Zak Stone is the Assistant Editor of GOOD, the unique media platform that produces “a quarterly magazine, online videos, and events for people who give a damn”, as their website claims. When Stone heard that General Motors was planning to phase out its Hummer vehicle a few years ago, he noted that few tears were shed. It felt, he wrote, like poetic justice for the gas-guzzling, military-turned-luxury vehicle favoured by a certain former governor of California.
So he cheered the news that a pair of Los Angeles architects may have found a way to redeem this environmentally disastrous vehicle:
“Craig Hodgetts and HsinMing Fung of the firm HplusF recently released designs for their ‘Hummer House’ – a prefabricated micro-home made from reincarnated Hummer parts.
“The duo, known for their work on local L.A. landmarks like the Hollywood Bowl and Egyptian Theater, decided to take on the project after examining the car’s materials and discovering that the sheet metal in its shell is rugged enough to serve as the exterior of a dwelling.”
Perhaps recycled housing is a fitting end for this poster child for American waste and excess. Average mileage for this vehicle was rated at a reported 12-13 mpg by manufacturers, but may have actually been closer to 9 mpg, according to owner surveys. The Hummer’s gas mileage, in fact, averaged less than half the mileage of the Model T Ford, the first car ever mass-produced in 1908.
But poor gas mileage was not the Hummer’s only claim to fame. According to the 2003 J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Survey, Hummers received more complaints than any other line of cars both foreign and domestic – 225 reported problems per 100 new vehicles, compared to an industry average of 133.
Hummers, with their absurd weight (starting at about four tons) were exempt from meeting standard industry emission standards. They emitted over three times more carbon dioxide, smog-producing pollutants and dangerous particulates than an average car did. And they didn’t come cheap: the original model called the H1 sported a $100,000 sticker price.
The Hummer’s brief life story began in 1990 during the Persian Gulf War, known as Desert Storm. The M998 HMMWV – nicknamed Humvee and then Hummer by American soldiers – played a crucial role in that ground campaign.
While filming the movie Kindergarten Cop in Oregon, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger spotted a convoy of 50 Humvees; he later acknowledged that this sight moved him to declare his intention to buy a civilian version if one ever became available. He didn’t need to wait long. The first civilianized M998s under the brand name Hummer were sold in 1992.
What was the appeal of this monstrously unattractive military vehicle to the average Hummer purchaser? According to a study* published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the typical Hummer buyer “made their purchasing decision on ideological and moral grounds”. Those grounds? The defense of American national ideals. Yes, seriously. Owners employed foundational myths, such as the “rugged individual” and the “boundless frontier” to construct themselves as “moral protagonists”.
And apparently, being “under siege” by those who would criticize them is “an historically established feature of being an American.”
But in 2008, following a sharp spike in U.S. gasoline prices, General Motors announced that the Hummer brand was now under review, and the following year, while preparing for bankruptcy, GM announced the discontinuation of several brands – including Hummer.
The final count shows more than 355,000 Hummers built and sold for civilian use. That means several tons of “foundational myths” now available for recycled housing.
* Marius K. Luedicke, Craig J. Thompson, and Markus Giesler. “Consumer Identity Work as Moral Protagonism: How Myth and Ideology Animate a Brand-Mediated Moral Conflict.” Journal of Consumer Research: April 2010.