One thing you can say about the Hummer, roaring down the road, towering over subcompacts like an NBA center in a sea of toddlers: It always drew a reaction.
The beefy, military-inspired SUV began as a macho icon for enthusiasts like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who held photo ops in Hummers in his early days as governor. For others it was a symbol of excess, environmental ruin and tackiness — a view that seemed to grow in direct proportion to gas prices and economic distress.
And now the brand is likely no more. General Motors Co. said Wednesday its bid to sell Hummer to a Chinese heavy equipment manufacturer had collapsed. Government regulators in Beijing failed to approve the sale and GM said it would have no choice but to let the brand die, 18 years after its first and most enormous model started lumbering off the assembly line.
"Finally," said Ann Mesnikoff, director of the green transportation campaign at the Sierra Club in Washington. "The Hummer was the epitome of gas guzzling."
Schwarzenegger, who was instrumental in popularizing the vehicle, had a much different reaction two decades ago when he first saw the Hummer's direct military ancestor. Then a body builder turned movie star, he was on his way to the set of "Kindergarten Cop" in Oregon when an Army convoy packed with Humvees thundered past.
"I put the brakes on," Schwarzenegger said at the 1992 ceremony that AM General 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."
Hummer's earliest predecessor was the jeep, the boxy multipurpose vehicle built in large numbers for the Army in World War II. The jeep evolved into the Humvee, which saw heavy action — and entered Americans' consciousness — during the Gulf War.
In the late 1990s, GM bought Hummer from AM General and began selling a smaller but still outsized model, the H2. Sales boomed after its 2005 introduction of an even smaller model, the H3, that was roughly equivalent in size to other automakers' full-size SUVs.
Hummer's image began to change as gas prices began creeping higher, the economy started to crack and the U.S. entered the most difficult period of the Iraq war. Sales, which peaked at 71,524 in 2006, plunged to just more than 9,000 vehicles in 2009. In January, GM sold just 265 Hummers in the U.S.
Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said that just as the Hummer had cemented an image of military might combined with off-road brawn, changes in public sentiment turned SUVs "into tantamount to the creation of the devil himself."
"Hummer almost becomes the extreme case of that — the ruler of the devils," Thompson said.
For Eric Sitterle, a technical recruiter in Cincinnati, his Hummer H2 isn't a devil — it's a great big toy.
"You feel like a kid driving a Big Wheel, a Tonka toy," said Sitterle, 28, who also sits on the board of Hummer's national owners club. "There's not very many vehicles that can climb the side of a mountain and take you on a luxury cruise at 80 miles per hour on the way home."
Sitterle bought his H2 in 2007. He noticed other people's attitudes toward Hummers started changing soon after. Some even approached him at gas stations in the summer of 2008, when gas prices shot above $4 a gallon for the first time ever.
"Why that vehicle? Why so much gas?" Sitterle said they would ask. "Sometimes I'd give them a completely arrogant response."
Sitterle said critics are misinformed. "The vehicle turns a lot of heads but the vehicle also gets similar gas mileage to vehicles of its size," he said.
It's not a complete exaggeration. The 2010 Hummer H3 gets as up to 18 highway mpg, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimates. Nothing to brag about, but no worse than a 2010 Toyota Sequoia.
As for the H2 and H1, they are so heavy — more than 8,500 pounds — they have been exempt from federal fuel-efficiency rules. However, drivers typically reported getting around 10 mpg. Sitterle said with all his H2's add-ons, he often gets less than that.
In time, even Schwarzenegger became critical of Hummer's gas-guzzling ways. Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said three of the California governor's four Hummers have been converted to alternative fuels: One runs on hydrogen, one on biodiesel, one on vegetable oil.
"The governor believes the Hummer is a great vehicle that just needed to be reintroduced with a more green engine like electric or hydrogen," McLear said.
Poor fuel economy hasn't hurt Hummer's popularity among one group: Mexican drug cartels.
Modified with bulletproof glass and armor-plating, Hummers are often used in gunbattles and seized by Mexico's military after raids. One cartel boss even adopted the nickname "El Hummer" as a demonstration of how tough he is.
When Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co., announced plans to buy Hummer last June, it knew it would have to make the vehicles more fuel efficient. It had plans to develop Hummers powered by alternative fuels, more efficient gas engines, six-speed transmissions and diesel engines.
The deal fell through because of resistance from Chinese regulators. Now, the only hope for Hummer's survival is for a last-minute investor to snap up the brand.
It's happened before. Last month, GM began dismantling its Swedish Saab brand after a sale to another Swedish automaker fell through. But Saab found a savior in niche sports car maker Spyker Cars NV, headquartered in The Netherlands. Spyker bought the brand for $74 million.
Hummer spokesman Nick Richards declined to comment Thursday on whether any Spyker-like buyer had emerged. Erich Merkle, who runs the consulting company Autoconomy.com, does not expect such a rescue of the hulking Hummer brand.
"The products aren't really in line with what people are looking for in the marketplace, and certainly not in line with what the new government (fuel-economy) regulations will be," Merkle said.
Raymond Ciccolo, who owns a Hummer franchise outside Boston, is holding out hope. And he's contacting other dealers, looking for more vehicles. Even if Hummer disappears, he said, there's a cadre of fans who won't.
"We have one doctor I know of who said he would buy two Hummers if Hummer ever shut down," he said.
Associated Press Writers Martha Mendoza in Mexico City and Juliet Williams in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.
(This version corrects that Schwarzenegger held photo ops in Hummers while governor, not while campaigning.)
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