Every few decades, a car comes along that, for good or ill, embodies the era it came from. The 1920s had the Model T. The cheap, utilitarian Tin Lizzie put America on wheels, and carried millions of them to greener pastures during the Great Depression. In the postwar era, it was the 1959 Cadillac. It was expensive and exclusive, but with its outrageous razor-sharp fins, jet-age styling, a massive wheelbase, and hundreds of pounds of chrome, it embodied the unchecked ego of a prosperous, powerful America better than anything else from the era. For the baby boomers of the ’60s, maybe it was the Ford Mustang, which could be anything from an affordable runabout to a fire-breathing performance car, or the Volkswagen Beetle, which despite being an import, became an unlikely symbol of the counterculture.
After that, there really aren’t many vehicles that can claim to be era-defining. A personal luxury coupe like the Chevy Monte Carlo? The original Dodge Caravan or Ford Taurus? Maybe. But if there’s anything that embodies the America it was sold to better than any car in decades, it’s the Hummer H2. No other vehicle in recent memory captured the zeitgeist quite like the H2. At worst, it was a terrible vehicle, and at best it was a novelty, but it became an unlikely cultural flashpoint, litmus test, and the embodiment of a culture rapidly evolving during the first few years of the 21st century.
This is the newest model we’ve covered for our classics profiles, but after seeing one over Labor Day weekend, we were shocked to realize how few of them seem to be left. And while the last H2 rolled off the assembly line just seven years ago, it already looks like a relic: an artifact from a bygone time that’s long past. So now that the dust has settled and we’ve begun to make sense of the mess that was the first decade of the 2000s, we figured that it’s time to talk about the Hummer H2.
Hummer could trace its roots back to 1979, when AM General designed the Jeep’s replacement for the U.S. Army, delivering its first prototypes in 1982. The High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) entered service in 1985, and was quickly given the nicknames Humvee and Hummer. AM General wanted to build a civilian version of the truck, but in the extravagant, excessive culture of the 1980s, it struggled to find a receptive audience.
The Hummer finally got its big breaks in 1991. The first was in Operation Desert Storm, where convoys of Hummers were broadcast on every channel every night into American living rooms. The second was movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who drove one while filming a movie, and became a vocal pitchman for the trucks. Suddenly, people were willing to pay any price to own the trucks that won Desert Storm, and Arnold (at the peak of his popularity) was leading the charge for a civilian model. AM General had its opening, and the civilian-spec Hummer H1 was released to the public on March 14, 1992. It instantly became controversial.
The H1 was 16 feet long, nearly 7 feet tall, and over 7 feet wide. The interior was a mess of hard plastic and odd angles, visibility was terrible, and it weighed over 7,500 pounds. A suite of diesel engines were available, as was the Chevy 350 gas engine, but that mill took the truck from zero to 60 in over 18 seconds, and drank a gallon of gas every 9 miles. The price for that privilege? $71,000 and up, or about $120K today.
But the 1990s was the decade when suburbanites were beginning to replace their sedans and even minivans with Sport Utility Vehicles. On one end of the spectrum, the Ford Explorer was popping up in virtually every neighborhood in the country. At the other end stood the Hummer. Seen as a vanity car for tough guys with too much money (Schwarzenegger, Dennis Rodman, and Tupac all owned one), the H1 drew the ire of a small but vocal group of consumers who were disgusted with the growing trend of oversized, gas-guzzling trucks that were starting to clog the roads. Yet despite the stereotyping of the H1, General Motors saw a business opportunity, bought the Hummer name from AM General in 1999, and set out to build an even more civilian-friendly model, unimaginatively called the H2.
By the time the H2 was launched for 2002, American culture was changing fast. The defeat of Vice President Al Gore, a staunch environmentalist, by George W. Bush, a former oil man, was the first sign that the good times would continue for the SUV. The attacks on September 11, 2001 plunged the country into war and uncertainty, and again Hummers were all over the news. In theaters, Michael Bay blockbusters featured even more good guys in Hummers, gun sales spiked nationally, and the overall cultural tone became darker, polarized, and more combative.
This was the America the Hummer H2 was born into, and its advertisements seemed to gleefully play up the uncertainty of the times. “When the asteroid hits and civilization crumbles, you’ll be ready,” one said. “You give us the money, you get the truck, and nobody gets hurt,” said another. “It only looks like this because it’s badass.” Another just showed the wide, chromed grille with the word “Empowering” over it. The message was clear: You want the H2 because you’re tough (and only tough people want H2s), but you’re also vulnerable. Buy a Hummer, and you aren’t vulnerable anymore.
But it wasn’t the quite the paramilitary truck the ads made it out to be. Underneath its overwrought, lego-like styling, the H2 was a mismatch of GM parts assembled under license by AM General. Its frame was a mash-up of the GM 2500-Series front and 1500-Series rear frame, which groaned under its shockingly heavy 6,600-pound weight (just 900 pounds lighter than the H1). Power came from GM’s 325-horsepower 6.0-liter V8 mated to a four speed automatic, which guzzled gas at a rate of a gallon every 10 miles. Inside, the GM parts bin was on full display, with acres of squeaky, black plastic, faux-aluminum trim, and shiny leather. And at $41,000 and up ($55K today), it wasn’t cheap.
None of that mattered to middle class Americans, though. Sales nearly doubled in the H2’s second year from 18,861 to 34,529 as GM built Hummer dealerships in all 50 states, based on corrugated steel military Quonset Huts with a giant glass “H” running down the front. But the backlash against the H2 seemed to come on harder and stronger than the one against the H1 had. To Hummer haters, it became a symbol of the reactionary right — a gas-guzzling useless status symbol that was kept in the suburbs but built to mirror war machines. To H2 drivers, it was a big, 3-ton middle finger to liberalism.
The Hummer debate bubbled over in August 2003, when more than 20 H2s were torched in a suburban California dealership, causing more than $1 million in damage. The ones that weren’t burned were spray painted with things like “fat, lazy Americans,” and “I (heart) pollution.” In The New York Times, the controversy highlighted just how politicized the truck had become. A lawyer for the vandalized dealer defended the H2:
”They burn gas — so what?” he said. ”That’s not the way to look at it. A lot of people buy these cars because they’re safe. A lot of women buy them for that reason. They’ve got a patriotic feel to them, especially after 9/11.”
But in a few sentences, the paper summed up that massive divide that had expanded far beyond the automotive world:
To some people, Hummers, those mastodons of the highway, are a joyous extravagance — big, safe and fun to drive.
To others, they are simply wasteful, toys with testosterone that symbolize the American penchant for self-indulgence.
And the volatility of the 2000s meant the H2 was soon fighting a losing battle. By mid-decade, war in the Middle East, and Hurricane Katrina sent gas prices skyrocketing, and an updated powertrain, and the introduction of a pickup model and the smaller, Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon-based H3, did little to revive the brand’s rapidly fading fortunes. In 2008, the year the global economy fell into a severe recession (taking home and auto loans down with it), H2 sales had dropped to just over 6,000 units, and at the annual stockholder’s meeting GM CEO Rick Wagoner said the future of the Hummer brand was “being reviewed.”
That year, Car and Driver did its final road test of an H2, which by then had thoroughly crossed over from shining beacon of American expression to an unsellable $57,000 embarrassment:
Over at our sister publication Tank and Turret Gunner, they are huge fans of the H2. They don’t see it as a paramilitary poseur but rather as an affordable and practical alternative to the mil-spec original Hummer, which is once again only available to the public through special order and costs nearly as much as a laser-guided bunker buster. If we were going to lay out that sort of cash on something, we’d want it to blow up our neighbor’s garage, and maybe half the block, too. Advantage: bunker buster.
A year later, GM declared bankruptcy, and shuttered the Hummer brand after just seven model years. In 2009, just 1,513 H2s were sold.
Since then, the H2 has lost any remaining vestiges of its status as an expression of American freedom, and has been relegated to budget used car lots and scrapyards. But at the height of the H2 wars, this writer lived in a city neighborhood that had a new one in it. It showed up around 2007 (just as public perception was starting to change) in black with chrome brush guards mounted front and rear. Within a month, its owners had dumped half a ton of gravel in their driveway. After that, they parked their H2 on it, with the driver’s side front wheel wedged halfway up the pile, the weight of the truck on the front right, and the left rear wheel hanging precariously in the air. If the H2 wasn’t enough of a statement of their toughness, their masculinity, their rugged individualism, surely parking on the gravel pile would do it.
This past Labor Day weekend, we saw one on the highway. It was belching smoke, its rubber rear bumper was faded and discolored, and rust was starting to creep along the edges of its doors. It occurred to us that it was the first time we’d seen one in a while; then we suddenly remembered what a cultural flashpoint these ugly, expensive, ill-conceived behemoths once were. The Hummer H2 is a vehicle that sums up an entire era not because it’s the best that the automotive world had to offer, or even that it sold in any great numbers, but because it intersected automotive, political, socioeconomic, and popular culture unlike any other American car in decades. It doesn’t deserve to be remembered on merit. But at the very least it should be remembered as an artifact from a strange time in our history that’s beginning to feel like a long time ago.