Hummer’s story is unique in the automotive industry.
Born from warfare, the vehicles it made available to civilians were developed with a single use case in mind: Off-roading. This approach to designing an SUV turned Hummer into a brief cult in the early years of the 21st century before it became something of a pariah only a few years later.
An array of factors converged to annihilate the carmaker in 2010 but, a decade later, it’s primed to make an unlikely comeback as a champion of electric technology. Join us for a look at where Hummer comes from, its numerous highs and lows and where it’s allegedly going:
AM General (1971)
The Hummer brand traces its roots to 1970, when AMC purchased Jeep from Kaiser to finalise the latter’s exit from the automotive industry. The following year, AMC renamed Jeep’s General Products Division AM General Corporation. It notably manufactured the rear-wheel drive, CJ-based DJ (pictured) used for decades by the United States Postal Service (USPS).
High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (1979)
In 1979, the American military began looking for what it described as a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) to replace its aging fleet of Jeep-like off-roaders. Officials outlined a one-size-fits-all truck capable of going anywhere while carrying troops, cargo or both.
Final prototypes were submitted by AM General, Chrysler and Teledyne, who had purchased Lamborghini’s aborted Cheetah project. After thousands of miles of testing, AM General secured the lucrative contract in 1982. PICTURE: Humvee prototype
Going separate ways (1983)
American regulations forced AMC to divest AM General after it began the process of merging with Renault in 1979. The White House prohibited foreign governments from owning defence contractors and the French government held a majority stake in Renault at the time.
The LTV Corporation conglomerate purchased AM General in 1983, a year before the Humvee entered production to serve in the American military. At the time, no one imagined the AMC connection would force designers from Jeep and Hummer into a bitter court battle. PICTURE: Renault LeCar, sold through AMC dealers in America, known as the Renault 5 elsewhere
The Humvee goes to war (1989)
The Humvee made its combat debut when the United States invaded Panama in 1989 but it truly rose to prominence as a symbol of the nation’s military might during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Nearly every news channel around the world aired countless hours of footage showing the Humvee carrying soldiers and weapons across the desert, parked on military bases next to fighter jets and even carrying then-president George HW Bush when he visited American troops on Thanksgiving in 1990, alongside General Norman Schwarzkopf,pictured.
In hindsight, Hummer didn’t need to advertise. The Gulf War did much more to forge the brand’s burly image than any media campaign and off-roaders already knew exactly what its trucks were capable of.
The Terminator’s request (1991)
Many Americans begged AM General for the opportunity to buy a civilian-spec Humvee, which was an unexpected side effect of the Gulf War. It’s likely the company quietly entertained the idea of selling its truck to the public but it initially responded to every request with a simple “no.” There was one person whose plea it couldn’t ignore: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Long before he became something of a green activist, the Austrian actor fell in love with the Humvee and tried persuading AM General to sell him one. And, here again, the firm said no. Making it street-legal would cost a fortune.
Luckily, Schwarzenegger had a fortune (he was paid $15 million for his appearance in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgement Day alone), and then some. He persuaded AM General executives to sell him a sand-coloured Humvee by signing a thick stack of liability waivers and shipped it to a shop in Michigan that made it street-legal before sending it to Los Angeles. Schwarzenegger drove it regularly, usually while smoking a thick cigar, which turned more than a few heads around town.
The original Hummer (1992)
Schwarzenegger got his way but no one else did; at least not initially. The actor reportedly poked and prodded AM General executives until they caved and made a civilian Humvee available to the general public. Released as the Hummer in 1992, it was closely related to its war-toughened sibling but it gained a marginally more comfortable interior and it wasn’t offered with a Browning .50-calibre machine gun.
The Hummer’s basic platform was the same as the Humvee’s so it remained strictly a four-seater. Power came from a front-mid-mounted, 6.2-litre V8 that sent 144bhp to the four wheels via an automatic transmission. AM General charged about $50,000 (approximately $91,000 in today's money) for the truck in 1992. It cost about five times as much as the smaller Jeep Wrangler but it could venture much further off the beaten path and it came with an on-board air compressor that allowed the driver to inflate and deflate the tyres without leaving the vehicle, a useful feature in deep sand.
The VIP’s SUV (1990s)
AM General saw civilian Hummer sales a nice little side gig; it realistically never expected to achieve significant volume. Annual sales totalled 1,374 units in 1996, a high-water mark the original Hummer would never again reach. Its high price limited its appeal but it was popular among Hollywood-dwelling movie stars – many of the same people driving Toyota Prius hybrids and Tesla Model S saloons in 2020. Athletes and rappers happily paraded behind the wheel of a Hummer, too; Dennis Rodman and Tupac Shakur both had one. PICTURE: late-model H1 Alpha
Hummer joins General Motors (1999)
General Motors purchased marketing rights to the civilian Hummer in 1999 and renamed it H1. In hindsight, it wasn’t primarily interested in the truck, which had become an emblematic off-roader that remained a low-volume niche model due largely to its exaggerated size and its high price.
Executives saw the brand as the ideal asset to capitalize on the growing demand for SUVs in the United States. The H1 nameplate was telling; it took less than a year for General Motors to proudly illustrate how it planned to recoup its investment by taking Hummer into new segments.
Hummer H2 concept (2000)
Big, bold and yellow, the Hummer H2 concept was one of the stars of the 2000 Detroit motor show. It wore a more modern interpretation of the H1’s design that blurred the line between a Tonka truck and a SUV. Officially, it hinted at what an entry-level Hummer model could look like. In reality, it was already well on its way to production behind the scenes and it would reach showrooms without major changes.
DaimlerChrysler vs. General Motors, and vice versa (2001)
The H2’s front-end design sent ripples through Jeep’s headquarters. The resemblance between the Humvee and the CJ-7 didn’t bother anyone in the early 1980s because AM General wasn’t vying for a slice of Jeep’s market share and the H1 had somehow flown under the radar. But fast-forward to the 2000 Detroit motor show and DaimlerChrysler’s legal team wasn’t about to let a new competitor use trade-marked design features, notably the seven-slot grille framed by round headlights, without a fight.
In 2001, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors sued each other 11 minutes apart over the H2’s design. The 7th United States Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in Hummer’s favour, citing the heritage shared by Jeep and Hummer as one of the main reasons behind its decision. PICTURE: Jeep Wrangler
Hummer H2 SUT concept (2001)
Hummer again previewed the H2 at the 2001 New York motor show with a second concept called H2 SUT. While the first design study took the form of an SUV, the second inaugurated an acronym that stood for sport utility truck. Keep in mind making up names for segments was a popular trend in the early 2000s; BMW argued the X5 stood out as the only sports activity vehicle (SAV); it wasn’t an SUV.
The SUT received a sharper evolution of the original concept’s front end modified with input from Arnold Schwarzenegger – he notably asked for a steeper windshield and bigger tyres. It accurately previewed the production model General Motors pledged to launch in 2002 as a 2003 model.
Hummer H2 (2002)
Hummer’s second model made its debut in 2002 looking very much like the earlier concepts. It was smaller than the H1 but it dwarfed nearly everything else on the road. Its box-shaped body hid a beefier evolution of the GMT820 platform found under other full-size General Motors SUVs, like the Chevrolet Tahoe and the Cadillac Escalade, and suspension components sourced from the 2500-series Suburban designed for heavy-duty jobs. It was so massive that its 3909kg (8,600lb) gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) exempted it from fuel economy testing.
The Hummer H2, by the numbers (2002)
Moving this leviathan of a truck required a suitably powerful engine. Hummer chose a 6.0-litre V8 tuned to develop 312bhp in early models. Four-wheel drive and an automatic transmission came standard.
The H2 initially looked like a winning combination. Fuel prices were low, SUV sales were skyrocketing across the United States and Hummer’s smallest model resembled nothing else on new car lots. Pricing started at approximately $50,000 (about $70,000 today) yet that didn’t deter nearly 19,000 buyers from signing the dotted line during the 2002 calendar year and about 35,000 more in 2003.
Cast in the right light, the H2 actually looked affordable. The H1’s base price had ballooned to $110,000, or over twice the cost of a Chevrolet Corvette Z06.
The anti-Hummer league (2000s)
Not everyone admired V8-powered, body-on-frame behemoths with a war-ready design. Critics fired a salvo of grievances in Hummer’s direction. They argued its models were much bigger than necessary and too heavy. They pointed out the H1 and the H2 posed a significant threat to smaller cars in an accident and denounced their fuel economy, although both models were exempt from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing due to their weight. Even television show The Simpsons hopped on the bandwagon in 2002 when it portrayed an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like character named Ranier Wolfcastle driving a red H1. He claimed his fuel economy averaged “one [mpg] highway, zero [mpg] city.”
As the anti-Hummer sentiment swelled, especially on America’s coasts, owners became the target of vandals who keyed body panels, slashed tyres, broke windows and used the trucks as a blank canvas on which to write pro-green messages. In 2003, arsonists destroyed 40 new Hummers (and several Chevrolet Tahoes) at a dealership in West Covina, California, and set a parts warehouse on fire.
General Motors acted quickly to mollify its critics. In 2004, it built an experimental H2 equipped with a supercharged, hydrogen-powered variant of the standard truck’s 6.0-litre V8 engine.
It made 177bhp, far less than the stock model’s 325HP output, and it had a 60-mile driving range. The carmaker stressed it developed the H2H with California in mind, explained it hoped to learn a lot about hydrogen technology from the project and pointed out it had no plans to bring it to production. It kept its word.
Hummer H3 (2005)
Hummer knew it needed an even smaller model to make its brand accessible to a wider audience in the United States and, crucially, abroad. It filled this gap when it unveiled the H3 in 2005 as a 2006 model. Small is relative; it wasn’t a Mini Cooper. While nimbler than an H2, the H3 used a modified version of the GMT355 body-on-frame architecture found under the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon twins and shipped with a 3.5-litre straight-five engine rated at 217bhp.
It surprisingly came standard with a five-speed manual transmission, though buyers could select a four-speed automatic at an extra cost.
The H3 effect (2000s)
The H3 looked like its bigger siblings, mistaking it for anything other than a Hummer was impossible, but the resemblance was more than skin-deep. It was also tougher and more capable off-road than any of its competitors. Thinking small-ish paid off, too.
Hummer became the quickest-growing brand in the United States in 2005 thanks to the H3’s success and it entered new markets, like Europe. Fuel was still cheap, motorists still loved SUVs and, for a brief moment, its future looked bright.
Hummer previewed the H3 with a pickup concept but it brought the model to the market as an SUV. In 2008, it returned to its original idea by releasing a four-door truck developed with a bigger focus on adventure than work. It competed in the space dominated by the Jeep Gladiator today.
The SUT nameplate had an unsavoury connotation so Hummer called the truck H3T. Introduced in 2008 as a 2009 model, it came standard with skid plates, 32in tyres, full-time four-wheel drive and a 236bhp straight-five engine. The upmarket Alpha trim benefited from a 296bhp, 5.3-litre V8.
Hummer charged $31,495 for the H3T. It was the cheapest member of the range and the one most likely to lure new customers into showrooms.
HX concept (2008)
In the United States, annual Hummer sales peaked at 71,524 units in 2006, the H3’s first full year on the market and the year H1 production ended. Sales slid to 55,986 the following year and 27,485 in 2008, when the American economy had started to collapse and fuel prices skyrocketed. Executives alarmingly realised small models sold better than bigger ones so the brand travelled to the 2008 Detroit motor show to introduce a concept named HX that previewed its most compact model to date.
Hummer secretly began developing the HX in 2004 and it planned to release the SUV as an alternative to the Jeep Wrangler in the early 2010s. Tentatively called H4, it should have kept the concept’s 3.6-litre V6 and its design wasn’t expected to change much. Insiders quietly admitted what the public saw on the show floor at the Cobo Centre in downtown Detroit was pretty much was they planned to send to showrooms. It would have been the Jeep Wrangler’s first direct competitor in decades had it launched.
H3 PHEV (2009)
Hummer sales dropped again in 2009, bottoming out at 9046 units in the United States. The H2 retired without a successor in sight, the H4 project got put on the backburner to save money and General Motors teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Hummer joined Pontiac, Saab and Saturn on death row.
In this grim context, suppliers FEV and Raser developed a plug-in hybrid variant of the H3 fitted with turbocharged, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that powered a generator which in turn spun a 264bhp electric motor mounted under the bonnet. The prototype retained the H3’s stock four-speed automatic transmission and its four-wheel drive system and it offered 40 miles of electric driving.
Raser aimed to demonstrate making an eco-friendly SUV was possible. It later offered to buy Hummer from General Motors and had plans to transform it into a green off-roader brand but executives turned down its request. The carmaker had another, presumably wealthier admirer waiting in the shadows...
Hummer’s short-lived Chinese saviour (2009)
One day after it filed for bankruptcy, General Motors told the media it had agreed to sell Hummer to China-based Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery, a relatively young company specialised in making construction equipment. It kept financial details under wraps but leaked documents revealed the Chinese were ready to pay $150 million for the brand.
Tengzhong welcomed the sale like a chariot from heaven. It publicly called it “a tremendous opportunity to acquire a global brand at an attractive price.” It was a major win in an era when Chinese carmakers severely lagged behind their European and American competitors in terms of build quality and engineering prowess, in spite of their substantial assets, and high-dollar acquisitions were considered the most straight-forward way to catch up. The excitement waned when executives warned the Chinese government needed to put its stamp of approval on the deal before Hummer could change hands.
The end of Hummer (2010)
Chinese officials knew improving the nation’s appalling air quality would require pivoting towards cleaner cars so placing Hummer within its boundaries was a counterintuitive move. Beijing opposed the purchase and a gutsy last-minute plan to sell Hummer to Sichuan via an offshore company fell through because it couldn’t be completed in time, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Out of options, time and patience, General Motors announced plans to shutter the Hummer brand in 2010. The company cleared out the remaining inventory of H2 and H3 trucks with massive rebates. It also pledged to continue honouring warranties and providing spare parts to reassure owners.
The Humvee in 2020
2020 marks Hummer’s 10th year off the market but military Humvee production continues. In 2018, AM General introduced an updated model named NXT 360 that benefits from a comprehensively upgraded armour package, bigger brakes, a taller suspension, electronic driving aids like stability control and a second onboard air compressor for quicker tyre fill-ups. Its 6.5-litre turbodiesel V8 delivers 246bhp.
The military can order the NXT 360 new or retrofit the new parts to an older model. Oshkosh’s Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) has gradually replaced the Humvee since 2015, however. There’s no indication it will spawn a civilian model – let alone a standalone brand – in the near future but Arnold Schwarzenegger has already gotten his hands on a demilitarised example to drive around Los Angeles.
What’s next? (2020 and beyond)
Rumours of a Hummer revival are getting progressively louder. While they first pointed to Hummer coming back as a standalone brand, the newest batch describes a single model – likely a pickup – sold by GMC. And, in an odd but predictable twist of fate, the off-roader will return with electric power. It will share powertrain parts with the battery-powered pickup General Motors is concurrently developing. An advertisement scheduled to air during the 2020 Super Bowl on February 2 will announce the model, GM insiders claim.
There’s no word yet on what form the model will take but we doubt it will be anywhere near as big as the H1. Heritage-inspired styling cues that will again upset Jeep are a given and sales could start in 2022.
The born-again Hummer isn’t likely to enlist in the United States Army, and we have no reason to believe it will be ready for combat - but it will again lean on a celebrity for publicity. Unverified reports claim basketball star LeBron James will star in ads for the model. PICTURE: 2004 H3T concept