Humvee. Photos: GM. Click image to enlarge

By Tony Whitney

Most automakers can boast fascinating origins and much has been written about how some of the big nameplates got their start in life.

Toyota was making weaving looms before it switched to automobiles. Subaru emerged from the remnants of the World War Two Japanese aircraft industry and BMW built airplane engines before it turned to cars. Henry Ford made several abortive attempts to get an automobile company started before he made a successful go of it. The company that became Daimler-Benz and later Daimler-Chrysler didn’t really prosper until it got involved with a businessman who ordered a large batch of cars and insisted they be named after his daughter – Mercedes.

Of course, not all interesting automotive histories go back to the dawn of the industry – there are some worthwhile stories surrounding more recent entries into the marketplace. Take Hummer for example. The brand has gained very rapid prominence in the SUV field, despite being around only a very brief time compared to many rivals.

Hummer’s entry into the automotive mainstream with its upcoming H3 model (more on this later) prompts a look at how this range of products got its start. While the Hummer story might not be quite as dramatic and obstacle-fraught as that of some of the more historic nameplates, it’s certainly no less interesting.

The brand has its origins in a company called AM General Corporation, and its history is as complex and convoluted as any I’ve studied. It can be traced back to a bicycle manufacturer in Terre Haute, Indiana, that expanded its operation to include the Overland Automotive Division back in 1903. In 1912, Overland was purchased by John North Willys and the Willys-Overland company was formed. Subsequent corporate developments were many and varied and even included a tie-in with Studebaker, but the company (by then called Kaiser-Jeep Corporation) became part of American Motors (AMC) in 1970. AM General was a corporate spin-off from AMC and went through too many ownership changes and structure modifications through the 1980s and 1990s to detail here.

Military Humvee and Hummer H1
Military Humvee and Hummer H1. Click image to enlarge

The history of the Hummer we’re familiar with today began in 1979 when AM General entered a competition staged by the US Army for the development of a High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle or HMMWV. After only 11 months, AM General had readied a prototype for a full range of tests in the deserts of Nevada. After favourable initial impressions, the army ordered a contract for test vehicles and after five months of exhaustive evaluation, AM General won an initial contract to produce 55,000 of the trucks, which by then had become known among the troops as “Humvees.”

The Humvee first gained major public attention during the Gulf War when the vehicles became ubiquitous props in just about every news tape emerging from the troubled Middle East at the time. Someone at AM General had the bright idea of offering a civilian version of the rig and it was probably at about that time that the name Hummer came into being as a specific brand. One of the early customers was no less than Terminator star and current Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger and his public appearances in the military-looking SUV did no harm at all to potential buyer interest.

2004 Hummer H1
2004 Hummer H1. Click image to enlarge

The big H1 Hummer sold quite well, considering that it was always a very specialized and expensive vehicle. Things really took off when General Motors Corporation acquired the Hummer brand in 1999 and quickly showed a concept SUV at auto shows that eventually became the H2. Built on a Chevrolet Suburban platform, the H2 might not be able to tackle the same kind of terrain as the H1, but for most drivers, it offers a more sophisticated level of performance and comfort. The H2 was hailed as a clever adaptation of the original Hummer with a highly original and exceptionally rugged look. However good the H1 became as a “civilian” SUV, it never quite shed its military origins – though of course for many buyers, that was part of its unique appeal.

2003 Hummer H2
2003 Hummer H2. Click image to enlarge

Although the H2 was priced lower than the H1, it wasn’t long before the folks at GM started thinking about a version that could be priced within reach of people who “aspired to the brand” but weren’t willing to pay the H2’s $70,000-plus base price. After a lot of thought and development time, GM announced the 2006 H3, a smaller – if almost identical-looking – variant on the H2 theme. Based on GM’s Canyon/Colorado pickup platform, the fully off-road capable H3 is uncannily similar to the larger H2 and you have to place the vehicles side by side to really spot the differences. Nobody will doubt for a moment that this is a Hummer. As one GM marketing executive told me: “We want people to recognize the H3 as a Hummer when it’s almost out of sight.”

2006 Hummer H3
2006 Hummer H3. Click image to enlarge

At a starting price of less than $40,000, the H3, powered by an inline five cylinder engine, will place Hummer very much in the SUV mainstream, so the brand has really “come of age.” Interestingly, the H3 will be built at a GM plant while the H1 and H2 models roll off AM General assembly lines. Hummer sees global market opportunities for the H3 and is upgrading a plant in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, to build various “export” models – including diesels and right hand drive variants.

With three basic models – and variations among these ranges – Hummer has made the switch from combat zone to suburban landscape in a remarkably short time. With the might of GM behind the brand, the future can only be bright.

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