American Motors General Survives Hummer Sale To China

[ Posted Thursday, June 4th, 2009 – 16:54 UTC ]

This is going to be a seriously politically incorrect column for much of my usual audience, so I thought I'd issue a warning up front here. I am about to get sentimental over a company whose sole remaining purpose in life is to be a military contractor; and, furthermore, one which (together with Arnold Schwarzenegger) is primarily responsible for the poster-vehicle of the excesses of "the SUV era." I speak, of course, of the Hummer. If that sort of thing is not your cup of herbal tea, then I advise you to immediately close this window before your very browser itself is tainted with such leftist unorthodoxy.

Still with me? Supportively, or just "have to rubberneck at the car accident" with me? Well, in the end it doesn't really matter. Read on, and enjoy or be horrified as you will....

News broke recently about General Motors' proposed sale of the Hummer brand to a Chinese company, in the midst of GM's ongoing bankruptcy. My first thought was "Oh, no, the last vestige of AMC is being sold to China?!?" This is due to my own bias, I must admit. Let's just get that out of the way with, shall we? Here is the car I learned to drive on:


It was a beat-up 1968 Rambler American (the cheapest of their three versions -- American, Rebel, and Ambassador) made by American Motors Corporation in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was about as stripped-down as you can get -- the only option it boasted was an AM radio (it didn't even have a cigarette lighter). It was an extremely hard car to learn to drive on, as it had a primitive "three-on-the-tree" manual transmission (with no synchromesh between first and second gears), and a clutch that was not very forgiving at all (if I had a nickel for every time I stalled it, I could have retired before I was old enough to vote). The thing was, to be quite blunt, a tank.

But tanks have their charms, too. A 150-pound teenager could stand not just on the hood of the car, but on the roof of the car -- without denting it. It had a very high clearance, and could "two-wheel drive" across terrain most other cars of the era would sink into. It could survive a 60-mph T-bone accident to the rear corner with the sole damage being a large dent. I say this (look closely at that photo) from personal experience.

In other words, as a hand-me-down from the parents, we managed to have fun with the car, even if the "cool kids" laughed at us from their TransAms and Mustangs. Which bred a lifelong soft spot for all things AMC. Yes, even the Pacer (sigh).

This even led me, during last year's campaign, to reach out to one of the Republican candidates' campaign press offices, in an effort to write something nice about a Republican. I told them I blogged for the Huffington Post (whose name -- I am not making this up -- they were unfamiliar with). I requested a photo of Mitt Romney's Rambler (Mitt Romney is the son of George Romney, who before entering politics was the head of AMC), and was all set to write nice things about Mitt's car. His campaign, however, apparently discovered what the Huffington Post was, and never got back to me (not that I really blame them). But, I swear, I would have written nice things about Mitt's car, just for the record. Actually, I did anyway, but all I could run with it was the photo you see above, of my beat-up Rambler.

With that bias explained in much more detail than anyone really needed, allow me to continue.

AMC was the last independent American car company of the original non-big-three era. It was absorbed by Renault, and then Chrysler in the 1980s. But there had always been a subsidiary of AMC with its own history, and it was treated as a separate entity in the demise of the parent company -- American Motors General, or "AM General." And right around the time AMC was taken over, AM General went its own way (previous to joining AMC, they had their own history as Willys and Willys-Overland).

Everyone of a certain age knows AM General's proudest product well -- the Jeep. Originally a military vehicle (named "General Purpose" vehicle, or "GP"... hence "Jeep") designed to be more sturdy than motorcycles for World War II, the Jeep pretty much singlehandedly began the craze for rugged vehicles which would later become known as "Sport-Utility Vehicles," or SUVs.

And, at the forefront of this era, the military Jeep was redesigned. The result was the "M998 Series High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle" or "HMMWV." This was translated (much less inelegantly as "Jeep") as "humvee." Which later became simplified further as the "Hummer."

Now, I'd like to add some conspiracy-theory spice here, by pointing out that a comic which appeared around the same time as the HMMWV was being designed, by one of the true masters of the underground-comic school of art, Gilbert Shelton. It was part of a very-occasional series by him titled "Gilbert Shelton's Advanced Motoring Tips" (which were always labeled with outlandishly high volume numbers, this one as: "113"). But, comparing his design to the original HMMWV, you've got to admit there are certain parallels:


[Click on the image to see a much larger image of the full comic.]

I personally like the "single concession to styling," myself. But whether Shelton's design was the inspiration for the HMMWV or not (probably not, because it was published later -- I leave it to better conspiracy theorists than myself to explain this discrepancy...), the thing was admittedly a monster.

Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie drove a HMMWV in one of his action flicks (I don't have total recall which one, I believe it had him riding one in a magic seat that extended from the vehicle to give him a better shot to terminate his prey... a running man! As you can see, I get confused remembering Arnie flicks...). He loved it. He wanted one. He asked the company to build him one. They did (after reportedly removing the 50-caliber machine gun which came standard). Arnie paid some insane price for it, like $80,000. And thus, the idea of civilians driving these monstrosities around American highways and byways was born.

The official name changed to "Hummer" at this point, and the Hummer quickly began terrorizing environmentalists' dreams of everyone driving small fuel-efficient cars around. Making it the poster-vehicle in the anti-SUV debate. Hummer dealerships were attacked, by the shadowy militant side of the environmental movement (the "monkey wrenchers," in their own parlance).

Eventually, the civilian Hummer was redesigned, in a much smaller package (the "H2"). And then, following in the footsteps of the original Jeep, the civilian and military versions parted ways, as the Hummer brand was sold to General Motors (who began making the first Hummers not made by the AM General plant, the "H3").

This -- the civilian brand -- is what is being sold to the Chinese. Not AM General, or the military HMMWV. AM General still makes military vehicles (they continued making military HMMWVs during this period of civilian Hummer sales). And for some reason, that makes me feel a lot better than my (admittedly biased) panic upon first hearing the news.


[Full Disclosure: I have never owned a Hummer. I have never even ridden in one. I have, however, owned quite a few Ramblers over the years. I was offered no compensation of any type for writing this article from AM General, who can still be found in South Bend, Indiana, right where they've always been. Even if they had offered me a Hummer, I would have turned it down (where the heck would I park the thing?!?). But if someone wants to offer me a fully-restored 1969-and-a-half AMC-Hurst SC/Rambler with a 390 cubic-inch V8 engine and four-speed transmission, I will gladly write glowing articles on whatever subject they suggest. I'm just saying, every man's got his weak spot....]


-- Chris Weigant


10 Comments on “American Motors General Survives Hummer Sale To China”

  1. [1] 
    kevinem2 wrote:

    Nostalgia plus. I was under the impression you were at least a decade younger than me; nonetheless if I'd had an AMC fetish I could have similarly reminisced. Personally, I had a crush on the late, lamented Studebaker line... especially the Golden Hawk and the Avanti...if I had any money I'd gladly blow it on an Avanti in good condition. Nice piece, Chris.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Despite the fact that I refer to the civilian hummer as 'the idiot car', and considering that I'm not sure a hybrid model should cause me to change that description, I decided to read on.

    I love your history lessons - no one does it better!

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    kevinem2 -

    Well, the car was over a decade old when I got it, if that helps.

    The Golden Hawk is one of the most beautiful cars ever made. And AMC buffs welcome the Studebaker fanatics with welcome arms, seeing as how they share a history. Personally, I like the Studebaker wagon with the retractible roof.

    Elizabeth -

    I'm not saying everyone should drive them, but I'm glad the military HMMWV is still made in America...



    PS. My first foray into the world wide web (still pops up in occasional Google searches on my name, even though it's been offline for years... although the "AMC Junkyard List" may still be around...) was called the "SC/Rambler Page".

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    OK, I had to dig it up...

    the last vestige of my first website, archived by a fellow AMC enthusiast.

    Just for everyone's curiosity. The image links seem to be broken, it used to have a clickable map to see possible junkyards with Ramblers in them all over the US (and some junkyard photos of AMC cars as well...)


  5. [5] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    While I generally do not have a passion for cars, there are a few vehicle models that tickle my inner geek. The Rambler is one.

    My own first car was a '74 Pontiac Catalina. While driving home from school once, I was rear-ended by an '85 Buick Skylark at 45 mph. The Buick was totaled; the sum total of damage to the Catalina was a cracked taillight cover. The experience gave me an appreciation for why old-timers detested fuel efficiency. It also showed the difference a decade of design can make.

    As for the military Humvee, it actually comes in several different models adapted for different roles; but the unifying advantage the vehicle has is that it will literally GO. ANYWHERE. The one I drove in the Army had a stronger suspension and a built-in generator to run an enormous, one-ton electronics hut on the back -- yet I could easily take it up 40 degree inclines, muddy river banks, and over frightening rock climbs.

    If I have one complaint about the military vehicle, it's that our stripped-down M998s were far more expensive than necessary. The US Army pays out about $60k for a vehicle with canvas top, no AC, power windows, or radio -- about $10k more than the enclosed civilian version with all options included. One motor sergeant I knew would order the GM 3-speed transmissions on the civilian market for a third of the price the Army paid to the manufacturer.

    Setting aside the fact that you're a fellow connoisseur of underground comix, the story of the Humvee's design is really a testament to the doctrinal changes under President Jimmy Carter. So many of the weapons systems America still counts on were originally designed between 1977 and 1980; the Humvee is contemporary with the M1 Abrams tank, the Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle, and the M80 five-ton truck. Contrary to what we've been told by the Reagan legacy project, it was Carter's decision to revamp the US Army for the Cold War challenge of Europe in the 1980s that led to these superior weapons that still outclass the most modern Russian equivalents.

  6. [6] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    My own first car was a '74 Pontiac Catalina.

    Excellent! My first car was a '65 Pontiac Catalina Ventura. I loved that grand old white land shark.

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink and BashiBazouk -

    They just don't build 'em like that anymore, do they?

    My personal opinion: the automobile industry started going downhill when it rejected the effusive use of chrome.

    Discuss amongst yourselves...



  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink -

    Why set aside the glories of underground comix? It is a rich and untapped vein of discussion...



  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink -

    One more thing. I was hit by a (brand new) early-80s Audi Fox going 50-60 mph, on my rear-drivers corner. The impact swung my car around in a perfect 180 -- I arrived on the other side of the intersection FACING BACKWARDS, perfectly in the lane I was supposed to be in (to give you some idea of the force of the impact). The Audi looked like an elephant had stepped on it -- one-fourth of its engine bay was just GONE -- smushed! I banged my car's dent out with a sledgehammer later, and had to spring for a junkyard taillight cover. Oh, and the radiator had to be fixed (the mounts were wonky on my Rambler, and every accident I ever had with that car, the fan took a bite out of the radiator as a result), but that was the sum total of my damage.

    As I said, "tanks have their charms, too."


    I was pleasantly surprised, years later, to return to the intersection in question and see that it had been totally redesigned to eliminate the blind spot which caused this accident. So there is a happy ending to the story...


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    Which bred a lifelong soft spot for all things AMC. Yes, even the Pacer (sigh).

    Reminds me of one of the TREEHOUSE OF HORROR episodes of The Simpsons..

    It was a spoof of the William Shatner/Twilight Zone episode where Captain Kirk sees a monster on the wing of an airplane. Anyways, in the Simpson episode, Bart sees a monster outside the bus and yells to the driver, "OTTO!!! There's a gremlin outside the bus. Otto looks and sees an AMC Gremlin being driven by Moleman... :D

    Guess ya had to be there, but trust me. It was funny.. :D


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