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How Hummer fell from the heights of notoriety — and was reborn

Gulf War military transport vehicle. Celebrity fashion-statement. Great Recession symbol of excess. For three decades, the hulking Hummer SUV has been one of the most notorious vehicles on the planet.

When the all-new re-branded GMC Hummer EV is introduced Oct. 20 with LeBron James as spokesman, the giant SUV will begin a new chapter in Hummer lore as a more earth-friendly vehicle that's powered by electricity. 

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Seventeen years ago, James — then a high school senior phenom in Akron — drove to school in his new 2003 Hummer H2. The bling-tastic, gas-guzzling $50,000 Hummer equipped with a custom sound system, three TVs and a video game console drew the attention of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which wanted to know where the money came from.

Today, the reborn Hummer EV fits Hollywood celebrity LeBron's green lifestyle.

Buzz — whether good or bad — has always followed the Hummer.

Originally manufactured by American Motors’ AM General subsidiary in 1981, the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle became the U.S. military’s mainstay transport vehicle. GIs quickly gave it the nickname of Humvee or Hummer. In 1990, the Hummer became synonymous with the divisive Persian Gulf War as the U.S. led an international coalition of forces into battle to reverse the Iraq invasion of Kuwait.

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Operation Desert Storm — or the “Videogame War,” as some called it — made the Hummer a TV star as Americans followed the action from their living rooms. While high-tech stealth fighters ruled the skies, Humvees were ubiquitous on the ground, carrying troops across the desert warscape.

Hollywood took notice. While filming “Kindergarten Cop” in Oregon, actor and former body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger spotted a convoy of 50 Humvees on their way to a nearby military base. He was smitten.

“He just went ape for that machine,” his agent, Lou Pitts, said in Schwarzenegger's unauthorized biography. “I mean, it was big, it was unique, and it was something that was larger than him.”

Schwarzenegger wanted a military Humvee for the street, complete with camouflage paint and a gun turret. AM General balked. But after flying to South Bend, Indiana, to meet with company executives (and signing a lengthy liability waiver), the Terminator got his way. Schwarzenegger had the hulking vehicle customized in Michigan to make it Los Angeles street-worthy.

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Schwarzenegger, then at his peak as America’s action hero, saw a business opportunity. He lobbied AM General to make its war hero available to the general public.

The AMG Hummer was introduced to the civilian market in 1992. It dwarfed anything on the road.

Upgraded slightly from the spartan military original, the Hummer came in eight colors. The interior was dressed with carpet, stereo and cloth or vinyl seats. Options were few.

Its diesel V-8 guzzled 10 mpg, but given its military heritage, it had capabilities to die for in disaster-prone California with its fires, mudslides and earthquakes. The all-wheel-drive beast had an insane, 72-degree approach angle and could run on four flat tires. It came with a built-in air compressor to inflate or deflate the tires while moving. 

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Most buyers just drove it on the boulevard, reveling in all the attention.

Sales started slowly for the $65,000-$90,000 truck. But its profile grew as it was embraced by celebrities. Roseanne Barr got one. Mike Tyson bought six. Owners included CNN boss Ted Turner, talk show host Montel Williams, tennis star Andre Agassi, novelist Tom Clancy, Dennis Rodman and a squad of other NBA stars.

By the time LeBron James got his as a teenage basketball star, the Hummer had become a macho status symbol.

Credit that in part to General Motors, which bought the brand in 1999 and turned it over to its corporate marketing machine. GM called its Hummer flagship the H1 and launched a brand lineup: The smaller H2, built on the Chevy Tahoe chassis, rolled out in 2003 with a 6.0-liter V-8. The “entry-level” H3 arrived in 2006; it shared the Chevy Colorado's pickup frame.

Sales soared and the Hummer display at the Detroit auto show became a must-see. Kids climbed over the civilian weapons like jungle gyms. But trouble was stirring on the battlefields of the military and of the American public.

The second Iraq Gulf War in 2003 showed the HMMWV vulnerable to guerrilla warfare. Hummers were no match for so-called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Scrambling to protect themselves, GIs welded on their own improvised steel armor. The military began development on a less vulnerable Humvee replacement.

Celebrity trends started to shift under the production Hummer, too. At the tail end of his acting career, Terminator Schwarzenegger became Gov. Schwarzenegger who represented a green California electorate that was more interested in Toyota Prius hybrids. 

The Governator converted three of his four Hummers to alternative fuels: vegetable oil, biodiesel and hydrogen.

Celebrities were also mobilizing against the war as the George W. Bush administration pushed for regime change in post-9/11 Iraq. The “What Would Jesus Drive?” movement descended on the Detroit auto show and demanded an end to SUVs. The Hummer lineup was in their crosshairs.

“The symbolism of these impractical machines' military roots is too delicious to ignore,” scolded media mogul Arianna Huffington. “We go to war to protect our supply of cheap oil in vehicles that would be prohibitively expensive to operate without it. Maybe the next model, the H3, will need to be connected to an intravenous gas-pump hose all the time.”

By 2006, the Hummer brand was at its apex. It was exported to 33 foreign countries with global sales of 71,000.

Then came higher gas prices and the Great Recession of 2008.

Sales dropped by half. Staggering toward bankruptcy, GM stopped production in 2010. A proposed sale to a Chinese firm tanked, and the Hummer brand was shelved.

In a prescient 2010 statement, Schwarzenegger said he believed "the Hummer is a great vehicle that needs to be reintroduced with a more green engine like electric or biodiesel."

The Hummer, in fact, will be reborn as an electric vehicle under the GMC brand. Both SUV and pickups will be offered for the 2022 model year. A long way from stripped-down military efficiency, the new Hummer EVs will have luxurious interiors with state-of-the-art infotainment screens and will be controlled by the first application of Epic Games' Unreal Engine Human-Machine Interface — the 3D rendering software coveted by the gaming world. 

Estimated to start around $70,000, the Hummer EV's top trim is expected to boast 1,000 horsepower, a 3-second zero-60 acceleration time, and a sideways crab-walking mode that likely will be used more often to get out of a tight spot in a parking lot than avoid an off-road boulder.

Still big. Still premium. Still a celebrity toy. At least until the next controversy comes along.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.