General Motors' decision last week to shut down its Hummer brand is not merely one more sour note in a car-industry chorus of bailouts and bad brakes. It also appears to be the final chapter of a star-crossed love story, an American marriage of one man and one machine that couldn't endure because of a hard truth: Even the biggest things don't stay big forever.
The man, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was responsible for bringing the machine, Hummer, to prominence.
Two decades ago, the movie star was instantly smitten as he watched a convoy of about 50 Humvees - the Hummer's military forefather - roll past the Oregon set of his film "Kindergarten Cop" on their way to a nearby military base.
Schwarzenegger identified with the vehicles. They were big, brash and boxy, and unapologetically so, and thus the perfect automotive avatar for Arnold. "Look at those deltoids; look at those calves," he would later say, upon inspecting a Humvee up close.
Schwarzenegger wanted one of his own, and he asked a friend who owned a body shop to purchase one on his behalf. But when the star's buddy tracked down executives at AM General, the military contractor that made the vehicles in a converted Indiana bus factory, they declined the request. Humvees weren't street legal. AM General might be sued if the Terminator mowed down some civilian as he drove to the grocery store in Pacific Palisades.
Unaccustomed to not getting what he desired, Schwarzenegger flew to South Bend and met with AM General executives. It was a complicated negotiation. Schwarzenegger wanted a military Humvee, with a camouflage paint job and a gun turret. Company officials balked.
Eventually - and only after signing a very long waiver freeing AM General from liability - the star bought a sand-colored Humvee that had been customized in Michigan to make it safe enough for L.A.'s boulevards.
Schwarzenegger wasn't satisfied, however, with procuring his own Humvee. He worked for months to convince AM General to redesign the vehicle for the civilian market. In October 1992, the first civilian Hummers were introduced. Schwarzenegger flew to Indiana to buy the first two off the assembly line.
In the beginning, the marriage of Hummer and Schwarzenegger was based on love, with mutual benefits. The star's fandom helped the big new vehicle gain attention, and the vehicle's popularity demonstrated the value of Schwarzenegger's judgment. Schwarzenegger and Hummer extended their brands together.
The relationship became less informal after General Motors bought the Hummer brand in 1999 and agreed to donate millions to Schwarzenegger's charitable foundation, which supported after-school programs in urban neighborhoods across the country. An agreement around charity had obvious appeal. Each of the partners in the marriage - Arnold and Hummer - was trying to soften rough edges. Schwarzenegger, through his work with after-school programs, was broadening his appeal to women and other demographics as he contemplated a political career. Hummer needed to sell more vehicles to women and quickly produced a new model, the H2, that was a little more comfortable and a little less rugged.
Schwarzenegger won the California governorship and Hummer sales grew rapidly, from about 20,000 in 2002 to more than 71,000 globally in 2006. But the pressures of political life strained the marriage.
The governor, seeking the votes of green-minded Californians, championed fuel efficiency and began converting his Hummers to run on alternative fuels. (He currently has four Hummers, three of which run on vegetable oil, biodiesel and hydrogen, respectively, according to a spokesman.) By the end of his first term, Schwarzenegger was regularly being photographed with smaller, environmentally friendly vehicles and championing climate-change regulations.
There was no official divorce, but the man and the machine grew apart. The same political and cultural changes that made Schwarzenegger a jolly green giant undermined Hummer. GM sought to reinvent the brand with a new model in 2005, the H3, but the vehicle seemed diminished, so smooth and sleek that it was, by the muscular standards of the original Hummer, a bit girly.
With gas prices soaring, global sales for all Hummer models slumped to 66,261 in 2007 and 37,573 in 2008. GM tried last year to sell the brand to a Chinese company. After the deal fell through, GM announced last week that it was killing the brand, barring an outside bid to buy it. Schwarzenegger, for his part, said through a spokesman last week that he "believes the Hummer is a great vehicle that needs to be reintroduced with a more green engine like electric or bio-diesel."
Schwarzenegger may need his own makeover. Just as Hummer lost its identity as its makers sought mainstream appeal, the governor became more political moderate than muscular star, a man of compromise in a time of partisan war. However responsible such a stance may be, there is a cost to giving up your horsepower. No one knows exactly what you stand for.
In polls in recent months, majorities of Californians see Schwarzenegger as weak and ineffective. It's unclear what, if any, political future he may have. He will be forced from office by term limits at the end of this year, just as the last Hummers are being sold.
Joe Mathews, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The People's Machine," a political biography of Schwarzenegger. From the Washington Post.1>