The Military Origins of the Hummer | History Hit

The Military Origins of the Hummer

Harry Atkins

12 Apr 2023
A HMMWV on patrol during Operation Desert Storm
Image Credit: National Archives at College Park via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Given its tank-like proportions, the fact that the Hummer was initially developed as a military vehicle probably won’t come as much of a surprise. Some may point out that these enormous, cartoonishly rugged SUVs are better suited to the battlefield than civilian roads. But when did Hummers first emerge, and how have they evolved over the years?

The Hummer evolved from the military Humvee (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle), a model first used by the US military in Panama in 1989 and then used frequently during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. The Humvee’s rugged build and stability off-road made it a mainstay of US military operations in the Middle East for several years.

In 1992, the Humvee was rebranded for civilian use as the Hummer. With its lumbering ex-military build and rugged design, the vehicle swiftly became a favourite of ‘macho’ men, even briefly being advertised with the slogan, ‘reclaim your masculinity’.

Here’s the story of how a robust military vehicle made its way to city streets across America.

A tough vehicle for tough guys

Perhaps fittingly, the Hummer’s reputation as the ultimate tough guy vehicle was driven by the enthusiastic endorsement of Hollywood’s ultimate tough guy, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Inspired by a military convoy he spotted while filming Kindergarten Cop in Oregon, the action movie star became a huge fan in the early 1990s. In fact, he was so smitten that he contacted the manufacturer, AM General, to share his passion for the Humvee, insisting that it should be made available to the public.

That the future Governor of California didn’t regard the Humvee’s gas-guzzling performance (the average fuel efficiency of a military-grade Humvee is around 4 mpg on city streets) as a barrier to commercial success says a lot about changing attitudes to fuel economy.

In addition to its ravenous petrol consumption, the Humvee was, in many ways, wildly impractical for everyday use by civilian drivers, but Schwarzenegger’s wishes were nonetheless realised in 1992 when AM General began selling a civilian version of the M998 Humvee.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger poses with a Hummer H2 SUT (Sport Utility Truck) in New York on 10 April 2001 at the world premiere of the concept vehicle. The Hummer H2 SUT was branded as an evolution of the Hummer H2 SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle).

Image Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

The new civilian model, rebranded as the Hummer, wasn’t much different to the vehicle that had been deployed in Operation Desert Storm and, initially, sales stalled: AM General didn’t seem to know how to market its expensive, needlessly hulking ex-military road hog. Considering its price point, the Hummer was unrefined and lacked most of the creature comforts you’d expect to find in a luxury vehicle. But, when General Motors bought the brand from AM General in 1999, these apparent shortcomings were reframed as signifiers of macho authenticity.

General Motors decided to embrace the Hummer’s tough image and position it as the ultimate vehicle for macho men. With its rugged, no-frills design, intimidating proportions and military aesthetic, the Hummer became an alpha male totem in a metrosexual age.

General Motors even employed the tagline ‘reclaim your masculinity’ in its Hummer advertising before criticism prompted a switch to ‘restore the balance’. The softened language may have been less overt, but the message was still clear: the Hummer was being presented as an antidote to a perceived crisis in masculinity.

A Hummer H3, H1 and H2 pictured together

Image Credit: Sfoskett~commonswiki via Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Military origins

The Hummer may have become something of a macho affectation, but the original military-grade Humvee’s iconic design was purely practical. The High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle or HMMWV (Humvee is a colloquialism) was conceived by the US Army as a versatile modernisation of Jeep trucks like the M715 and the Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicle (CUCV).

When it emerged in the early 1980s, the HMMWV was seen as a jack-of-all-trades solution that could supplant a variety of outmoded tactical vehicles.

The original Humvee, a (relatively) lightweight, diesel-powered, four-wheel-drive tactical vehicle, is a particularly adept off-roader that performs well over a variety of treacherous terrains thanks to its stabilising 7-foot width and a host of design features, including independent double-wishbone suspension units and helical gear-reduction hubs for better ground clearance. It proved to be well-suited to Middle Eastern desert conditions and became a familiar sight during the 1991 Gulf War.

MRAPs like the Cougar HE – seen here being tested with landmines – have largely replaced the Humvee in frontline battle situations.

Image Credit: United States Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Despite its lack of armour, the Humvee’s rugged build and all-terrain capabilities made it an effective tactical workhorse. But the Humvee’s limitations in front-line battle situations became increasingly problematic over recent decades. It was particularly prone in urban conflict scenarios when all too often became a sitting duck for insurgents.

These vulnerabilities were increasingly exposed as unconventional warfare became more commonplace and it has largely been usurped by MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles that are designed to withstand Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks and ambushes.

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Harry Atkins