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April 30th, 2003 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

Endless Hummer

Who's driving the new American dream?

     
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Doug Holt doesn't deny it--he brings the gas mileage up first thing. Sure, he knew his Hummer H2 got 11 or 12 miles per gallon long before he bought it in October.

Nonetheless, Holt, who is 50, is thrilled. "I don't think I'd ever buy a car that would get 40 miles a gallon," he says. "I work hard so I can play hard."

Holt says his Hummer gets double-takes and thumbs-up from his North Plains neighbors on a daily basis.

In Portland, however, Holt sometimes gets a different finger. "Oh yeah, I've had all kinds of stickers when I drive it downtown: gas hog, you're the reason we're at war, price of gas, if everyone would quit using SUVs we wouldn't have a dependence on oil."

Holt, who moved to Portland from Carlsbad, Calif., three years ago, was taken aback by this reaction. "I didn't anticipate I'd get any crap, because I've driven SUVs my entire life."

"Every weekend I get some sticker saying 'pig.'" No one has said anything to his face, though. "I'm six-five," he adds, "so not many people are going to come up to me."

The problem, as Holt sees it, is Portland's political extremism. Case in point--the recent anti-war rally that left Holt stuck, fuming, in his other car, a Mercedes, as activists blocked the streets.

"A guy comes out and kicks my car, and I got up and popped him," Holt claims.

"If I'd have been in my Hummer, I probably would've drove over the guy."

Holt opposed the protesters and their message. "I don't think we're there because of the oil at all. When you lose as many people as we lost in the 9/11 tragedy," he says, trailing off. "They set rules, and he [Saddam Hussein] didn't abide by the rules.

"I think you've gotta stop terrorism, and whatever the president decides you have to support."

In the meantime, Holt will drive what he pleases.

"To each their own," he says. "Just don't lay down in front
of me."

Like Holt, Mike Hildebrandt has heard it before: "You're not going to shoot me for driving an SUV?" he asks immediately.

About a month ago, he parked his yellow Hummer H2 in the Pearl. When he returned from dinner at ¡Oba!, someone had slapped a phony ticket on his windshield. His offense? "Driving an SUV with purportedly no fuel economy," he says.

A native Oregonian, Hildebrandt says the ticket didn't bother him: "I just kinda blew it off. I have plenty of cars that get great fuel mileage, and I have one car that doesn't. I don't feel bad about it. If everybody in the world had a car that got 20 miles per gallon, it would be kind of a boring automobile world."

Hildebrandt, who designs logging machinery, considers himself an environmentalist. "I love trees," he says, with an air of defiance in his voice. "I love to plant them and grow them and design machinery to harvest them."

Hildebrandt and Holt are members of an elite club. In Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, where most of the state's 3.5 million people live, state records show 102 Hummers registered to individuals or businesses. Tim Boyle, CEO of Columbia Sportswear Company, owns one, and Blazers players could form their own militia. Damon Stoudamire and Arvydas Sabonis both have Hummers, and Rasheed Wallace has three.

If it seems like there's been an invasion of Hummers recently, it's because there has been. In July 2002 Hummer introduced the H2, a slightly smaller model at roughly half the price, and Oregon sales jumped. A year ago, for example, there were only four Hummers in Lake Oswego. Today, there are a dozen.

Given Oregon's reputation for environmentalism and--lately--anti-war sentiment, it's clear that it takes more than money to get behind the wheel of the largest, most aggressive-looking passenger vehicle on the road here. It takes attitude.

If every SUV is a jab at environmentalists, the Hummer, which is so heavy it is not subject to federal fuel regulations for passenger vehicles, is a sucker punch. Its height, its weight and the stiffness of its frame also put drivers of smaller cars at greater risk for fatalities in the event of a collision, believes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What's a tank like that doing in a place like this?

"Need," a Hummer commercial explains, "is a very subjective word."

Few Hummer owners say they need them. They own them because they can. It's the same sort of self-determination that's embedded in our Constitution. The Hummer could be viewed as the distillation of America's freedoms: the freedom to choose whatever we want to drive, even--perhaps especially--if it offends other people. Hummers are the civilian version of the military Humvee (short for "High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle"). Derived from our own military power, the Hummer is authentic. Strength, individualism, independence and adventure--all qualities of the Hummer and, some might say, this nation. Hummers, like Americans, can go anywhere on earth, and even if they don't, it's good to know they could. Like our country, the Hummer doesn't apologize for its size.

Of course, the best things about America are also the worst: strength becomes domination, wealth creates waste, independence inches toward imperialism. Free speech begets in-boxes clogged with pornography. Like America, the Hummer inspires awe for its power even as it draws disdain for its arrogance.

Range Rovers are WASPy safari vehicles. Ford Explorers are the pasty fleet of civil servants. There are Isuzu Troopers for the wannabes. Hummers, by contrast, are real. Radio ads for Vancouver's Dick Hannah Hummer encourage would-be buyers to "leave SUVs to the soccer moms." "Like Nothing Else," the ads declare.

Sierra Club agrees the vehicle is unique. "It epitomizes the negative qualities of SUVs across the board," says spokesman Brendan Bell.

Next month, the Sierra Club will launch an anti-Hummer campaign modeled on the 1999 campaign that mocked the Ford Excursion.

In that project, the Sierra Club renamed the vehicle the Valdez (after Exxon's ill-fated tanker) for its gas-guzzling size--and the Hummer, Bell says, is even worse. "We're going to do to the Hummer what we did to the [Ford Excursion], Bell says, noting that Ford pulled the Excursion from its 2004 lineup. "It's going to be fun." (Ford doesn't cite Sierra Club's influence as the reason for the Excursion's demise, but in 2000 it quoted Sierra Club's criticism in its "corporate citizenship" report.)

The Hummer offends the Sierra Club on several fronts: "It's designed to evade fuel economy standards, it creates more vehicle pollution, has the lowest mileage and is a safety threat to other vehicles," Bell says. "We see the Hummer as a completely irresponsible vehicle."

GM's Hummer ad campaign is an attempt to cast anti-environmentalism as empowerment, Bell says. He's referring to two ads that depict women driving H2s. One says, "Slip into something a little more metal," and the other invites women to "Threaten men in a whole new way."

"The real line," Bell suggests, "is 'threaten the planet in a whole new way.'"

While he gets little static in his home of Tualatin, where he owns an auto-body shop, Dave Carney says that in downtown Portland his black H2's windshield would probably be plastered anti-SUV stickers. That would bother him, not because he feels guilty, but because he considers it an infringement on his freedom.

"We have a right to drive on the road," he says. He knows the H2 is loathed by some for its fuel inefficiency, but Carney, who views the war in Iraq as the removal of a dangerous despot, says the "blood for oil" slogan is a misleading.

"People that are saying that are not very well-informed," Carney says. To him, the fuel crisis is a myth. "If there was a true gas shortage, prices would be the same across the country," he says.

The rise in gas prices comes from opportunism, not vulnerability: "Oil companies and gas-station owners are making money while they can. The shutdown in Saudi Arabia has caused some trouble. It's just an excuse to make money. I think people are upset about the war and upset about the price of gas."

"I'm sure there are some disruptions in supply lines," Carney continues, "but OPEC has made it clear that they'll pump enough oil to make it go down. It's the futures market that spiked oil up so high."

With its black exterior and mysterious tinted windows, Kay Morse's new H2 has the impenetrable look of the bad guys' ride in a James Bond flick. Looks can be deceiving: "It's a great mom car," Morse enthuses. "You either love them or you hate them," she says. "It's either on or off."

A mother of three, Morse, 36, was first attracted by the Hummer's looks. " It's funky," she says, and that suits her personal style. "I dress crazy," says Morse, who was quoted last summer in a Portland Tribune article about women who love high heels. "It's just my personality."

Many say her Hummer conveys different personality traits--greed, conspicuous consumption and self-absorption, for example. "I think I supported our economic crisis by buying the car," Morse responds. "Anybody who buys a car or anything, I high-five them, if they're putting money back into our economy."

Besides, Morse says she and her husband have compensated. She feeds her kids only organic food. She recycles. The Hummer is made from some recycled parts, she points out (she even saved the fact sheet on it). She volunteers in her community and doesn't use pesticides in her yard.

Morse sees herself as an environmentalist with a weakness: "The car is a contradiction to being environmentally conscious," she admits. "Everybody has contradictions. I'm efficient in a lot of ways, but not with the car."

In any case, no one should tell others what to drive, she says. "It's M.Y.O.B.--mind your own business."

"People just put you in a category--if you got this car you're A, B, or C--and that's not true," Morse insists. "It's just a damn car."

Dr. Clothaire Rapaille is an anthropologist who has worked for the automotive industry developing new products and campaigns, most notably Chrysler's PT Cruiser. Rapaille--dubbed "the car shrink" by Fortune magazine--has his own Jungian-influenced theory about how the brain works. It is divided into three parts: the reptilian brain, the limbic brain and the cortex. The limbic brain controls emotions, the cortex is the center of reason, and the reptilian brain is concerned with survival, reproduction and protection of the young. "The reptilian brain is not influenced by culture," Rapaille says, speaking by phone from Boca Raton, Fla., where his firm, Archetype Discoveries, is located. "It's not acquired. It comes from thousands of years of the evolution of the species, " he says.

The reptilian instinct is so powerful it overrides the cortex. The most successful products always appeal to what Rapaille calls the "reptilian hot button." Victoria's Secret, for example, is a lingerie empire built on the power of the reptilian hot button.

So is the Hummer. Rapaille says the Hummer projects safety and invincibility that Americans, in the wake of terrorist attacks, crave more than ever.

While the streets are filled with what Rapaille calls "cortex" cars, like the Toyota Camry, these were simply the fallback in a market thus far devoid of reptilian options. For those who can afford them, reptilian models always trump cortex cars, and the Hummer, Rapaille says, may be the most reptilian model on the road.

He acknowledges that the Hummer's strong identity could turn people off. That's OK, Rapaille says. "We're tired of this boring car that nobody cares about. Built by boring people, cortex people."

The Hummer doesn't suffer from such indifference. GM's marketing subtly acknowledges the scolding SUVs receive, in effect making the backlash work for them. One television spot features a barrage of directives flashing across the screen--"eat your vegetables, cool your jets"--and ends with the cool dismissal "Whatever."

The Hummer, though, is the antithesis of such detachment. "Some people love a Hummer, some people hate it," Rapaille says. "But nobody is indifferent."

You should know I'm not Hummer's target market. I'm neither the "successful achiever" nor the "rugged individualist." You should also know that I own a black 1997 Volkswagen Jetta, though on most days I ride the bus. And that the monthly payments on a new H2 are more than I pay in rent.

The salesman at Vancouver's Dick Hannah Hummer didn't know any of this, and, to his credit, none of it seemed to matter. He greeted me on the lot in a black sweater and, yes, gold jewelry, with a minimum of small talk.

As I climbed behind the wheel of a red metallic 2003 Hummer H2, I recalled the words of another H2 owner: "You don't drive a Hummer," he reminded me, "you operate it."

In fact, driving the H2 was no big deal--it handled like a minivan. Other drivers seemed to get out of the way, which was nice, but not necessary. I didn't want to like the Hummer, and I'm not sure I did, exactly. What I liked was how it made me feel.

Some see the Hummer as protection; to me it was more like an existential vacation. I would stop worrying about global warming, war and sweatshops. I would no longer feel guilty about being late or getting drunk or shopping at the Gap. I would just be, and live, and drive.

On the face of it, I know the Hummer alone is not the problem. The Land Rover gets a slightly worse EPA emissions rating. The all-wheel-drive Cadillac Escalade's city gas mileage is only slightly better than the H2's. And though the Hummer's dimensions suggest it could be the most threatening vehicle in the event of an accident, there isn't any hard data on that yet.

On paper, the Hummer fails, but what are more alarming are its symbolic implications. Driving a battlefield vehicle to Trader Joe's suggests you've given up on cooperation, and gone for self-protection instead.

Americans have fought wars for the liberty to do, and even to drive, what we please. Every American has every right to hunker down in his or her respective Hummer.

But even after sitting behind the wheel of one, it doesn't feel like freedom to me.

Behind the Hummer

The Hummer's story begins in Oregon. While in Astoria filming his 1990 vehicle Kindergarten Cop, Arnold Schwarzenegger spotted a convoy of military Humvees driving on the highway. When he contacted the U.S. military, they refused to sell one to him. The Terminator was undeterred and lobbied the military contractor that manufactures the Humvee, AM General, even flying to the company's headquarters in South Bend, Ind., to plead his case.

The first civilian Humvee, renamed the Hummer, was produced in 1992, with Schwarzenegger as the first customer. That same year, billionaire Ira Leon Rennert, owner of the holding company Renco, bought AM General for $133 million. According to BusinessWeek magazine, it is now worth more than $1 billion. In 1999, GM bought the Hummer brand; GM markets and distributes Hummers while AM General continues to produce them. AM's parent company, Renco, is notorious as the owner of several of the United States' top-polluting businesses and is currently facing a $1 billion lawsuit filed by the EPA. But Rennert is perhaps best known for his uncompleted Hamptons mansion, which at 66,000 square feet, is even bigger than Bill Gates' place.

 

If I Had a Hummer
Hummer owners in the Portland area (vehicle year in parentheses):

Marc H. Alport, Portland (2000)
Lee C. Andrews, Portland (2003)
Kerry R. Angelos, Clackamas (2003)
Eduard Anishchenko, Gresham (2003)
Michael L. Applebee, Banks (2001)
Salita D. Armour, Lake Oswego (2003)
Gregory G. Atkeson, Portland (1997)
Anthony J. Bash, Portland (2000)
Richard W. Bogart, Aloha (1984)
Timothy P. Boyle, Portland (1996)
Robert P. Briede, Lake Oswego (1999)
Bruce A. Brunette, Sandy (2003)
Raymond H. Budd, Banks (1999)
David J. Carney, Tualatin (2003)
Kevin P. Chimienti, Clackamas (2003)
Jill K. Cox, Portland (1982)
Bryan R. Cox, Clackamas (2003)
James W. Crawford, Banks (1995)
Tyson G. Cummins, Portland (2003)
Arturo Dalbianco, Portland (1996)
John R. Darby, Tigard (2003)
Nicholas J. Durbetaki, Gaston (1996)
Hsiao-Chien Linscheid, Lake Oswego (2003)
Joseph C. Lowe, Aloha (1993)
Dale E. Martin, Clackamas (2003)
Robert W. McVicar, Portland (2003)
Jeremy B. Moore, Milwaukie (2003)
Steven L. Myers, Lake Oswego (2003)
Nicole M. Nevedale, Portland (2003)
Masad H. Nicola, Portland (2003)
William F. Olson, Beaverton (2000)
Randall A. Palazzo, Portland (2001)
Mark S. Panichello, West Linn (1982)
Mark S. Panichello, West Linn (1983)
Larry A. Parker, Gresham (1996)
James R. Pavel, Portland (2003)
Raymond A. Pearson, West Linn (2003)
Hector S. Perez, Portland (1982)
Edward E. Perry, Oregon City (1994)
Steven L. Pound, Portland (2003)
Mary E. Robnick, Sandy (1979)
Virna J. Rosales, Portland (2003)
Linda S. Roush, Portland (1983)
Arvydas R. Sabonis, Portland (2003)
Chris Salazar, Sherwood (1982)
Traci L. Schumacher, West Linn (2003)
Steven L. Sharpe, Aloha (1987)
James E. Shaw, North Plains (1976)
Virgil E. Sipes Sr., Tualatin (1993)
Steven E. Smith, Gladstone (1996)
Scott A. Smith, Lake Oswego (2003)
Jerry C. Stamps, Portland (1994)
Damon L. Stoudamire, Portland (2003)
Joel D. Surprenant, Milwaukie (2003)
Mo Sweeney, Portland (2003)
Gary A. Taft, Oregon City (2003)
Brian K. Waddell, Oregon City (2000)
Rasheed A. Wallace Lake Oswego (2003)
Rasheed A. Wallace, Lake Oswego (1999)
Rasheed Wallace, Lake Oswego (1996)
Gawen D. Wells, West Linn (2003)
Christopher M. Whaley, Portland (2003)
Richard E. Wiley, Beaverton (2003)
John L. Winfield, Fairview (1977)
Mark A. Younoren, Portland (1995)
Jason E. Zidell, Portland (2003)
Columbia Homes Inc., Hillsboro (2003)
Warn Industries Inc., Clackamas (2003)
Scott Bever Construction, Colton (1994)
Coaxies Inc., Lake Oswego (2003)
Stage Call Inc., Portland (1999)
Beck Group of Oregon, Portland (1996)
St. Mary's Home for Boys Inc., Beaverton (2000)
Douglas G. Farah, Gresham (1982)
Gary R. Ferschweiler, Molalla (1978)
Jubal S. Frost, Hillsboro (2003)
Dale C. Fuhr, West Linn (2003)
David E. Fuller, Portland (1996)
Frank Gonzalez, Gresham (2000)
Todd B. Hannelin, Portland (2000)
Jill I. Heemer, Canby (1982)
Jeanette E. Heinz, Hillsboro (1998)
Gregory E. Herman, Canby (2000)
Tom D. Hice, West Linn (2003)
Michael H. Hildebrandt, Lake Oswego (2003)
Franklin H. Hill, Portland (2003)
Tommie L. Holland, Portland (2000)
Douglas D. Holt, North Plains (2003)
Dustin R. Howell, Milwaukie (1999)
Randy L. Hufford, Portland (2003)
Darcy L. Hughs-Snodgrass, Milwaukie (2002)
Darrel E. Hundley, Gresham (1995)
Beryl K. Izumi-Sawin, Lake Oswego (2003)
Michael H. Kahl, Portland (2003)
Michael J. Kennedy, Tigard (2003)
Fredrick W. King, West Linn (2003)
Richard C. Lamanna III, Hillsboro (2003)
Peter E. Lamka, Portland (2003)
Toby Lavigne, Portland (1999)
Steven E. Laxson, Portland (2003)
Mark E. Lewis, Portland (2003)
Mark K. Liddle, Lake Oswego (2000)
Marc H. Alport, Portland (2000)
Lee C. Andrews, Portland (2003)
Kerry R. Angelos, Clackamas (2003)
Eduard Anishchenko, Gresham (2003)
Michael L. Applebee, Banks (2001)
Salita D. Armour, Lake Oswego (2003)
Gregory G. Atkeson, Portland (1997)
Anthony J. Bash, Portland (2000)
Richard W. Bogart, Aloha (1984)
Timothy P. Boyle, Portland (1996)
Robert P. Briede, Lake Oswego (1999)
Bruce A. Brunette, Sandy (2003)
Raymond H. Budd, Banks (1999)
David J. Carney, Tualatin (2003)
Kevin P. Chimienti, Clackamas (2003)
Jill K. Cox, Portland (1982)
Bryan R. Cox, Clackamas (2003)
James W. Crawford, Banks (1995)
Tyson G. Cummins, Portland (2003)
Arturo Dalbianco, Portland (1996)
John R. Darby, Tigard (2003)
Nicholas J. Durbetaki, Gaston (1996)
Hsiao-Chien Linscheid, Lake Oswego (2003)
Joseph C. Lowe, Aloha (1993)
Dale E. Martin, Clackamas (2003)
Robert W. McVicar, Portland (2003)
Jeremy B. Moore, Milwaukie (2003)
Steven L. Myers, Lake Oswego (2003)
Nicole M. Nevedale, Portland (2003)
Masad H. Nicola, Portland (2003)
William F. Olson, Beaverton (2000)
Randall A. Palazzo, Portland (2001)
Mark S. Panichello, West Linn (1982)
Mark S. Panichello, West Linn (1983)
Larry A. Parker, Gresham (1996)
James R. Pavel, Portland (2003)
Raymond A. Pearson, West Linn (2003)
Hector S. Perez, Portland (1982)
Edward E. Perry, Oregon City (1994)
Steven L. Pound, Portland (2003)
Mary E. Robnick, Sandy (1979)
Virna J. Rosales, Portland (2003)
Linda S. Roush, Portland (1983)
Arvydas R. Sabonis, Portland (2003)
Chris Salazar, Sherwood (1982)
Traci L. Schumacher, West Linn (2003)
Steven L. Sharpe, Aloha (1987)
James E. Shaw, North Plains (1976)
Virgil E. Sipes Sr., Tualatin (1993)
Steven E. Smith, Gladstone (1996)
Scott A. Smith, Lake Oswego (2003)
Jerry C. Stamps, Portland (1994)
Damon L. Stoudamire, Portland (2003)
Joel D. Surprenant, Milwaukie (2003)
Mo Sweeney, Portland (2003)
Gary A. Taft, Oregon City (2003)
Brian K. Waddell, Oregon City (2000)
Rasheed A. Wallace Lake Oswego (2003)
Rasheed A. Wallace, Lake Oswego (1999)
Rasheed Wallace, Lake Oswego (1996)
Gawen D. Wells, West Linn (2003)
Christopher M. Whaley, Portland (2003)
Richard E. Wiley, Beaverton (2003)
John L. Winfield, Fairview (1977)
Mark A. Younoren, Portland (1995)
Jason E. Zidell, Portland (2003)
Columbia Homes Inc., Hillsboro (2003)
Warn Industries Inc., Clackamas (2003)
Scott Bever Construction, Colton (1994)
Coaxies Inc., Lake Oswego (2003)
Stage Call Inc., Portland (1999)
Beck Group of Oregon, Portland (1996)
St. Mary's Home for Boys Inc., Beaverton (2000)
Douglas G. Farah, Gresham (1982)
Gary R. Ferschweiler, Molalla (1978)
Jubal S. Frost, Hillsboro (2003)
Dale C. Fuhr, West Linn (2003)
David E. Fuller, Portland (1996)
Frank Gonzalez, Gresham (2000)
Todd B. Hannelin, Portland (2000)
Jill I. Heemer, Canby (1982)
Jeanette E. Heinz, Hillsboro (1998)
Gregory E. Herman, Canby (2000)
Tom D. Hice, West Linn (2003)
Michael H. Hildebrandt, Lake Oswego (2003)
Franklin H. Hill, Portland (2003)
Tommie L. Holland, Portland (2000)
Douglas D. Holt, North Plains (2003)
Dustin R. Howell, Milwaukie (1999)
Randy L. Hufford, Portland (2003)
Darcy L. Hughs-Snodgrass, Milwaukie (2002)
Darrel E. Hundley, Gresham (1995)
Beryl K. Izumi-Sawin, Lake Oswego (2003)
Michael H. Kahl, Portland (2003)
Michael J. Kennedy, Tigard (2003)
Fredrick W. King, West Linn (2003)
Richard C. Lamanna III, Hillsboro (2003)
Peter E. Lamka, Portland (2003)
Toby Lavigne, Portland (1999)
Steven E. Laxson, Portland (2003)
Mark E. Lewis, Portland (2003)
Mark K. Liddle, Lake Oswego (2000)


The original civilian Hummer, now called the H1, was introduced in 1992 and has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $105,160- $116,483. A smaller version, the H2, was introduced in July 2002 and has an MSRP of about $48,400.

As of March, GM had sold 27,700 2003 Hummers, the vast majority of which are H2s.

"Hummer" is slang for fellatio.

According to current tax law, when a business buys an SUV or light truck over 6,000 pounds it can deduct $25,000 as a business expense on their federal taxes. The Bush administration's latest stimulus package would increase that deduction to $75,000.

Oregon's tax code allows a similar deduction, though Oregon's House Bill 2747, currently in committee, would close it.

The automotive industry is the nation's largest advertiser, and General Motors is the biggest spender. In 2001 GM spent $3.37 billion advertising its products. For every $39.20 the company made in revenue, it spent a dollar on advertising.

Los Angeles- based syndicated advice columnist Amy Alkon leaves cards on SUV windshields that accuse the driver of having a small penis and lists a phone number (310- 798- 1817) connected to a recorded rant.

Hummer owners can enroll in a four- day, $5,250 "driving academy" at the company's South Bend, Ind., headquarters.

The web site for Lynch Hummer (www.lynchhummer.com ), a St. Louis dealer, shows pictures of cars and brick walls crumpled by Hummers.

For more on Hummers and other SUVs, see Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty (Public Affairs Books, 468 pages, $28).

 
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