Future Classics: AM General Hummer

Initially, it was called the HMMWV – an acronym for “High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle.” Soldiers who spent a lot of time around it quickly shortened that to to “Humvee.” When it went on sale to civilians, its name changed again to “Hummer.” Later, it was revised once more to Hummer H1.

Whatever you want to call it, this much is certain: the “original” AM General Hummer is loud, slow, obnoxious, impractical, expensive to own and approximately as efficient as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And someday, it will be a classic.

Before I cover the ins and outs of a giant SUV that will evetually be worthy of a place on golf course fairways next to classic Lancias and Lincolns, it’s worth addressing the first thing you consider when you think about the Hummer: doesn’t everyone hate this thing?

I don’t think so. In fact, I know they don’t. I say this because I owned a bright yellow 1995 Hummer for a year, and – during one crazy stunt – I parked it in downtown Philadelphia, equipped with hidden microphones to catch the reactions of passersby on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The result? Not one “What an jerk.” Not one “How embarrassing.” Not one “This is disgusting.” And a whole lot of pictures, staring and THIS IS SO COOLs from teenage boys.

For most people, it seems that all the scorn about the gas guzzling, in-your-face styling and hulking size is now left to the later Hummer H2, which seems to enjoy roughly the same popularity as commuters who use the exit lane for passing. The original Hummer is a curiosity; it’s a vehicle that’s rarely seen, often discussed and legendary in its size and capability. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s going to be a classic.

There are, of course, other reasons. One is its distinctive design. Most of today’s teenagers – even the rarely spotted and increasingly endangered Car-Obsessed Millennial – probably can’t tell the difference between a Chevelle and a Nova, or an old Alfa and an old Ferrari. But everyone knows the Hummer. And everyone knows that when they see a Hummer, they’re looking at something special, something unique and something that stands out from the norm. Three important characteristics a vehicle needs in order become a classic.

Then there’s the legendary capability. Go online and you can find a video of a Hummer climbing a vertical wall. Really: you have a completely vertical wall, and you have a fairly normal-looking Hummer, and then the Hummer climbs the wall with an ocelot’s dexterity. I’m completely serious.

And then there’s the equipment. Does your car have a system to inflate or deflate the tires at the flip of a switch? The Hummer does. Never mind the fact that it’s notoriously unreliable and impossible to get working properly. It’s there, along with portal axles, inboard brakes, a three-foot-wide hump separating the driver from the passenger – along with some insane numbers for approach and departure angle, ground clearance and maximum water fording depth.

Although I have not memorized these figures, I can promise one thing: the Hummer is fully capable of rolling right over a Chrysler PT Cruiser. I know this because… well, just trust me. I know this.

If you’re thinking about getting into the Hummer world, you should know that civilian models came out in 1992 and were originally only offered with a naturally-aspirated diesel engine that accelerated these 6,600-pound behemoths with the same urgency as tree growth. My 1995 model (along with a few other ’94 and ’95 Hummers) had a 5.7-liter Chevy V8 that made 190 horsepower – which was, unbelievably, considered an upgrade.

Beginning in 1996, the Hummer gained a turbodiesel V8 for more power, more torque, and better acceleration – but early powertrains suffered from a casting flaw in the number eight cylinder that eventually requires a totally new engine. Engines are safe from mid-2000 on. As a swan song for the Hummer’s final model year in 2006, the truck was rechristened “H1 Alpha” and featured a Duramax diesel engine that made 300 horsepower and 520 pound-feet of torque.

Of course, you could also consider an ex-military model: there are a few HMMWVs floating around out there, courtesy of government surplus auctions. These are cheaper than civilian models, but exercise caution: Many have led difficult lives and received minimal maintenance – and none offer sound deadening, air conditioning, or a stereo. In some states, they can’t even be registered for road use.

As for maintenance, there’s no way around it: the Hummer is a nightmare. It’s been ten years since the last civilian Hummer rolled off the line in Indiana, which means there aren’t many mechanics left who know what they’re doing – and those that do charge a fortune for labor. Parts are expensive and hard to come by. And like any good classic, there seems to be a “we’ll get to it when we can” attitude whenever one comes in for repairs.

What do you pay for a Hummer? Right now, anywhere from the mid-$20,000 to mid-$30,000 range for an early model to well over $100,000 for a well-kept Alpha. It’s a lot – but it’ll be a lot more in twenty years.

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