It was just announced that the “inked” deal for GM to sell its Hummer brand to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company, of China, has fallen through, most likely putting a final stake in the heart of the behemoth car brand.
Some are applauding this event, and others are bemoaning it, pointing out that by any present-day parameter with which we measure vehicles – such as gas mileage – the Hummer is not much different from many or most mid-sized to full-sized vehicles, and certainly is similar to other large SUV’s, such as the Suburban, Expedition and Excursion.
However, perhaps the real victory will be if the demise of Hummer signals an inglorious end to the mentality of American manufacturing of large-scale, over-indulgent vehicles, which increasingly, people (myself included) think would be a good thing. Hummer’s situation brings to mind three events within my historical memory. First, I remember as a youngster, during the Carter administration, and following the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, the gas rationing America endured, which caused the price of a gallon of gas to rise rapidly and precipitously – from something like $0.35 per gallon to something like $.75 per gallon. While both figures are laughably low by today’s standards, one, nonetheless, is more than double the other. And so, this was a great burden on Americans at the time, causing consternation and near-panic in the streets, as people had to double their budgetary allocations for gasoline.
Second, these events were the catalyst for the now-ubiquitous Japanese brands to began flooding into the U.S. (Toyota, Datsun and Honda) – long before most had even heard of these cars, let alone other Asian cars from, for example, Korea (Hyundai, Kia). I remember the first Hondas – I believe they were called the Civic and Accord even back then. To say the car was small was an understatement. The Accord – the bigger one – was about 75% the size of a Mini, and the Civic was absolutely tiny. Although we now have the SmartCar, a two-seater, dwarf-like version of an “economy car,” I suspect it would stand a full head taller than the first of those Civics to grace our roads. And, of course, what drove sales of the Civic and other true economy cars (most notably Japanese cars, but certainly many European cars, as well) was the gas economy of these vehicles.
Lastly, I used to work in a building in the Los Angeles area, owned by then-movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. A part of my morning route to work was the same as his, and so it was not an uncommon event over a three year period to see him in the morning, on the road in his camouflage-encrusted, military-style, “Mad Max” retro-like car-truck . Back then (around 1990), his Hummer was a rather rare, quirky, overstuffed and bizarre vehicle. It was unthinkable that any masses of consumers would actually have a taste for this huge vehicle (ironically, a look inside revealed rather small driver’s and passenger’s bucket seats, separated by a very large interior storage compartment, such that even Arnold would have difficult in reaching over and holding the hand of his wife, Maria). This was my introduction to the Hummer, and it left a lasting impression.
That was about 35 years ago, and America has since vacillated between big and small cars, coincident with political and social trends, but inexorably linked to high gas prices. To a large extent, the quest for smaller, gas efficient cars has been a failure, because every time it seemed that compactness and efficiency had finally taken hold as design and philosophical constructs, shortly thereafter the quest for large, oversized vehicles took over and swept all sense away. The Hummer has been, perhaps, the most visible symbol of this – arguably the Apex of the oversized, overly-thirsty vehicle. Even beyond mere gas consumption, is the mentality that accompanied – the aura of extreme size superiority and arrogance for the road, other drivers, the world’s precious natural resources, a disregard for the environment, pollution and on and on.
Yet, while I do not bemoan the demise of Hummer, I also do not applaud it, because it means the end of American jobs, a once-viable American business, and an era when America was regarded as the top dog in the world, which was reflected in its vehicles.
I believe – not that in a perfect world would this be my choice – the greatest learning occurs at the hands of negative or traumatic experiences, not good ones. As parents, we need to let our children fail, in order for them to learn how to succeed. And this seeming paradox should be a good paradigm for America business. If America is to learn, it has to suffer losses. So, the Hummer will go away, and perhaps a better, smaller, more efficient vehicle will take its place in the hearts and minds of an esoteric, status-conscious contingent of Americans who cherished the soon-to-be dearly-departed automotive icon.
Hopefully, the end of Hummer will also pave the way for the eventual and permanent end to the oversized and over-bearing vehicles of this past period, and on to smaller, more efficient vehicles, far into the future. Hopefully, this will be the way it will be going forward, just like it is in Europe and Asia (for the most part). This would be a good thing.
Alas, only time will tell.