MELISSA BLOCK, host:
GM is trying to raise money by putting its Hummer division up for sale. If it can't seal a deal by the end of March, production of the iconic American vehicles could grind to a halt. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton explores why so many drivers loved, or loved to hate the Hummer.
TRACY SAMILTON: For some people, it was love at first sight when the Hummer, a commercial version of the military Humvee, took to the American road in 1992. By the time GM bought the brand rights in 1999, there were lots of Hummer fan clubs. Hummer dealers held obstacle course events called Hummer Happenings. The truck inspired devotion like few other vehicles. Brad Berman is the editor of hybridcars.com. Even though he's not a fan, he concedes that the truck was an unqualified success.
Mr. BRAD BERMAN (Editor, Hybridcars.com): It's so iconic. It is so big. It is so in your face. It is so military-looking and rough that it can't help but stir emotions.
SAMILTON: But the Hummer stirred hate, as well as love. There are insulting bumper stickers to put on your economy-sized car. Or you can join one of the many Hummer-bashing Internet groups. One urges people to use an ancient hand signal that they've dubbed the Hummer salute whenever one of the trucks is sighted. Sean Holman is technical editor of Four Wheeler Magazine. He says the Hummer quickly became a cultural lightning rod.
Mr. SEAN HOLMAN (Technical Editor, Four Wheeler Magazine): All the advertising was Hummers bashing over terrain and in your face and make no apologies.
SAMILTON: But owning a Hummer isn't just about making a statement. For many, it's simply about what the truck can do. It's popular among ranchers and people who hunt and fish. Carl Zipfel is head of Hummer Design at General Motors. He says many Hummer owners just want a vehicle that can pull their boat or get them to work when the streets haven't been cleared of snow.
Mr. CARL ZIPFEL (General Motors): They don't feel like they need to make excuses. They're not out, really, to gain attention. They buy that vehicle because it does the kind of things that they want it to do, and it represents the kind of lifestyle that they live.
SAMILTON: Of course, owning the truck isn't for everyone, if only because it costs as much as $60,000. Hummer devotees who want to drive off road like a pro can fork over another two to five grand to attend GM's Hummer Driving Academy in Fort Wayne, Indiana. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: GM's Hummer Driving Academy is actually in Mishawaka, Indiana.]
It's a sprawling complex of acres of woods filled with obstacles and potholes. Instructor Pete Martin generally takes an H3 through a series of obstacles, easing the truck onto rollers that give only one-wheel traction. Then we go over a log, easy as pie.
Mr. PETE MARTIN (Instructor, Hummer Driving Academy): Now I've got a 16-inch vertical step in front of us here.
SAMILTON: We're actually going to go over there?
Mr. MARTIN: We're going to go over this.
SAMILTON: And we do go over it. First one wheel, then the next, then the rear wheels. It's almost like the truck is walking up the steps one wheel at a time. On the back trails, the Hummer lurches left and right at alarming angles. It bumps through huge holes filled with mud, ice and water that would stop a normal truck in its tracks. But it's safe to say that most Hummer owners are more likely to drive it to the corner store to get a gallon of milk.
Despite the Hummer's successful past, Brad Berman of hybridcars.com wonders if its days are numbered. The economy is slumping, gas prices will eventually rise. There's worry about climate change. Last year, GM only sold 20,000 of the H3. Berman says this is still America, it's fine to drive a Hummer for whatever reason you want, but...
Mr. BERMAN: The marketplace has spoken and it will go the way of the dodo bird.
SAMILTON: Not so fast, say devotees and GM. They say the Hummer fills a serious need not just in the U.S. but in parts of the world where good roads don't exist. GM says it's in serious talks with several interested parties to take over the brand. The company says it will announce Hummer's fate by March 31st, the same day the automaker must present its final viability plan to the U.S. Treasury.
For NPR News, I'm Tracey Samilton.