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VIEWPOINT: Hummer, how we need thee

By Matthew DeBord LOS ANGELES -- It takes a certain kind of man -- it's almost always a man -- to take a gander at the Hummer, in all its broad, burly, paramilitary gas-guzzling glory. Oprah does not drive a Hummer. But Arnold Schwarzenegger has ...

By Matthew DeBord

LOS ANGELES -- It takes a certain kind of man -- it's almost always a man -- to take a gander at the Hummer, in all its broad, burly, paramilitary gas-guzzling glory. Oprah does not drive a Hummer. But Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a proud owner. As has Sylvester Stallone. The Hummer appeals to large men of even larger ego, men who aren't worried about their carbon footprint and believe that obstacles in life are meant not just to be surmounted but squashed flat. Every once in while, you see a little guy clambering out of a Hummer, painfully in need of a ladder, and you realize that it can also be viewed as a $57,000 ticket to enlarged self-esteem.

If this all sounds like caricature, that's because it is. The Hummer is a cartoon, more symbol than actual vehicle. Its off-road performance is extraordinary. But it's such a ridiculously over-capable ride that it greatly exceeds the requirements of most customers who aren't considering a run at the Dakar rally. Its sales are pathetic compared with pretty much any normal automobile.

Yet GM has kept it in the portfolio because it's, well, cool. Just go to an auto show. People love to climb into Hummers and take in the sights from the driver's platform.

The problem for GM is that it now sees its future primarily in passenger cars. The company management is betting that cheap gas will never come back and that promoting the virtues of a brand that averages less than 15 miles per gallon probably isn't worth the cost. So the Hummer is being picked to pieces by bean counters.

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Unfortunately, GM is rapidly managing itself into a shadow of what was once the greatest-ever manufacturing enterprise. With bankruptcy an ever-present threat as sales flag, it believes it has to re-engineer its mojo and downgrade a century's worth of ambition. If all goes according to plan at GM, in 10 years the great corporation will consist of three main brands: Chevrolet, GMC for trucks and Cadillac for luxury cars. Corvette will be the only exotic thing left. Meanwhile, somebody like Tata Motors in India, which is on the cusp of introducing the world's cheapest car, the Nano, and also recently bought Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford, will get to have all the Hummer fun.

GM has hinted that, alternatively, it may convert the gas hog to hybrid status. But that would be like putting Rottweilers on a diet of celery and watermelon ("Let sip the dogs of war!"). The whole point of the Hummer is that it chugs fuel and chugs it proudly, devoid of any sort of neurotic preoccupation with gloomy prophecies of Peak Oil.

And here is where its symbolic fortitude is most threatened: For American life to work, the illusion of endless abundance must be maintained. Sure, we must adapt to a future of less-abundant natural resources. Our vehicles will need to become radically more efficient. But we require vestiges of the old dream to sustain our national optimism, which in turn nourishes our national character.

This is what GM owes us, and what the company owes itself -- a ridiculous machine crammed with emotional content, the sort of contraption that Detroit has always done well but increasingly seems to have decided it is incapable of ever doing well again.

DeBord is a former freelance editor of a magazine published by independent Buick dealers. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.

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