In December 2008, as General Motors was busy begging the outgoing Bush administration for money to delay its inevitable bankruptcy, Salon took the opportunity to recount “the short and disgusting life of the Hummer”. These massive gas-guzzling SUVs were bought by GM in 1999 and rapidly became a money-minting, market-beating, road-hogging phenomenon. But with last year’s rising gas prices and a recessionary economy, the Hummer just as quickly became a monstrous cash-guzzling, bottom-line-battering burden to the embattled car company.
As Salon gleefully noted, “the mighty Hummer has been celebrated and reviled as a metaphor for American bravado—and wretched American excess. But this hip-hop icon, this military-porn embodiment of America's post-911 belligerence, may now be a victim of the market”. Although the Hummer’s future is still far from certain, it now appears that the company will soldier on—in China.
At first glance, the bid from Sichuan Tengzhong seems prosaic, if somewhat puzzling. The hulking 8,600-pound H2 may find a home in the world’s new economic heavyweight. Yet these infamously inefficient SUVs—the H2 is estimated to burn through petrol at a rate of around 13 miles per gallon—hardly bolster the green image the Communist Party has been trying to build for itself in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen at the end of this year. Indeed, Reuters reported that the company is setting up an offshore investment vehicle to purchase Hummer after initial objections from the Chinese government.
To further complicate the picture, Tengzhong, a small manufacturer of heavy industrial vehicles, seems ill-suited to begin building commercial automobiles. One Chinese paper described the move as like to a "snake trying to swallow an elephant". The Atlantic weighed in with some simple advice: “Don't make Hummers”.
Purchasing a car company that saw its sales plummet 62% in the first three months of 2009 seems like a quixotic venture. Yet this battered brand might have some life left in it. In a feat of engineering that may rank somewhere alongside the Apollo Project, Raser Technologies, in co-operation with GM and FEV, claims to have produced a commercially viable plug-in hybrid Hummer that gets 100 miles per gallon. Factor in the fire-sale price Tengzhong is getting on the clunker company—an estimated $150m, far short of GM’s original $500m asking price—and the purchase looks a bit more sane.
If Raser’s technology pans out, Tengzhong may be able to trade in a white elephant for a goose that lays golden eggs. The Hummer could again become a suburbia-conquering cash machine—but this time an environmentally benign one. (And Hummer-hating environmentalists may have to conjure up a new salute for H2s.)
Picture credit: jiazi (via Flickr)