Hummer Die-Out

The Monster is dead, indisputably dead: General Motors, maker of the infamous Hummer, has made this clear, and anyone with a set of paired braincells can realize how jarring its big-box image and horrendous gas mileage comes across in this new era of high gas prices and global environmental concern. (Only in the military, one can assume, is its place not under threat.)

Of course, that is not welcome news to many. This includes many Germans, who come from a culture that does appreciate well-engineered motor vehicles, together with their unfettered use. Think of those renowned no-speed-limit Autobahnen. And since when were Germans ever known for their mass use of bicycles, as the Dutch and the Danish – and Chinese, etc. – are known for to this day?

No, through recent history the pride of Germany has been their excellent armored fighting vehicles, and then – once the sheer catastrophe of the Second World War turned them away from things military – their exquisite autos: Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, even Volkswagen. The last few decades, though, they have also taken up the cause of environmentalism in a big way – Germany is the country where you’re asked to sort your street-side trash by Glass/Paper/Packaging/Other, for example – and this has of course at times worked at cross-purposes with their automobile love-affair.

For them, America (for all its other connotations) has been the earthly paradise where one could indulge in one’s car fantasies unimpeded by rules or the authorities (if you ignore the highway speed limits – and, of course, many Americans do). Thus it is only natural that the Frankfurter Rundschau dispatched their man Dietmar Ostermann to report on the demise of the Hummer from “Hummer City”: South Bend, Indiana, where there apparently is/was a Hummer plant, and where there definitely still exists a special training course for instructing Hummer owners how to get the most out of their Monsters. (The title of Ostermann’s articleDas große Hummersterben – translates as “The Great Hummer Die-Out,” except that Hummer in German also means “lobster,” so it’s a pun: “The Great Lobster Die-Out.” Clever, eh?)

Now, Ostermann does get off on the wrong foot, in that his article’s lede mentions “a test-track in Illinois,” and just afterwards he speaks of “South Bend in the US state Illinois,” whereas I can’t find “South Bend, Illinois” anywhere on the Net and, anyway, everyone knows that it is South Bend, Indiana. On the other hand, he definitely knows a little something about going to the Source to get your story: the article begins with him being driven over a ferocious route of gullies, low walls, 60º-grade ditches, etc. that is the Hummer training course just outside of South Bend by Chris Deak, chief instructor. This is not an experience you get automatically just by buying a Hummer (even as the cheapest model, the H2, was recently priced at $64,000 a piece). No, this four-day training session – accommodation and meals included – requires an additional $5,200, travel to South Bend – and, presumably, some intention actually to drive your Hummer out in the wild, eventually, the utter lack of which truly constituting the dirty little not-so-secret among most SUV owners.

The Hummer: Cultural War-Chariot

Ah yes – the Sports Utility Vehicle! Truly an emblem for American culture of the 1990s when, as Ostermann writes, that “nation swelled with self-assurance. Autos became ever-bigger; gas was cheap.” Back then, the very first civilian Hummer (adapted, of course, from the “Humvee” all-terrain vehicles in the service of the US military) was the H1, and it cost $146,000. Let’s not forget who grabbed the first one off the assembly line back in 1992: it was none other than the Terminator, then-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who therewith started building quite a pesonal collection of the things. In his wake followed as customers – as GM PR man Lee Woodward explains to Ostermann – mainly “Hollywood bling-bling types”: rappers, other actors, and entrepreneurs who wanted a very graphic way to show the rest of the world that they had “made it.”

All the while, these automotive monsters with their 300-horsepower engines achieved gas mileage that often went as low as one liter per kilometer. (That is metric Euro-speak, of course; it translates to roughly 2.5 miles per gallon.) And now times have changed: in 2008 gas prices have ascended to about $4.11/gallon on average. (That’s still only about 70 eurocents per liter! Ostermann exclaims – actually it’s a little less than that – which is less than half what you pay over here in the NL and Germany, but still, Americans are sitting up and taking notice in a big way.) And current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have much to do these days – at least publicly – with any of his fleet of Hummers anymore.

Take Your Prius – Or Your Skateboard

Now what is hot in American automotive land is the Toyota Prius, the famous gasoline-electric motor hybrid. Hummer dealers can’t unload their stock with even the most generous rebates, while customers for Priuses (“Prii”?) seem perfectly willing to wait three to four months for them. Among the ranks of proud Prius owners is Stephen Luecke (ah, a name which Ostermann’s readership would definitely find easy to pronounce!), who happens to be mayor of “Hummer City” South Bend, Indiana. His administration has put out big colorful banners in the City Hall exhorting city employees to get to work by carpool, by foot, by bicycle – even by skateboard! (OK then, what about by Segway?)

Adam Rogers, a Hummer dealer in the near-by city of Niles (and Ostermann does not mention that this is in Michigan), is confident, however, that “Americans will always love big cars.” He’s sure that gas prices will return back to somewhere near their former levels, and that customers will then start flocking back. On the other hand, our old friend Chris Deak, who gives Ostermann his adventure-ride at the beginning of the article, heaves a sigh of relief that he got out just in time. He bought himself his own Hummer four years ago and for a while had a blast riding in it with his friends all over town. But two years ago gas prices already started to edge upward, and he made the tough decision to sell it. “It’s not really the most economical auto in the world,” the Hummer trainer admits.

Ya think? Let me add in closing this other apt quotation that Ostermann extracted for his article from another South Bend auto dealer (not in Hummers, but Toyotas – including Toyota SUVs): “We Americans have the strong tendency to want things that we really don’t need.”

(Whoops, one more thing: Guess what the German equivalent of “Joe Sixpack” is? Looks like it’s Otto-Normalbürger: “Otto Normal-Citizen”! Isn’t that wild?)

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