Last Wednesday’s announcement that General Motors is shutting down its Hummer brand marked the end of an era. It should not have come as a surprise, as GM has been trying to sell the Hummer brand for more than a year. They finally made a deal last June with Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machines Company in China, but last week, they cryptically announced that the deal “cannot be completed.” With no offers on the horizon, the brand will slowly be shut down.
Let me be clear: I don’t have any stake whatsoever in Hummers. I’m not worried about getting spare parts for my car or anything. In fact, a large portion of the wetlands near my house was paved over for a Hummer dealership that never panned out. I don’t even come close to loving the brand. But I do care because even though the Hummer’s popularity burgeoned at precisely the moment when American car companies should have been investing their money in alternative energy and hybrid cars, the cars have a quality few other American cars possess. I’ll call it personality.
The Hummer brand originated in the military and was sold to GM by AM General as a civilian adaptation of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee. The vehicle first drew attention for its service in Desert Storm and later vulnerabilities to roadside bombs in Iraq. The civilian adaptation of the Humvee was introduced to the world in a 1990 ESPN special in which two of the vehicles were driven from London to Beijing through the Soviet Union. From the beginning, the Hummer has received attention for its ability to do tasks its typical American owner would absolutely never attempt.
The civilian Hummer began as the H1, followed by the H2 and H3 as the brand tried to create smaller and more affordable versions of their car for the average American. The improvements paid off, as more than 250,000 Hummers were sold after GM’s 2002 takeover of the brand. Hummers were cars that had character and made even skeletal soccer moms feel powerful and fearless. That, I posit, is what made them sell, even despite their low gas mileage and need for two parking spaces.
Yet today’s cars simply do not convey any such sense of personality, which is immediately evident from watching both the roadways and television advertisements. The last car commercial I saw featured an animated creature emerging from the stereo system of a boring-looking Ford sedan and fetching the driver some music from an amorphous music cloud in the sky. Car ads these days are about cars that will play your music, comfortably seat your friends, and be good to the planet you live on. American car companies are convinced that their cars need to be seen as both personable and customizable. Cars are no longer offering you a complete package, but a moldable one that you can endlessly adjust to meet your individual needs. But what if I’d prefer to meet the needs of my car rather than have it meet mine?
As counterintuitive as that question seems, I think it highlights a significant area where American cars fail and foreign cars succeed. For two summers, I worked at car dealerships selling European cars—one summer for Land Rover and another for BMW. Both are brands whose cars create drivers, not the other way around. BMW is renowned for its ability to make consumers yearn to become BMW drivers. And Land Rovers are British cars that American people buy anyway—enough said. But no one drives a Ford because they want to be a Ford driver.
My argument for more cars like Hummers is not an argument for preserving the Hummer itself—it is an argument for the return of the American car. And that car can’t be the lackluster sports car or gas-guzzling SUV because those are American cars of the past, and that is where they belong. American car companies need to create products that are exciting, enjoyable to drive, and communicate personality beyond practicality. American car companies can do better than Toyota did with the Prius, the Japanese antithesis of the Hummer that incorporates new technology into what is sure to be a long-lasting brand. While having a faulty gas pedal is exciting, it doesn’t give a car personality. We need an American car that reminds us why we like to drive.
With that, I finish my plea for more character in American cars with a British television show. As Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear would say, “Rubbish. Absolute rubbish.” And then he’d say, “Power!” One of those is the state of American cars today, and another is what needs to be done to their design. And I don’t mean horsepower.