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Hummer H1

Hummer H1

By Jack Nerad

Hummer H1

It is fitting that the quintessential military vehicle of today, the HMMWV (or Humvee), and the quintessential military vehicle of all time, the Jeep, should arise from the same roots.  Further, those roots are planted deeply in the soil of solidly Midwest Indiana, where they can be traced back to 1903, when Standard Wheel Company, a Terre Haute bicycle manufacturer, decided to enter the infant automobile business with the introduction of the Overland Runabout, its first motor vehicle.

While Overland is a familiar name to antique auto buffs, a household name became associated with the enterprise when John North Willys purchased it in 1908, the same year the Chicago Cubs repeated their 1907 triumph as World Series Champions.  By 1912 the Willys-Overland Company was operating out of Toledo, Ohio, producing the famous Willys-Knight cars and the Whippet automobile later favored by the avant garde rock group Devo.

Willys-Overland went through bankruptcy in the Depression, but then emerged to continue building its respectable, middle-class line of cars.  In 1939 with war clouds gathering ominously over Europe, the U.S. Army sent out the call for a new military vehicle with a very detailed list of specifications: dual range four-wheel drive, load capacity of 600 pounds, minimum of three-passenger seating and a gross vehicle weight of less than 1,200 pounds.

The Army expected a sizable number of auto manufacturers to compete for the contract, but only three -- American Bantam, Ford and Willys-Overland -- seriously participated. American Bantam submitted blueprints to the Army in less than a week after the call went out, aided by the fact that their American Bantam civilian models were nearly the same diminutive size as the vehicle the Army specified. With Willys-Overland and Ford somewhat slow in responding, the first contract for the as-yet-unnamed vehicle went to American Bantam. Unfortunately for the fortunes of that star-crossed company, however, the vehicles that it produced came up woefully short when tested by the Army.

Not willing to trust American Bantam to fix the problems, the Army issued a new call for prototypes, and Willys-Overland and Ford both responded with vehicles to compete with the modified American Bantam. The Army conducted another series of tests, and this time the Willys model was deemed best.  Willys-Overland got the contract, and the legendary Jeep was born.  Before production ceased, Willys-Overland manufactured over 360,000 of the utilitarian 4x4 vehicles.

After the war Willys-Overland decided to introduce a civilian version of the Jeep, and the CJ (Civilian Jeep) resulted from that stroke of genius.  In 1953 industrialist Henry J. Kaiser purchased Willys-Overland, and the name was subsequently changed to Kaiser-Jeep Corporation. The company added operations in South Bend, Indiana, where the Hummer is built, following the acquisition of a contract from the defunct Studebaker Corporation to manufacture military trucks.

American Motors Corporation then acquired the whole kaboodle in 1970, and the yet-again-renamed Jeep Corporation was divided into two separate units -- the Commercial Products Division, in Toledo, and the Government Products Division in South Bend. In 1971, the Governments Products Division was spun off to become a separate, wholly owned subsidiary of American Motors known as AM General Corporation.  Before the Hummer, that division was best known for producing the little right-hand-drive Jeep mail trucks that were once ubiquitous in the country.

As Jeep was transitioning from a military vehicle to a long-standing civilian success, the vehicle that would replace it -- the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) -- was quickly developing in its wake. In 1979 a new competition, not unlike that of 1939, began to develop a vehicle that meet a very demanding U.S. Army performance specification. This time the combatants weren't American Bantam, Ford and Willys-Overland, but, instead, General Dynamics, Teledyne and AM General.

After extensive evaluation, the Army awarded all three competing companies contracts for test vehicles, and within 10 months AM General delivered its HMMWV prototypes to the Army proving grounds.  More testing ensued, and the AM General vehicle was judged to be the superior technical offering. In March 1983, AM General was awarded what was to be the first of many production contracts, which called for 55,000 vehicles to be delivered to the U.S. Government over a five-year period. By completion of the contract in 1989, options had raised the number of vehicles to 70,000.

Known officially as the M998 Series, the first military Humvee was a 4x4, multi-purpose vehicle designed to offer superior mobility in a "tactical field environment," i.e. warefare. It was versatile, mobile and fast (at least relatively.)  As a demonstration of its versatility it served as a replacement for an assortment of vehicles, including the M151 (1/4-ton utility vehicle otherwise known as the Jeep,) the M274 (1/2-ton mule), the M561 (1-1/2-ton Gama Goat,) and the M880 pick-up truck. Rugged as the day is long, the HMMWV could make its way over rocky hills, through deep sand and mud, in water up to 60 inches deep, in desert heat and Arctic cold.

The original M998 had a curb weight of approximately 5,200 pounds and a payload of 2,500 pounds. Powered by a 6.2 liter V-8 diesel engine it could accelerate from 0-30 mph in eight seconds and had a range of up to 300 miles from its 25-gallon fuel tank.

While the Humvee was reaching legendary status with the American military, the company that built it went through another couple of ownership changes though continuing to produce what has become a stable vehicle of the U.S. military. Due in part to the HMMWV's success in the Desert Storm operation to free Kuwait and the high-profile enthusiasm of actor and now-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, AM General introduced the civilian version of the vehicle called the Hummer in 1992.

When it was first introduced to the public, reviewers (including yours truly) praised it for its incredible off-road capabilities and for the presence it had on the road.  At the same time they decried its interior noise, lack of speed and lack of creature comforts, especially in light of its high price.  It seemed destined to remain a purely specialty vehicle, known by many but owned by few, until General Motors stepped into the fray in 1999.  Spurred by the creation of a 4x4 concept vehicle that was dripping with Hummer characteristics, GM entered into an agreement with AM General that gave the mighty auto maker exclusive use of the Hummer brand name.  GM immediately set about not only marketing the original Hummer, which it labeled H1, but also to develop new, more consumer-friendly Hummers including the mid-size H2, based on the Chevrolet Tahoe and the recently introduced H3, based on the Chevrolet Trailblazer.

At the same time, the original Hummer, while retaining its otherworldly off-road attributes, has been refined and tamed for civilian use.  The seats, interior finish and instrument panel have all been re-done in a luxury mode, befitting the vehicle's six-figure price tag.  Under the hood the 6500 6.5-liter, turbo-diesel V-8 engine now delivers 205 horsepower at 3200 rpm and nearly mind-boggling 440 pound-feet of torque at a mere 1800 rpm.

The H1's four-wheel-drive features what's called "TorqTrac 4 technology," automatically reducing tire spin on severe terrain or slippery surfaces by applying the brake to the spinning wheel. Available front and rear Eaton ELocker locking differentials offer slow-speed capability in climbing over large rocks or long, steep grades, while the Central Tire Inflation System (CTIS) enables H1 owners to adjust tire pressure on the move to adapt to varying terrain.  That system is complemented by the Runflat Tire System, which allows drivers to continue driving on a deflated tire for up to 20 miles at 30 mph.

Ground clearance is an amazing 16 inches, almost double that of any other civilian 4x4.  And its off-road prowess is enhanced by approach and departure angles of 72 degrees and 37.5 degrees, respectively, and the 17-inch aluminum wheels with 37-inch tires. Its driver might never feel the need to cross streams, but the current Hummer H1 can ford a 30-inch-deep body of water, the kind you might find at the local home center.  So like the Jeep before it, the Hummer has become a civilian success after a proud military career.

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