H1 and HumveeClick to enlarge picture

The Hummer H1, right, is based on the military all-purpose vehicle known as the Humvee, left.

HummerHummer H1

Suddenly, it's not important that actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the biggest fan of the military Humvee and the owner of multiple Hummers. The Hummer H1s sold in the United States last year don't seem like such a big deal as do the thousands of Humvees sold and delivered to the U.S. military.

What matters is that three MPs walked away from a Humvee after its front end was blown off in Bosnia, and that a U.S. Army Ranger in gritty Mogadishu, Somalia, was saved when an RPG—rocket-propelled grenade—failed to penetrate the door of his Humvee.

Stories like these filter back to the South Bend, Indiana, home of the Humvee and Hummer all the time. "In the past month, we have had two phone calls from soldiers who served in Afghanistan who called to say they wanted to thank the people who made the vehicle that saved their lives," said Craig Mac Nab, director of public relations for AM General.

Humvee History
There's not one kind of Humvee. There's one heavy-duty platform that can be fitted with various vehicle configurations, parts and accessories to handle a variety of military and peacekeeping missions.

The word "Humvee" is short for HMMWV—High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle. It was designed to meet specs the U.S. military issued in 1979 for a new kind of flexible military vehicle.

The specs required that the new mobile transporter for troops have a 16-inch ground clearance, which is roughly double the ground clearance of today's average sport-utility vehicle. The new vehicle being sought by the U.S. military had to be able to climb a 60 percent incline and cling to a dramatic 40 percent slope without a problem. It had to be able to carry a 2,500 payload—akin to the payload of some heavy-duty pickups—and ford through 2.5 feet of water.

The military said it needed to carry the vehicle to inhospitable locations by ship, plane or helicopter. The chopper ride, by the way, could necessitate dropping the vehicle from the air at a speed of 200 miles an hour! The military also expected a 15-year service life, at a minimum, and the new vehicle had to be ready to travel in extreme conditions—arctic cold of minus 50 degrees or on nine different kinds of sand found around the world.

South Bend-based AM General took just 11 months to meet the government specs. Its answer: The diesel-powered Humvee, also known at the outset as "the war wagon."

Among the highlights of the Humvee design: Its small, vertical windshield is engineered so light won't reflect upward and give away troop positions to overhead airplanes. Its lightweight and rust-resistant aluminum body can be coated with special military paint that allows a very corrosive material to wash away biological contaminants.

Hummer vs. Humvee
AM General began delivering Humvees to the military in 1985. The vehicles saw first combat in Panama.

"One of the vehicles dropped by helicopter landed upside down; the [Army] Rangers rolled it over and drove it away," Mac Nab said.

Humvees also went to the first Gulf War, Somalia, Kosovo, Liberia and Bosnia. They're in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, the U.S. Army has the most Humvees, followed by the Marines, then the Air Force and Navy. Some of the original Humvees are still in use. "The military uses it for everything—ambulance, cargo troop carrier, communications equipment carrier, weapons carriers," Mac Nab said.

The vehicle also is sold to "more than 40 friendly countries," he added. Price is "about $60,000" for a basic Humvee, with prices rising to around $150,000 for some of the specialty versions, according to Mac Nab.

The Hummer H1—the first Hummer model to be offered for sale to consumers starting in the early 1990s when Schwarzenegger, Customer No. 1, got his—is made on the same assembly line as the Humvees. Total combined production is about 25 vehicles a day at the plant, which is in Mishawaka, adjacent to South Bend.

To the casual observer, the military-styled H1 might seem to be nearly identical to what soldiers drive in war zones. It is, to a surprising extent.

Certainly, the boxy outer styling—complete with vertical windshield and protruding tow hooks on the hood where a helicopter can hook onto a vehicle to lift it—are the same. All have bodies made of aircraft-quality aluminum with rivets that creak and groan as the vehicle traverses rough terrain. All use the same heavy-duty, box steel frame with five crossmembers, the same shock absorbers, springs and control arms.

The H1 interior, which had a major update for the 2004 model year, is downright plush compared with the austere interior of a Humvee. There's no commercial-station FM radio in the Humvee, no leather seats, no carpeting, no power windows or door locks, no cupholders, like the H1 has. Since soldiers don't want to be left stranded by lost keys in a combat zone, there's no key ignition on the Humvee. There's a switch that turns on the vehicle. The Humvee doesn't have a dome light, either.

To power military equipment, the military Humvee has a more robust electrical system—24 volts—than its commercial cousin, the Hummer. And the Humvee's body is coated with Chemical Agent Resistant Coating (CARC) paint that doesn't absorb harmful substances like nerve gas. Hummers get a lustrous coat of commercial auto paint.

Many military Humvee models don't have doors or roofs, and their passenger compartments have drain holes to allow water to drip out. In contrast, Hummers have waterproof interiors, according to AM General officials. Hummers are powered by a noisy 6.5-liter turbodiesel V8 that's readily heard inside the vehicle, while soldiers' Humvees use a naturally aspirated diesel, which also is noisy and likely to be heard more, because Humvees have negligible sound insulation.

There are similarities, too. The steering wheel inside both vehicles is unexpectedly small, because soldiers wearing ammunition belts need to be able to fit comfortably behind it. The dashboard doesn't protrude much into the vehicle, either. There's a huge hump that rises from the floor that separates passengers on each side of the vehicle. It's the drivetrain, tucked up unusually high so its mechanicals aren't scraped and damaged in an off-road maneuver.

Both vehicles have an exceptional amount of U.S. content. Indeed, the H1's 97 percent U.S. content is likely the highest of any vehicle an American consumer can buy today.

Going Off-Road
Despite the obvious compromises of the H1—an interior whose outboard-mounted seats seem almost an afterthought, a blockish body that has to push its way through the air rather than slip through it and fuel economy that's pathetic—it is a uniquely accomplished off-road traveler.

At AM General's off-road facility in Mishawaka, where soldiers and consumers alike can enroll to be taught how to drive their respective Humvees and Hummers in rugged terrain, the four-wheel-drive H1 shows a flair for difficult situations.

A 22-inch-tall concrete ledge to climb? No problem. Just nudge one of the whopping 37-inch front wheels toward the concrete barrier, press gently on the gas pedal, and let the H1's 440 lb-ft of torque power the vehicle atop the barrier. Inside, at the wheel, I felt like the H1 was "willing" itself up and onto the concrete ledge. The rest of the H1 followed, with the engine grinding away in a burly manner. Because of extremely short overhangs front and rear, the H1's body didn't bang into the concrete, either.

Turning the H1 around is shockingly simple, thanks to a 26.5-foot turning circle. Cranking the little steering wheel, I felt like I was doing a "donut" in a compact car. In comparison, a Ford Explorer and even the nimble Jeep Wrangler have turning circles of more than 36 feet.

The H1's low center of gravity and extremely wide track—nearly 72 inches vs. 59.5 inches for a Jeep Grand Cherokee—means it hugs side slopes tenaciously. Its capabilities are so impressive, even a novice off-roader is likely to feel snug as a bug inside, even when climbing up a treacherous incline.

"We're not about speed and rushing over obstacles," said Tim Bonadies, manager of technical training who oversees the 320-acre test facilities for AM General. "We're about torque . . . and getting the most out of the vehicle."

He added that Hummer provides a free, first-year membership to the national Tread Lightly organization that seeks to balance off-road use with environmental responsibility.

At the Hummer test facility, I took an H1 through the "moguls"—a series of rounded humps with deep wheel ruts alternating between them. At one point, one wheel would be straight up in the air and the vehicle would be sitting off-kilter, but the H1 always stuck doggedly to its duty and ground its way through the terrain without getting stuck.

I wasn't so lucky in the woods. A cold rain, combined with little sunlight among the trees, had made the dark soil mucky and slippery. Water had gathered, deep enough to reach the door ledges of the H1. Try as I might to navigate a mud hole—with mud flying and tires spinning—I couldn't bust out and remained mired in one spot. Another H1 finally winched my vehicle out. Yes, even a Hummer can get stuck in poor conditions. Next time, I thought, I'd pick another path and miss this mud hole altogether.

"DNA of the Brand"
The four-passenger H1 was the first commercial Hummer. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price is just over $105,000.

In July 2002 the H1 was followed by a lower-priced model, the H2, which has underpinnings based on General Motors Corp.'s full-size SUVs. With a starting MSRP of just over $50,000, the five-passenger H2 quickly became a hit. For the 2005 model year, Hummer added the H2 SUT sport-utility truck, which incorporates a pickup-like bed at the back of the vehicle.

The latest addition to the Hummer lineup, the 2006 H3, is slated to arrive in showrooms in spring 2005. A midsize SUV that follows in its predecessors' footsteps (or tire tracks), the H3 boasts Hummer style and off-road ability in a more fuel-efficient package.

Still, Mike DiGiovanni, Hummer general manager, calls the H1 "the DNA of the Hummer brand."

"The H1 will remain . . . Hummer doesn't work without the H1," he added.

Ann Job is a freelance automotive writer.

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