Land Rover, the unofficial vehicle of the third world, is moving in that direction. Its all-new Freelander model notably eliminated the ultra-low "creeper" gears sought by true off-road enthusiasts. "That just gives us more of an opportunity," Hernandez says with a smile.
It's a long way from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the highways and hillocks of America. But few vehicles have captured the imagination of the public like the Humvee and its civilian spin-offs. What's likely to be a long war against terrorism has only increased interest in things military. And that's likely to provide a big push as GM sets out to transform Hummer from a niche vehicle into something a bit more mainstream.
Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.Com.