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Analysis / Hummer Dinger

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The forerunner of the modern sport utility vehicle, or SUV, existed as early as the late 1940s. For decades, they were impractical for ordinary everyday drivers — their complex mechanical transmissions, rigid axles, poor balance, and slow highway speeds were just not attractive to consumers. It's often thought that the prominence of the big "land yacht" sedans of the 1960s and 1970s are what led to the modern SUV, and although those fell out of favor after the 1973 oil crisis, the crisis led to an interesting regulatory quirk.


In the United States, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulation, or CAFE, was designed to encourage manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient cars. However, CAFE had a loophole for "light trucks", which allowed manufacturers to continue making them. It made sense — there were quite a few working professionals who needed the power and utility of a big vehicle, and back in the 1970s they couldn't be made efficient enough to comply with the regulation, so they were made exempt. But "light truck" was defined quite broadly, and the carmakers decided to market everyday cars as "light trucks". As long as they were designed for off-road or heavy-duty use and could in theory be employed in that capacity, that's what they were. Probably the most egregious instance of this gaming of regulations was the Chrysler PT Cruiser, a retraux station wagon built on the same platform as the Neon compact but engineered such that it was technically a "light truck". It averaged 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 in highway driving, a gas-guzzler for something of its size and weight; but classifying it as a light truck not only improved the CAFE rankings of Chrysler's truck lineup, it also kept the car from dragging down the CAFE rankings of Chrysler's car lineup. This may be one of the reasons why it remained in production, virtually unchanged, from 2000 until 2010 despite seeing its sales collapse after 2006.


And people still wanted to buy big cars, because they were perceived as safer. Even up until the Turn of the Millennium, it was generally believed that the safest cars were the ones most likely to survive an accident, as opposed to the ones most likely to avoid one. The "land yacht" sedans started to give way to the minivan and SUV in the late 1980s — the Jeep Cherokee and the Ford Explorer were so successful that they effectively started an arms race to see who could make the biggest possible SUV that they could get away with.

The Hummer itself was introduced in the early 1990s and based directly on the U.S. military's "Humvee" vehicle. But it didn't see widespread popularity until around 2002-03, which was when the H2 model was introduced. It was also right at the beginning of The War on Terror, and there was an additional patriotic reason to drive a pseudo-military vehicle at a time when U.S. military operations overseas were seeing some of its highest levels of support. There was a particular feeling that the Hummer and cars like it were connected to right-wing politics, feelings of aggrieved masculinity, and anti-environmentalism. It was seen as something of a "reactionary" purchase; while people were going on about how they wanted to save the environment, the people who pined for the good old days wanted to shove this in their faces.


Of course, the self-styled patriots weren't the only ones getting in on the action. Others combined the Hummer Dinger with the Rice Burner to make a truly unholy and expensive combination. These were fitted with extensive cosmetic modifications, like scissor doors, hydraulics, earth-rattling stereo systems, and gigantic rims (or "dubs", after the DUB Wheels company that was famous for them). They're a variant of the so-called "bro trucks", which are given cosmetic modifications specifically to make them look like off-road vehicles — particularly lift kits and large wheels — with little to no regard for actual off-road performance. These guys want to show off their Conspicuous Consumption in the most obnoxious way possible, essentially flouting their cars' environmental destruction. They may even outfit them with "coal rollers", which force the exhaust to belch out thick smoke. Again, it was all to annoy the environmentalists.

But in the end, the environmentalists kind of won out. The Hummer brand's popularity started to tank around 2006, and it was shut down entirely in 2010. It was around this time that the hybrid vehicle started to be a thing, and soon after came electric cars. When gas prices calmed down and the economy recovered somewhat, people still weren't in the mood for a genuine Hummer Dinger, not just because of its terrible fuel-efficiency and environmental impact, but also because of its stiff handling and tendency to roll over. Instead, they migrated to the "crossover utility vehicle", essentially a "land yacht" for the modern age. These were effectively station wagons and hatchbacks with lifted suspensions and optional all-wheel drive — rather than an off-road vehicle configured for everyday use, these are everyday vehicles configured for offroad use. They were also easier to handle and much more fuel efficient than the dreadnought SUVs of the 1980s and 1990s — almost within striking distance of the fuel economy of regular cars. Hummer Dingers were relegated to people who badly wanted to prove their masculinity — as of the 2020s, they favor the "luxury pickup", which is much more obviously not a "family hauler" vehicle and usually has enough features to rival a BMW or a Cadillac (with a price point to match).

Outside American suburbia, however, there wasn't much point to a Hummer Dinger. In places like Asia and Europe, the streets are much narrower, fuel is more expensive, and parking spaces are more scarce, even in the suburbs — a big vehicle would be so frustrating to drive that it would defeat anyone's desire to show off. In other places with big rural areas, a big vehicle needs actual utility, so you would have to get something that's actually up for the job — and then it would be relatively unremarkable. The only places that really have the Hummer Dinger phenomenon are places like Britain and Australia that draw many cultural cues from America to begin with (whether they'd like to admit it or not). The British "Chelsea Tractor" tends to be particularly hilariously impractical to drive on British country roads, which tend to be narrower and more sinuous — a suburban Range Rover driver is going to find out the hard way that he's going to struggle to drive it to the country pub.


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