The Hummer Summer of 2002

It was a gala grand opening in 2002 for a Hummer dealership. Now it has become a used-car store.

Commentary

In the summer of 2002, I attended the grand opening of Bergstrom Hummer, a Milwaukee dealership built to look like an upscale Quonset hut.

It was a big deal because John Bergstrom’s store was the first off blueprints of how General Motors wanted Hummer dealerships to look: bold and eye-catching, like the military-inspired vehicles sold inside.

Top GM executives, including CEO Richard Wagoner, attended the event. “We’re breaking new ground at GM,” Wagoner proclaimed. “Nowhere is that more evident than at Bergstrom Hummer.”

He said GM would urge other Hummer dealers to build similar stores using the new architectural design. GM hailed Bergstrom as “a visionary.”

Later, a Ward’s colleague offered a vision of his own, a dark one when things looked so bright for the iconic brand.

“They’ll make wonderful quick oil-change shops one day,” he said of the new Hummer dealerships.

Turns out, his cynicism wasn’t far off.

Facing freefalling sales, Bergstrom is moving the Hummer operation to his nearby Chevrolet store in Milwaukee. And the once-ballyhooed Hummer facility will become, not an oil-and-lube shop, but a used-car spot selling certified pre-owned vehicles.

At the time of the store’s gala opening, not even the most astute seer was predicting 2008 pump prices would be more than $4.

At that rate, a Hummer getting 14/18 mpg (16.8/13 L/100 km) will cost its owner an average of $4,082 a year for fuel. And that’s for the H3, the smallest entry in the lineup. In 10 years, the fuel bill would exceed the cost of the vehicle.

Something bad has hit Hummer. While some fans still think it looks cool and army-tough, it has become a poster vehicle for poor fuel economy and environmental unfriendliness.

Bigger SUVs burn more gasoline and emit more greenhouse gases. But Hummer gets rapped the most. For many detractors, it has come to epitomize super-sized, gas-guzzling conspicuous consumption by unfazed cretins driving monster trucks.

Anti-Hummer Web pages have popped up, such as one called “Top 10 Reasons Not To Buy a Hummer.” (No.1: “The gas mileage alone will kill you.” No.7: “People won’t like you.” No.8: “Mother Earth won’t like you, either.”)

No one says that about, say, the Toyota Land Cruiser. Yet at 5,690 lbs. (2,580 kg), it outweighs the H3 by 990 lbs. (449 kg) and gets poorer fuel economy.

Negative public perceptions can be fatal in the auto business. The Hummer wouldn’t be the first vehicle to die the slow death from a bad case of consumer disdain.

Hummer sales this year are down 40.4% compared with 2007, the worst showing of any GM brand, according to Ward’s data. Sales like that aren’t off, they’re off the cliff.

That’s why Hummer dealers are considering their options and GM is contemplating what to do with its basket-case brand. Now, instead of prodding Hummer dealers to build new facilities, the auto maker is doing the opposite.

New Jersey dealer David Ferraez was set to break ground on a new Hummer store this year when GM advised him to hold off. He says he wasn’t the only Hummer dealer to get that code-red call, raising questions about what’s in store as the auto maker puts the brand through a “strategic review.”

At the Bergstrom Hummer grand opening six years ago, Wagoner said he had been seeing a lot of dealers during a round of visits. I asked what they were telling him.

“Their biggest complaint is a shortage of products,” he said. Among vehicles cited as being on the shy side were big SUVs and fullsize pickup trucks.

Today’s consumers, stunned by unbelievable fuel prices, have scratched those behemoths off a lot of shopping lists. The Hummer summer of 2002 seems long ago.

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