July 27, 2008
Hummer Lovers Having a Blast — Despite Gas
PINE GROVE, Pa. -- They rumble in on treads called Super Swampers, wearing their hearts on their license plates.
"PLAYDRTY," one behemoth declares. "HUM THIS," dares another.
The digital board fronting the Shell station at Exit 100 winks back: "Welcome Hummers!"
In the fading light, though, it's impossible to ignore the sign at the Sunoco across the road: Diesel, $4.97 9/10.
You've got to be tough to love a Hummer. Soaring fuel is only part of it. Environmentalists, who've always had it in for you, are winning converts. General Motors, which presided over Hummer's transition from a badge of military bravado into a symbol of driveway excess, is looking to sell.
But tonight there's no apologizing or self-pity from Hummer die- hards. They're here to goad machines that can top five tons over boulders the size of Smart cars, through stewpots of mud obscuring who-knows-what and across obstacle courses of stumps, logs and stones -- "like riding a slow-motion rollercoaster," one says.
Maybe mega-sport utility vehicles are going the way of dinosaurs. Hummer sales have dropped 40 percent this year.
But these beasts and the men and women who love them certainly don't behave like endangered species.
"I told my wife when we bought this, 'Honey, we're investing in steel and rubber,'" says William Welch, a Philadelphia surgeon who, cigar clenched between his teeth, offers a tour of his lovingly tended jet-black H1.
"If it was $10 a gallon," he says, "we'd still be out there."
Cars are much more than transportation to Americans. In a country where life revolves around the car, you are what you drive.
"We eat 20 percent of our meals in cars. We spend hours and hours every week (in cars)," says Leon James, a University of Hawaii professor and expert in the psychology of driving. "We see other cars as extensions of the people who drive them, and we identify the character of the car with the character of the driver."
But even in American car culture, the Hummer is an outlier, provoking love and hatred so intense it's easy to forget the basic scrappiness that gave birth to the vehicle in the first place.
The Hummer's DNA traces to the Jeep, produced for the Army in large numbers during World War II.
"It was something that could go to places other vehicles could not go, yet it was reasonably priced," says Patrick Foster, author of books on Jeep and the company that built the Hummer.
Americans were captivated by Jeeps, boxy because they were stamped by equipment previously used to make washing machines. Farmers and foresters snapped them up long before ordinary consumers dreamed of pulling an off-road vehicle in to their driveways.
But by the late 1970s, the Army invited companies to devise a new kind of vehicle.
The winning proposal from engineers at AM General, a Jeep spinoff, was one strange automotive creature.
Its hulking body sat way off the ground while simultaneously hunkered in a crouch, like an overgrown teenager trying to slip into a movie at kid's admission. Its wheels were pushed out past its corners and its drivetrain was yanked up into the interior, putting a huge hump between driver and passenger.
"It has no aesthetics," AM General spokesman Craig Mac Nab says. "It screams at you from across the street: I look this way because I need to."
AM General called it the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. Soldiers dubbed it the Humvee, and in the 1991 Gulf War it bulled its way into the public consciousness.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, then a long way from being the Governator, was driving an Oregon highway on his way to the film set for "Kindergarten Cop." Headed in the other direction, an Army convoy packed with Humvees growled past.
"I put the brakes on," Schwarzenegger told reporters in 1992 when AM General started producing civilian Hummers. "Someone smashed into the back of me, but I just stared. 'Oh my God, there is the vehicle,' I said. And from then on, I was possessed."
There are Hummers and there are HUMMERS. It's that way with their owners, too.
The Hummer pilots flocking to the parking lot of a Hampton Inn tonight are well aware of others who use their vehicles for little more than dropping the kids at baseball.
"Street queens," the serious crowd calls them. "Pavement princesses."
When GM bought the brand and introduced the H2, owners of the biggest Hummers worried the newbies would dilute the experience. But they voted to let them join in.
So Brandie Lopes, a silkscreen printer, is here from Winterport, Maine, a 600-mile haul that would've been cheaper to fly than to drive in her polished new H2.
She's joined by Howard and Vickie Schultheiss, up from Maryland in a nearly 11,000-pound H1 that bears the scratches and scars of off-road battles. The steel roofrack is carved with letters spelling out "D-Man," the nickname of a fiercely trained German shepherd, now lost to cancer, whose spirit the couple says lives on the rig.
Nearly all come with a story about how they were smitten.
Watching TV in 1991, John Andres, a software writer from New Albany, Ohio, was transfixed by a report of two dozen U.S. Marines pinned down in the Saudi Arabian town of Khafji. With tanks providing cover, the soldiers packed into Humvees and barreled through Iraqi lines.
"I saw that. I thought, 'forget the Range Rover,"' says Andres, whose sand-colored Hummer jokingly sports silhouettes of the compact sedans he's knocked off, a la the Red Baron. "These things are just bad."
Dan LaForgia's story is more elemental.
"My mom says my first word was 'truck,"' LaForgia says. In the mid-'90s, LaForgia persuaded his father to drive to the Hummer dealership near his home on New York's Long Island and take one out for a test drive. He was 12 -- and hooked.
LaForgia's never taken his off-road. He cringes noticeably as others trade stories of broken axles, smashed windows, and the deep scratches and gashes their vehicles have endured in previous adventures.
But at 8:45 a.m. he joins the others under a tent, ready to embark in groups dispatched by levels of skills and experience.
They head to a former stripmine turned off-road haven. The extreme group -- four of the most gung-ho H1 owners -- trade jokes over the radio as they part the treeline.
But inside the rig the Schultheiss' have dedicated to their dog, the mood is reverential.
"Cue it up," Vickie says to Howard, her husband.
"All right. Here we go."
Timpani drums stir from the Hummer's speakers. French horns rise above the engine's growl. The solemn notes are unmistakable: Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."
Vickie reaches for D-Man's collar, hanging from the rearview mirror. She tugs the chains twice, rubs the gray links between her fingers.
"It's his truck," she says softly.
Threading through branches and over stumps, they reach a river of boulders. They're going to try and drive it's full third-of-a-mile length. A Prius would've been long gone by now.
This takes nerve -- and a durable wallet.
Before the day's over, the Schultheiss' truck will break in three places and have to be yanked off the rocks by winch. Other drivers will plunge through a mud pool with the color of cement and the odor of a pigsty.
By evening, there are new stories to trade over barbecue.
"I'm going to get out while I'm ahead," says LaForgia, whose street-pretty Hummer bears its first scar.
"I always say another scratch means another story," counsels a fellow owner, Mike Schoch.
Hummer stories echo each other after a while. Tales of the way a Hummer draws a crowd in a parking lot, or swallows ground in a snowstorm.
But the gut-level lure of the machine itself isn't easy to quantify. That is, until Vickie Schultheiss draw a parallel between her Hummer and the highly trained German shepherd whose memory it honors.
"To me it had to be just as capable and just as brute as Dikas," she says.
In the woods, she narrows her eyes, studying the terrain ahead, then climbs the Hummer bearing D-Man's name over a mammoth boulder. The truck slams down, bashing steel against stone. Schultheiss swings out of the driver's seat to check out the wheel hanging in mid air.
Her forehead is fringed with sweat. She's beaming.
"Welcome to D-Man's world," she says.
The first Hummers "raised people's eyebrows," says Tom Libby, an analyst with J.D. Power & Associates. Their in-your-face image appealed to buyers seeking pure utility.
Libby cites his cousin, an avowed truck buyer, who declared SUVs "fake."
"He said the only one he'd ever consider would be the H1. For him, that was a true truck," Libby says.
Others aren't fans.
"It gave a lot of people a sense of vain superiority, that you're way up there above everybody else," says Mark S. Foster, author of "A Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in America Since 1945."
GM's 2002 introduction of the H2 -- more polished and sold in considerably larger numbers -- netted enemies. One Web site, FUH2.com, drew hundreds of photos from people saluting the Hummer with their middle fingers.
The stepped-up culture war found its way to a leafy Washington, D.C., neighborhood last July, when two masked men attacked a parked Hummer with a machete and a baseball bat.
Hummer owners from around the country called Gareth Groves, the owner of the vandalized vehicle, to offer help, even garage space. But they were outnumbered by people who sent hate mail.
Groves wasn't too surprised that people loathed his Hummer. It was how much they seemed to hate him, lambasting everything from his bleached hair to the fact that he lived with his mother.
"It definitely sparks some intense reaction from people on both sides," Groves says.
After insurance repaired Groves' truck, fuel prices and house payments made him briefly think about selling. But he dismissed the idea.
"I love this car," he says.