Humming the wrong tune

The most depressing feature at the North American International Auto Show (Detroit Motor Show) held in January wasn’t the unusual amount of unused exhibition space, or the mood, which was less “woohoo, check out our cool cars” and more “Billy Bob, is this here a funeral?”. It was the hundreds of General Motors employees who had travelled, at their own expense, to whoop and cheer as GM unveiled future models.

GM took up a fair amount of space at the exhibition centre in downtown Motor City, so there was ample room for the vent-a-crowd to line the runway and, while new GM models crept slowly passed the serfs towards the suits standing on a podium making promises they would never keep, the blue-collar workers waved placards with slogans such as “here to stay”, “we’re electric” and “charged up”.

GM’s botched PR exercise had inadvertently made the pre-show press days more than a little morose. Looking at the glum employees I was instantly reminded that although we all make fun of the Big Three American manufacturers’ failures, no one would feel their complete lack of business acumen more keenly than those factory workers desperately hoping for a fiscal miracle.

The only plausible idea to emerge from GM’s press conferences during the Detroit Motor Show was the concept of turning Michigan into the electric battery capital of the world — much the way California has Silicon Valley, Michigan would have Battery Valley — but sadly I haven’t heard anything further about this since the motor show.

GM South Africa (GMSA) says the sale of Hummer won’t affect vehicle warranties or after-sales back-ups and the brand will continue to function here as it always has. However, production of all Hummer vehicles will be moved to North America and that will undoubtedly have an impact on GMSA’s Port Elizabeth plant, though there is no indication yet of when Hummer production will stop and how it will affect GMSA’s workforce.

According to GMSA, the Chinese machinery company — Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company, based in Chengdu, western China — that has allegedly paid less than $500-million for Hummer is going to continue investing in and developing the brand. It will also be the only Chinese company to sell vehicles in North America, something the Chinese have been trying to do for a long time.

Given the questionable track record of most Chinese carmakers on safety and reliability (the primary reason why they don’t sell in North America and most European countries), I don’t think Hummer has found the best foster parents in this new company, which isn’t technically a carmaker yet. Tengzhong is said to manufacture road equipment, including road maintenance machinery and heavy-duty trucks.

A few weeks ago GMSA launched an addition to Hummer’s range of vehicles. Not just any addition, but a gas-guzzling V8, and given the current (figurative and literal) climate, that’s about as prudent as putting a band aid on a femoral artery that’s been sliced open with a scalpel.

There’s no doubt about the Hummer H3’s offroad capabilities and these were proved again during the launch, but many motoring scribes wondered about the logic behind the new model. Maybe Hummer’s new owner is all for petrol-chomping V8s, but the buying public isn’t quite so enthusiastic about big engines anymore.

Hummer executives said the V8 was being introduced to satiate customers who aren’t happy with the 3.7-litre’s power. I don’t know if that’s a good enough reason for adding an engine of this size to the range, but Hummer obviously thought it was.

The H3 V8 features a 5.3-litre engine that produces 224kW of power and 434Nm of torque, so when you tire of climbing up and down pavements or conquering neighbouring countries, your formidable steed will get up to speed easily.

There are two models, the luxury spec (R531 887), which comes with a standard reversing camera, and the adventure spec (R541 886), which features fully locking front and rear differentials that give the Hummer extraordinary off-road proficiency.

Fuel consumption is optimistically claimed to be in the region of 14.5 litres/100km on a combined cycle. Standard features include ABS, a traction-control system and a stability enhancement system, among other features, while the transmission is a four-speed automatic.

In my opinion people hate Hummers for all the wrong reasons. The rationale I’ve gleaned from a few friends run along the lines of “it has militaristic roots and we hate the fascist American army”, but a great deal of modern technology has filtered down from military labs into our lives so that’s not a good enough reason for me. Then there’s “well, it’s a gas-guzzler”, but most SUVs, 4x4s and sports cars with V8s and V12s are gas-guzzlers too, so if you hate Hummers on that basis then you should apply the same loathing to all non-diesel vehicles that have anything bigger than a 4.0-litre engine.

And finally, there’s the somewhat tenable “people are ruining our environment and crashing through our bushes for no good reason other than to prove that these behemoths are all-conquering”. Almost true. More pertinently, though, up to 90% of South Africans who buy vehicles with 4×4 capabilities don’t take them off-road. As evidenced by the lazy twerps who leave their SUVs straddling parking bays in our many malls, the majority of huge 4x4s won’t be so lucky as to experience a smattering of mud on their pristine mud-flaps.

If anything we should be more concerned about the effect that all big-engined vehicles (not just Hummers) have on further polluting our environment as opposed to holding on to ill-informed misconceptions about any one car.

Ultimately, the Hummer H3 is like any other SUV. The only differences are that Hummer, as a brand, has made a few stupid decisions about engine choices and it was unfortunately adopted by a parent that epitomised unapologetic American excess, and that didn’t help its already tainted image at all.

However, if we were to rate it as we would any other 4×4, ignoring its history, then I would have to say that the Hummer H3 is over-engineered and as a result it’s one of the best 4x4s I’ve ever driven. Whether that’s reason enough to buy one is entirely up to you.

The most salient question though, is does the world need more 4x4s and the short answer is no, but if you ask that in relation to the Hummer, you’ll also have to question the existence of every other 4×4 on our roads.

Q&A with general Motors South Africa product Communications manager Des Fenner
Given that American executives confirmed that Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company is officially Hummer’s new owner, why aren’t South African executives confirming this?
Under the terms of the agreement and at the buyer’s request, GM did not release the buyer’s identity. However, due to the significant amount of media speculation and reports identifying the buyer, GM and Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company issued a joint press release in the United States [last Tuesday] announcing Tengzhong as the potential purchaser of Hummer.

Technically, Tengzhong isn’t a carmaker as it is said to manufacture heavy road machinery. Is its lack of experience cause for concern?
Tengzhong will be investing in Hummer to turn it into a true global brand. Tengzhong will provide investment allowing international growth that has been restricted given GM’s issues. The business will have the cash flow to develop new products. China’s growing market is a key leg of the strategy and Tengzhong is poised to deliver on it. There are approximately 1 000 Hummers in China today — it should be a major market. Also, current Hummer management will stay on to grow the business.

Do you think Chinese carmakers’ bad reputation with regards to safety and reliability is going to hurt the Hummer brand?
Hummer values will remain, as it will remain a US-based vehicle group. Customers will benefit from the same service, standards, warrantee coverage and iconic brand values as before.

With production of Hummer being consolidated in Shreveport, how will this affect the workforce at GMSA’s PE plant?
The announcement will not result in any further job reductions as GMSA is in the process of concluding an organisational restructuring exercise which commenced in July last year, directed at realigning our employee headcount in line with a lower volume market. This exercise included the potential impact of the loss of Hummer production.

Given the global need for more fuel-efficient vehicles, wouldn’t it have been a better idea to introduce a turbo-diesel or a smaller petrol engine?
We already have the 3.7-litre “smaller petrol engine” available in the Hummer. As part of increasing the model line-up, the V8 was already existing, so we were able to bring it to market sooner than the Turbo diesel, which we hope to have in the market by first quarter 2010.

How is GM filing for bankruptcy going to affect your South African plant?
GMSA, like other GM International operations, is a self-sustaining operation and we are responsible for our own cash generation and future viability. The actions that we’ve been taking since early 2008 — however difficult — have put us in a solid position to weather this downturn and capitalise on the market once it begins to improve, giving us an edge for rapid and sustainable growth. It’s business as usual at GM South Africa.

Given the negativity towards the Hummer brand and GM’s financial woes, do you think the Hummer brand will still be around in 10 years?
An iconic brand, a vehicle that is “Like Nothing Else”, a spectacular off-road performer that has both attitude and huge street credibility … Whether you love them or you hate them, Hummers will be around for a long time, well over the next 10 years.

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