Image: John Andres drives his H1 Hummer over rocks at the Hummer Club's Straight Up or On The Rocks gathering
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
John Andres drives his H1 Hummer over rocks at the Hummer Club's Straight Up or On The Rocks gathering at the Rausch Creek Off-Road Park in Tremont, Pa.
updated 7/26/2008 3:25:29 PM ET 2008-07-26T19:25:29

They rumble in on treads called Super Swampers, wearing their hearts on their license plates.

"PLAYDRTY," declares one behemoth from New York. "HUM THIS," dares another, from Ohio.

The digital board fronting the Shell station at Exit 100 winks back: "Welcome Hummers!"

In the fading light, though, it's impossible to ignore the sign at the Sunoco across the road: Diesel, $4.97 9/10 a gallon.

You've got to be tough to love a Hummer.

The soaring cost of feeding a vehicle that swallows a gallon every dozen miles is only part of it. Environmentalists, who've always had it in for owners, are winning mainstream converts. General Motors, which presided over Hummer's transition from a badge of military bravado into a symbol of driveway excess, is looking to sell.

But tonight there's no apologizing or self-pity in the ranks of Hummer die-hards. They're here to goad machines that can top 5 tons over boulders the size of Smart cars, through stewpots of mud obscuring who-knows-what and across obstacle courses of stumps, logs and stones — it's "like riding a slow-motion rollercoaster," one says.

Maybe mega-SUVs are going the way of dinosaurs. Hummer sales have dropped 40 percent this year. But these beasts and the men and women who love them certainly don't behave like endangered species.

"I told my wife when we bought this, 'Honey, we're investing in steel and rubber,' says William Welch, a Philadelphia surgeon who, cigar clenched between his teeth, offers a guided tour of his lovingly tended jet-black H1.

"If it was $10 a gallon," he says, "we'd still be out there."

One with the Hummer
Cars are much more than transportation to Americans. In a country where life revolves around the car, you are what you drive.

"We eat 20 percent of our meals in cars. We spend hour and hours every week (in cars)," says Leon James, a University of Hawaii professor and expert in the psychology of driving. "We see other cars as extensions of the people who drive them and we identify the character of the car with the character of the driver. There is this automatic connection that we make."

But even in American car culture, the Hummer is an outlier, provoking both love and hatred so intense they can be hard to figure.

That makes it easy to forget the basic scrappiness and necessity that gave birth to the vehicle in the first place. The Hummer traces its DNA to the Jeep, produced for the Army in large numbers during World War II.

"It was something that could go to places other vehicles could not go, yet it was reasonably priced," says Patrick Foster, author of books on Jeep and the company that built the Hummer.

The real hulk
Americans, watching newsreel war coverage, were captivated by the cars, boxy because they were stamped by equipment previously used to make washing machines. Farmers, service station owners and foresters snapped them up long before ordinary consumers dreamed of pulling a vehicle built to go off-road in to their driveways.

But by the late 1970s, the jeep had outlived its military usefulness. The Army invited companies to devise a new kind of vehicle.

A team led by an engineer named George Scharbach set to work in the Warren, Mich. shop of AM General, a spinoff of Jeep. Scharbach wore his lucky suit on the day the Defense Department announced the new contract. Maybe it worked. But the winning proposal was one strange automotive creature.

Its hulking body — more than 7 feet wide without mirrors — sat way up off the ground while simultaneously hunkered down in a low crouch, like an overgrown teenager trying to slip into a movie at kid's admission. Its wheels were pushed out past its corners and its drivetrain was yanked up into the middle of the interior, putting a huge hump between driver and passenger.

"It has no aesthetics," AM General spokesman Craig Mac Nab says. "It screams at you from across the street: I look this way because I need to."

Catching Schwarzenegger's eye
AM General called it the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. Soldiers dubbed it the Humvee. It saw limited action in Panama. But in the Gulf War in 1991, the Humvee bulled its way into the public consciousness.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, then a muscle-bound movie star a long way from being the Governator, was driving along a highway in Oregon, on his way to the film set for "Kindergarten Cop." Heading the other direction, an Army convoy packed with Humvees, rumbled past.

"I put the brakes on," Schwarzenegger told reporters at the 1992 ceremony that AM General, besieged by requests, held to start production of civilian Hummers. "Someone smashed into the back of me, but I just stared. 'Oh my God, there is the vehicle,' I said. And from then on, I was possessed."

He was far from the only one.

'Street queens'
There are Hummers and then there are HUMMERS. It's that way with their owners, too.

The Hummer pilots flocking to the parking lot of a Hampton Inn tonight are clearly the latter. Hummering is not some two-minute fad. "It's a lifestyle," they say repeatedly.

They're well aware of the many other Hummer owners, who use their vehicles for little more than dropping the kids at baseball and supermarket trips.

"Street queens," the serious crowd calls them. "Pavement princesses."

But you don't have to be a tough guy to be here.

When GM bought Hummer and began selling the H2 (huge, but medium-sized as Hummers go) and the H3 (still pretty big) a few years ago, owners of H1s — the prettied up version of the Army's vehicle — were worried suburbanized Hummers would dilute the experience. But when they voted, the big boys chose to let the newbies join in.

So Brandie Lopes, a silkscreen printer, is here from Winterport, Maine, a 600-mile haul that would've been cheaper to fly than to drive in her polished new H2.

She's joined by Howard and Vickie Schultheiss, up from Maryland in a nearly 11,000 pound H1 that bears the scratches and scars of off-road battles. The steel roof-rack above the windshield is carved with letters spelling out "D-Man," the nickname of a highly trained German Shepherd, now lost to cancer, whose fierce spirit the couple says lives on the rig.

Nearly all come with a story about how they were smitten.

'Forget the Range Rover'
For John Andres, a software writer from New Albany, Ohio, it goes back to 1991, when he was scrimping for a Range Rover. He turned on the TV one January night and was transfixed by a report of two dozen U.S. Marines pinned down behind a wall in the Saudi Arabian town of Khafji. With Saudi tanks providing cover, the soldiers packed into Humvees and barreled through Iraqi lines.

"I saw that. I thought, 'forget the Range Rover,'" says Andres, whose sand-colored Hummer jokingly sports silhouettes of the compact sedans he's knocked off, a la the Red Baron. "Humvee is the way to go. These things are just bad."

Dan LaForgia's story is more elemental.

"My mom says my first word was 'truck,'" LaForgia says. In the mid-'90s, LaForgia persuaded his father to drive him to the Hummer dealership near his home on New York's Long Island so they could take one out for a test drive. He was 12 — and hooked.

"Some people say its the ugliest thing on the road," LaForgia says. "I love it."

Image: Vickie Schultheiss climbs into her H1 Hummer at the Hummer Club's Straight Up or On The Rocks gathering
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Vickie Schultheiss
This weekend is a big deal for LaForgia. In three years of Hummer ownership, he's never taken his off-road. He cringes noticeably as others trade stories of broken axles, smashed windows, and the deep scratches and gashes their vehicles have endured in previous adventures.

At 8:45 a.m., though, he joins the other owners under a tent, ready to embark in groups dispatched by levels of skills and experience.

They head a few exits up to a former strip-mine turned off-road haven. Members of the extreme group — four of the most gung-ho H1 owners — trade jokes over the radio as they part the treeline.

But inside the rig the Schultheiss' have dedicated to their dog, the mood is reverential.

"Cue it up," Vickie says to Howard, her husband.

"All right. Here we go."

Character building
The low rumble of timpani drums stir from the Hummer's speakers. French horns join in, rising above the engine's growl. The solemn notes are unmistakable: Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Vickie reaches for D-Man's collar, which hangs down from the rearview mirror. She tugs the chains twice, rubs the gray links between her fingers.

"It's his truck," she says softly. Howard Schultheiss reaches across from the passenger seat and takes her hand.

Threading through branches and over stumps, the group reaches a winding river of boulders. They're not going to cross it. They're going to try and drive it's full third-of-a-mile length. A Prius would've been long gone by now.

Even in a vehicle marketed as the automotive equivalent of Godzilla, this takes nerve — and a durable wallet.

"I've come down on a rock so hard that my windshield cracked across the middle," says Jason Oplinger, an electrical contractor. When he and wife, Steph, married two years ago, guests were ferried to the mid-trail ceremony in a procession of 40 Hummer H1s.

Today has its own drama
Before it's over, the Schultheiss' truck will break in three places and have to be yanked off the rocks by winch. In one of the intermediate caravans, drivers will plunge through a mud pool with the color of cement and the odor of a pigsty. Two will dive so hard that water licks at the engines' air intakes before they make it across.

By evening, back at the hotel, there are new stories to trade over barbecue.

"I'm going to get out while I'm ahead," says LaForgia, whose street-pretty Hummer bears its first scar.

"I always say another scratch means another story, or adds some character," counsels a fellow owner, Mike Schoch.

Hummer stories echo each other after a while. Tales of the way a Hummer draws a crowd in a parking lot, or swallows ground in a snowstorm. Stories of beers shared around the tailgate, spare parts shared on the trail, and friendships built to last.

But the gut-level lure of the machine itself isn't easy to quantify.

Maybe the most powerful comparison is the one Vickie Schultheiss draws between her Hummer and the German Shepherd whose memory it honors.

"To me it had to be just as capable and just as brute as Dikas," she says.

In the woods, she narrows her eyes, studying the terrain ahead, then climbs the Hummer bearing D-Man's name over a mammoth boulder. The truck slams down, bashing steel against stone. Schultheiss swings out of the driver's seat to check out the wheel hanging in mid air.

Her forehead is fringed with sweat. She's beaming.

"Welcome to D-Man's world," she says.

'A true truck'
Schwarzenegger got his first Hummer just as consumers were falling for SUVs.

When the Jeep went civilian, so-called light trucks were a fraction of the U.S. car market, bought mostly by businesses who needed their power and capacity. When Congress set strict fuel economy requirements on car makers in the 1970s, lawmakers went easy on trucks, allowing regulators to set less stringent rules.

Detroit responded with vehicles classified as trucks but designed to win over car buyers. By 2004, light trucks claimed 55 percent of the market.

Regulators exempted trucks with a gross vehicle weight of 8,500 pounds or more from any fuel economy requirements, a loophole that critics say encouraged manufacturers to build mega-SUVs.

The first Hummers "raised people's eyebrows," says Tom Libby, an analyst with J.D. Power & Associates. Their in-your-face image appealed to buyers seeking pure utility. Libby cites his cousin, an avowed truck buyer, who declared SUVs "fake."

"He said the only one he'd ever consider would be the H1. For him, that was a true truck," Libby says.

Others aren't fans
"It gave a lot of people a sense of vain superiority, that you're way up there above everybody else, and I think it gave a lot of people a sense of power," says Mark S. Foster, author of A Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in America Since 1945.

Hummers and other big SUVs appealed to what Foster calls Americans' "sense of entitlement," accustomed to seemingly boundless land and cheap energy.

Hummers became icons, starring in rap videos and in movies like "Three Kings," alongside George Clooney. Marketers unleashed Hummer-branded mountain bikes and laptops.

"Let Hummer, the fragrance, take you on an adventure, an adventure like no other ..." a cologne promised.

But GM's 2002 introduction of the H2 — mammoth, but much more polished and sold in considerably larger numbers — netted enemies.

The Sierra Club took it on with a Web site, Hummerdinger. That was mild compared to, a hate site that drew hundreds of photos from people saluting the Hummer with their middle fingers.

Soaring gas prices made outright Hummer hate socially acceptable. The stepped up culture war found its way to a leafy Washington, D.C. neighborhood last July, when two masked men attacked a parked Hummer with a machete and a baseball bat.

'I love this car'
Hummer owners from around the country called Gareth Groves, the owner of the vandalized vehicle, to offer help, even garage space. But they were outnumbered by people who sent hate mail, including threatening e-mails and MySpace postings.

Within two blocks, a Cadillac Escalade, a Ford Excursion and a Chevrolet Suburban went untouched. But what surprised Groves wasn't that people hated his Hummer. It was how much they seemed to hate him, lambasting everything from his bleached hair to the fact that he lived with his mother.

"It definitely sparks some intense reaction from people on both sides," Groves says.

So what did Groves do? He submitted a $25,000 insurance claim and had the truck repaired. High gas prices and the house payments made him briefly think about selling, but he quickly dismissed the idea.

"I love this car," he says.

'Easier to ask for forgiveness'
Even a few hardcore Hummer owners are rethinking.

"It's not a very practical truck," says LaForgia, who sometimes finds critical notes on the windshield. He plans to sell his H1 to save for a down payment on a house.

Others are adjusting to new realities. There's a small crowd of Hummer enthusiasts out there running on biodiesel. Welch, the surgeon, is leaning toward buying a hybrid for commutes to a hospital parking garage with ceilings too low for his truck.

"I want to save my carbon footprint, not blow it on my way to work," he says.

But Hummer owners see such decisions as personal choices, not bows to external pressure.

"It's easier to ask for forgiveness then permission," Andres says. "I've always found that to be true."

He's describing only the fess-up-later approach he takes in explaining the money he lavishes on the Hummer to his wife. For all those folks waiting for Hummer owners to cry uncle, well, don't hold your breath.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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