The Hummer brand that General Motors took to market in 2002 – and later killed in bankruptcy less than a decade later — was born in an executive washroom at the company’s headquarters in downtown Detroit, Mich.
There, GM’s then-head of market research and forecasting, Mike DiGiovanni, bumped into marketing chief Ron Zarella and the seeds of Hummer were planted. As DiGiovanni told me later, he was at the time very excited about a militaristic concept vehicle called “Chunk.” He teased the idea to Zarella in what can surely be described as one of the more intimate executive meetings either attended.
DiGiovanni told Zarella about the results of series of consumer clinics aimed at evaluating the viability of a long list of concept vehicles. Chunk was a Schwarzenegger among DeVitos, he said in so many words.
Zarella ordered DiGiovanni to bring his ideas and enthusiasm to the next meeting of the North American Strategy Board, a small group of senior GM decision-makers who decided the fate of concepts – who voted yea or nay to future production vehicles based on concepts and clinics.
DiGiovanni was thrilled. Similar research from his team had led to the Chevrolet Avalanche, the Buick Rendezvous and the Cadillac CTS. But nothing had tested as well as Chunk. Consumers in the clinics, DiGiovanni told the Board, took one look at the Chunk with a Hummer badge, broke into broad smiles and went nuts.
“I told Zarella,” DiGiovanni told me, “we could acquire the Hummer brand from AM General (maker of actual Hummer H1 military vehicles that would later become world famous in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) and have the struggling Indiana maker assemble the consumer Hummer for GM.”
Zarella gave DiGiovanni the go-ahead to pursue a deal with AM General. By mid-1999, GM and AM General had a handshake deal. A formal contract was signed at year’s end and then in January 2000, GM displayed a prototype of the future H2 at the Detroit Auto Show.
When the H2 arrived for sale in 2002, it was in fact a beefed-up Chevrolet Tahoe SUV with a taller stance, more protection for the lower body and wheel-well moldings, beefy underbody skid plates and monstrous front-end brush guards. It was a Tahoe with more muscle and a mean scowl. In my testing at GM General headquarters in Indiana, I learned it was an off-roading beast with comfy seats and robust air conditioning.
DiGiovanni, meanwhile, had been promoted from his research job; he was given the keys to the new Hummer brand, as general manager. The H2 was an immediate sensation, boosted by the militaristic fervor triggered by the horrific Twin Tower attack on September 11, 2001.
Naturally, GM’s marketing types celebrated Hummer as a symbol of American strength and bravado, the ride for the alpha male. Critics, as Salon.com noted, called Hummer military porn and a rolling symbol of the worst kind of American excess.
It was as polarizing as any vehicle could ever be. Owners and gun club members loved it. Hummer haters, on the other hand, eagerly went about shaming Hummer and Hummer owners, driving their opposition through Web sites such as FUH2.com (Fuck You and Your Hummer), noted Salon.com.
What helped Hummer perhaps most of all, however, was highlighted in a 2002 New York Times article. The Times reported that under the George W. Bush administration, an eligible U.S. buyer could deduct $34,912 of the $48,800 Hummer base price.
GM had grand plans to expand the Hummer brand. A pickup version of the H2 was launched and then came the H3, a smaller rig with the same design cues but better fuel economy. The H3, based on a midsize GM SUV, came to market at about the time GM was barreling into insolvency. I was, in fact, test driving an H3 in the Arizona desert when devasting financial news about GM went viral, signalling the crisis that would end GM as we then knew it.
The truth is, Hummer proved to be, as they say in Texas, all hat and no horse. Annual sales peaked at about 71,000 in 2006. By the end of 2008, with GM storming towards its June 2009 Chapter 11 bankruptcy, GM said it was considering slashing brands and nameplates. Hummer, Saturn, Saab and Pontiac disappeared from GM with bankruptcy. Going forward, the company said it would focus on four core brands: Chevrolet, Cadillac, Oldsmobile and GMC. Two too many in my view, but GM has, in fairness, managed to make this four-brand strategy work. Generally.
You can imagine my surprise, then, to learn that GM is going back to a failed future with the announcement of an “all-electric super truck” called the GMC Hummer EV. More details will come May 20, but my first thought is GM is giving the middle finger to the gas-guzzling Hummers of the 2000s and needlessly dragging its sad recent history into the current marketplace of ideas and vehicles.
Regardless, as Esquire notes, the emerging category of electric pickups is aimed at wealthy and style conscious buyers who want also to show off their green bonafides. Along with the Hummer EV, Tesla has announced its Cybertruck 2021; Ford is planning an electric F-150 and also is looking ahead to an EV pickup for the Lincoln brand with its Rivian partner; Karma is planning to show an electric truck before the end of the year; Lordstown Motors, a startup, is taking deposits for its EV pickup; and Bollinger Motors, dubbed by some as the anti-Tesla, is taking deposits on its B2 pickup.
“The electric super-truck wars just got a little more interesting” with the Hummer EV, notes Esquire. But the space for this kind of rig is getting more crowded by the day. (The Hummer EV, by the way, will be officially unveiled with a Super Bowl featuring basketball great Lebron James.)
But its also part – perhaps the sexiest but also riskiest part – of a broad GM plan to go electric in a bid to remain relevant in a marketplace increasingly driven by electrified vehicles.
GM has said that its Detroit-Hamtramck plant would produce only EVs. In a meeting with reporters, GM president Mark Reuss said his company has a very detailed and ambitious plan to electrify its lineup with profitable EVs rolling off the Hamtramck line by late 2021. This according to Green Car Reports.
GM’s many brands will sell EVs of different sizes and types right across the model lines.
“You’ll see it over the next summer, how deep and how far this electric portfolio goes,” he told Green Car Reports. He added that GM will deliver a new battery architecture with more range, better performance and lower cost in this global effort.
It seems quite clear that GM at least in part wants to erase all its bad Hummer memories – and even the stain of bankruptcy – with a new EV push led by the Hummer EV. As I see it, this is risky at the very least.
GM is looking backward in its efforts to go forward and that’s almost never a good idea. The 2000s were not that long ago.
In addition, GM has a long history of over-promising and under-delivering. The EV vision GM is laying out is extremely ambitious and fraught with potential peril, with unknown landmines and difficulties impossible to anticipate in a volatile marketplace largely government with a global patchwork of regulations constantly in flux.
Regardless, we now expect GM to come charging into the EV space with vigor and expertise, even as competitors ramp up their own efforts. Success will not be easy and any slip-up will be magnified by GM’s history – both with Hummer and with bankruptcy in the larger sense. GM, now with a market capitalization one-third the size of Tesla, has no room for error.
At least we can be fairly certain that the latest Hummer idea – and electrification in the broader sense – was not hatched in a toilet.