Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hummer sale signals shift in how America drives -- June 4, 2009 column


On Tuesday, the day after it declared bankruptcy, General Motors announced a tentative agreement to sell the Hummer brand to the Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company of China. It’s the end of an era.

Nothing said American excess at the end of the 20th Century like the first Hummers, cousins of the military Humvees used in the Persian Gulf war.

Hummer was a celebrity’s tank. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded Humvee-manufacturer A.M. General to make a civilian version, introduced in 1992. Hummer embodied the freedom to go wherever whenever at whatever price, financial or environmental.

The patriotic behemoth could climb 22-inch walls and ford 30 inches of water. It was also a polluting machine that cost about $100,000 each.

General Motors bought rights to the Hummer brand in 1999 and brought out a family of smaller Hummers, offering more people the power to conquer the open spaces of America. No matter if those spaces were just in the parking lot at Wal-Mart.

Hummer was a rolling declaration of red-blooded American independence. It marketed itself as the solution to being intimidated. In a TV ad circa 2006, a man in the grocery line buying tofu feels inferior to a guy loading up on slabs of beef for a barbecue. Inferior man hurries to the Hummer dealer and, what else, buys a tank.

“Reclaim your manhood” was the ad’s parodic tag line until Hummer changed it to “Restore the balance.”

In another ad, a mom snubbed on the playground with her kid rushes to the Hummer dealer to “Get your girl on,” whatever that means.

Hummer’s message: Don’t mess with me. Texas was the Hummer’s biggest market.

It’s all so “bring ‘em on” last administration, so pre-economic meltdown, so anti-green. The appeal of driving a tank waned when gas hit $4 a gallon. Sales of Hummers reportedly dropped by half last year, and slumped this year.

The Hummer sale will mark China’s entry into auto-making in the United States. The chief of Tengzhong said in a statement, Hummer “is synonymous with adventure, freedom and exhilaration and we plan to continue that heritage by investing in the business.” Hummers will still be sold here, but the plan is to market the vehicle more widely in China, Russia and the Middle East.

Like the once-inconceivable bankruptcy of GM and President Barack Obama’s decision to plow $30 billion into the company and take a 60 percent stake, the sale of Hummer is another sign of major change in the auto industry.

GM is downsizing, selling off Saab and Saturn and pulling the plug on Pontiac next year. GM will be leaner and, one hopes, after the infusion of so much taxpayer money, a survivor. Rival Chrysler is also getting a makeover as it emerges from bankruptcy.

One bright spot: General Motors said the Hummer agreement will save 3,000 American jobs as workers in Shreveport, La., continue to assemble the Hummer H3 and H3T through 2010.

Announcing the government’s plan for GM, Obama noted that 400,000 jobs in the auto industry were lost before the restructuring began.

“I will not pretend the hard times are over,” Obama said. “Difficult days lie ahead. More jobs will be lost. More plants will close. More dealerships will shut their doors, and so will many parts suppliers.”

Beyond where we work, how and what America drives is changing. Muscle cars and gas guzzlers are on the way out. Obama is mandating that cars and trucks average 35.5 mpg by 2016, up from 25.3 mpg now.

A “cash for clunkers” bill making its way through Congress would give people a voucher up to $4,500 to turn in their guzzler and purchase a new car that gets at least 22 mgp or a pickup or sport utility vehicle that gets 18 mpg.

For the record, Hummer isn’t the worst gas guzzler on the roads. It didn’t even make the Energy Department’s latest list of least fuel-efficient SUVs. That distinction went to another military-inspired vehicle. The Jeep Grand Cherokee with four-wheel drive gets 11 mpg in the city and 14 mpg on the highway.

In Europeans cities, parked cars look like puppies huddled next to each other for warmth. That’s not the American way, and it may never be. But more changes are coming.

On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger test-drove a plug-in hybrid Hummer H3 that gets 100 mpg. He’s a fan.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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