MILITARY VEHICLES ARE NOW COOL

I GREW UP IN THE 1960S DURING THE VIETNAM WAR, a terrible time for the home team. Our nation was divided. Our military involvement became more and more unpopular. The growing anti-war movement viewed the military with contempt. Any idea of marketing a vehicle to the American public back then would have been like driving through a minefield. In contrast, Americans hold today's military in high regard.

I GREW UP IN THE 1960S DURING THE VIETNAM WAR, a terrible time for the home team. Our nation was divided. Our military involvement became more and more unpopular. The growing anti-war movement viewed the military with contempt.

Any idea of marketing a “military” vehicle to the American public back then would have been like driving through a minefield.

In contrast, Americans hold today's military in high regard. Sept. 11 has a lot to do with that. But so does the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

One of the standouts of that war was the Hummer, the ultimate SUV even without machine gun mounts. Shortly after the war, AM General, the Hummer's manufacturer, started marketing the bulky vehicle to the general public.

Few Americans bought Hummers. But the vehicle was a war hero. It showed up in a lot of action movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger owns a couple. The vehicle had that certain something. General Motors Corp. thought so. That's why they bought the icon brand in 1999.

Now, GM is putting its Hummer marketing in overdrive with a new H2 (that's smaller and less expensive than the original HumVee), a new dealership network and design plans for how a real Hummer dealership should look.

To GM, new Hummer stores should sport a military look. The first one to be built like that, in Milwaukee, is the subject of this month's cover story, starting on page 14.

It's a bold dealership owned by a nice guy, John Bergstrom, a small-town Wisconsin boy who's come a long way since opening his first dealership 20 years ago.

The country has come a long way too, from the Vietnam-era days, when many people disdained the military, to now, when military-inspired vehicles are sold at a dealership with a military motif.

Also in this issue is a story on pg. 18 about one of Hummer's competitors, the venerable Land Rover, a British brand that's making inroads on the off-roads of American.

Land Rover, like Hummer, has military roots and is an icon brand. It's interesting to watch an English SUV maker fighting to increase its presence in the U.S. — especially on the battlefield that's the competitive SUV market.

Who would have thought?

GM CEO vacations by visiting dealers

Detroit auto companies close for two weeks in July for the Motor City's annual “summer shutdown.”

But busy GM President and CEO Rick Wagoner Jr. uses that time, not to hit the beach, but to hit dealerships and dealer meetings.

“I'm supposed to be on vacation, but it's a good opportunity to meet with dealers,” says Wagoner in Milwaukee for the grand opening of that new Hummer dealership.

From there, he beelined to a regional dealer council meeting, then to more dealer sessions elsewhere.

What are dealers telling him?

“Their biggest complaint is a shortage of products, but I don't think it's a chronic shortage,” says Wagoner.

On the shy side are large and medium SUVs, some mid-size cars such as the Chevrolet Impala and full- and mid-size trucks, according to Wagoner.

Auto gadgets and gizmos

Back page columnist Nat Shulman this month tells of difficulties that elderly drivers such as himself face, and the need for auto makers to address that.

In fact, some amazing high-tech stuff is in the works. It will make cars of the near future safer and smarter, says New York City dealer John LaSorsa, president of LaSorsa Buick-Pontiac-Cadillac.

“As the auto industry joins forces with the high-tech world — with safety and convenience items leading the way — the results are astounding,” he says.

Some mind-blowing technological features coming to a car near you:

Adaptive cruise control: A reality on some cars. It allows drivers to keep a safe distance from the car in front, via automatic braking and accelerating.

Steer-by-wire: There are no mechanical connections between the steering wheel and the steering gear. Ultimately, active steering will allow cars to communicate their position to other vehicles automatically to avoid collisions.

Lane departure warning system: A sensitive mounted camera detects the position and direction of a vehicle within a lane. From the information received, the system can determine whether an unintended lane departure is imminent, then warn the driver.

Meanwhile, auto makers are stepping up efforts to outfit cars of the future for elderly motorists. That includes adaptive equipment such as lifts, hand controls and bigger door openings.

Says a GM spokesman, “If you look at some 79 million baby boomers coming of age, the senior population is really going to expand in the next 10 to 15 years.”


Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business. His e-mail address is: [email protected]

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