Auto Evolution: From Soldier to Posh Environmentalist – The GMC Hummer Story

What do war, angry environmentalists, rising gas prices, and a certain famous action star have in common? Believe it or not, one of the biggest SUV icons (figuratively and literally) can tie all those together. It's a tale of irony and tragedy, glory and legacy: this is the history of the GMC Hummer.
Auto Evolution of the Hummer 10 photos
Photo: GMC/AM General/Edited
GMC Hummer EVGMC Hummer EVGMC Hummer EVHummer H1Hummer H2Hummer H2GMC Hummer H3GMC Hummer H3THumvee
In a bid to win the US Army's multi-million dollar contract, various automakers tried their hand at developing a combat-ready vehicle in the late '70s. Among them was industrial auto manufacturer AM General, that came up with a sturdy yet mobile replacement for the Army's conventional Jeeps. These High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV) were basically tanks on wheels capable of treading the most inhospitable terrains.

Known as the “Humvees,” these rugged utility vehicles feature independent suspension, all-wheel drive, lengthy wheelbases, and hulking V8 diesel engines. Humvees could overcome incredibly steep inclines, climb over jagged surfaces, and even wade through deep waters, making them the perfect solution for the Army's transportation needs. After being deployed in the Gulf War, the Humvee went from a durable yet agile SUV concept to a full-blown symbol of patriotism.

Having such an enamored presence on the battlefield meant that it was only a matter of time before civilians wanted to drive Humvees on public roads as well. While AM General considered building a road-going version for quite some time, it wasn't until 1992 when it brought that idea to fruition. The one responsible for pushing the company into turning its military behemoths into civilian SUVs was a Hollywood legend whose stature was equally as enormous.

Yes, we're talking about none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger – a celebrated actor and the first civilian to own a Humvee. As a former soldier who served under the Austrian Army, Schwarzenegger couldn't help but admire Humvees, constantly clamoring for a commercial variant until AM General finally debuted the Hummer H1. This once utilitarian military truck later transformed into an icon of extravagance and ostentation for a good reason.

Hummer H1

Hummer H1
Photo: AM General
Regarded by AM General as 'the world's most serious 4x4,' the original Hummer had all the girth of its military counterpart, albeit with some gaudy additions on the inside. A sizable center console, HVAC system, and standard four-speaker set-up are just a few of its interior amenities – an upgrade over the Humvee's more Spartan approach.

Utilizing a Central Tire Inflation System (CTIS), the Hummer H1 can adapt to various road conditions by inflating or deflating its tires. General Motors provided most of the Hummer H1's engine choices, from a 6.2-liter eight-cylinder diesel engine to the 300-horsepower 6.6-liter Duramax V8s.

Such power output gave the original Hummer the resilience to reach speeds of 50 mph (80 kph), which wasn't bad for a vehicle weighing over 8,000 lbs (3,629 kilograms). Bearing an almost $100,000 price tag in today's money meant that the Hummer H1 was anything but cheap. From 1992 to 2006, Hummer H1s had a lengthy production run of almost 15 years, with the final model year introducing the “Alpha” trim, featuring sturdier materials, more power, and better fuel economy.

The first Hummers ever sold went to Mr. Schwarzenegger, who loved the model so much he converted one into a hydrogen-powered H1 just so he could continue driving it without feeling guilty. That said, the H1 was easily the most impractical car in Hummer history based on its size and pricing alone, but not for long.

Hummer H2

Hummer H2
Photo: GMC
In 1999, GM took ownership of the Hummer name, co-developing its second-generation model alongside AM General. Three years later, the Hummer H2 arrived, and this time, it looked a lot leaner, greener, and... more economical. That's right, the new Hummer was sporting power gains, it was lighter, came with a lower price tag and slightly better fuel economy overall. Thanks to GM's range of Chevy small-block 6-liter V8s, the Hummer H2 engine ran much more efficiently, even pushing past 220 horsepower. Later models were given a spicier 6.2-liter V8 rated at nearly 400 horsepower. Compared to its predecessor, the H2 was more compact and was over 1,000 lbs (454 kg) lighter.

This made achieving speeds of up to 65 mph (105 kph) more effortless. At around $50,000, the Hummer H2 price tag was lower, yet it still offered better luxury features than the H1, which retailed for twice as much. Other creature comforts include memory seats with lumbar support, a navigation system, electronic air suspension, and a sunroof. Production of the Hummer H2 ran from 2002 to 2009 – considerably shorter than its predecessor. Despite improving on the original Hummer in almost every aspect, GMC's new SUV was still unnecessarily superfluous. Its notorious gas-guzzling tendencies had to contend with rising gas prices, global crises, and even protesters. It was time for the Hummer to downsize yet again.

Hummer H3

GMC Hummer H3
Photo: GMC
GM worked on changing the Hummer's infamously excessive origins by developing its most practical and Eco-friendly version yet. Enter the H3 – the lightest Hummer ever made, weighing under 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg). A shorter 111-inch (2.82-meter) wheelbase also makes it the most compact Hummer in the stable.

The third generation carried this downsizing motif to the Hummer H3's engine options. The lineup now includes smaller-displacement 3.5-liter five-cylinder units producing 240-plus horsepower. At its highest Alpha trim, the H3 was given a 300-horsepower V8 that still paled in comparison to its predecessors.

Of course, improving practicality was the whole point of this generation, with the H3 MPG figures being relatively better than previous models. All this dieting led to the Hummer H3 prices being reduced as well: the base model starts at about $30,000, while its topmost variant costs under $50,000 – still cheaper than the regular H2. On the inside, GM's interior tech amenities were still present, including a new reverse camera option. Unfortunately, H3s were only produced from 2005 to 2010, with its five-year production run being the shortest in Hummer history.

Being caught in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis didn't help the H3's sales, either. GM tried selling the Hummer name but to no avail. Add GM's bankruptcy into the mix, not to mention angry environmentalists constantly lambasting the brand's wasteful reputation; it didn't take long before the company decided to pull the plug on Hummers altogether.

Hummer EV

GMC Hummer EV
Photo: GMC
After a decade of silence, it was safe to assume the history of the Hummer ended with its third and final form... or did it? Fast forward to 2021, GM unveiled a sleeker new model that looked nothing like its predecessors. Dubbed the Hummer EV, the next-generation models represent a return to form. Don't be fooled by its greener demeanor; the new Hummer is just as big and bold as the original. Aside from being longer and broader than the H1, it also weighs over 10,000 lbs (4,536 kg), making it the heaviest Hummer ever.

The electric Hummer also packs the most power; its three electric motors have a combined power output ranging from the standard 830 horsepower all the way to 1,000. All that juice helps launch this land titan to over 110 mph (177 kph), with a 0 to 60 mph time that's actually worth mentioning – a brisk 3.5 seconds. Other new features include an Extract Mode for towering over obstacles, Crabwalk for maneuvering sideways, and Ultravision for superior visibility.

The result? A Hummer that outdoes its gas-guzzling brethren by becoming the biggest, meanest and greenest model in the lineup's history. It went from a brash soldier that simply got things done no matter the cost to an environment-conscious SuperSUV that did things more efficiently using more brains than brawn. The evolution of GM's proudly patriotic nameplate shows that one can have their cake and eat it, or in this case, be better at everything without being too loud and obnoxious about it.
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About the author: Kyle Encina
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Kyle still remembers the times when people read magazines, after all that's what sparked his passion for cars and tech. In 2016, he's turned that passion into a journalism career fueled by a unique view afforded by his mix of philosophy and business degrees.
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