Humvee: How a military vehicle made it to your driveway

There's really no civilian use for the H1, There's really no civilian use for the H1, unless you're the type of individual who likes to build fallout shelters in the mountains. At least it looks cool in front of Starbucks? Photo Credit: AP (2006)

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It wasn't intended to be the ultimate recreational vehicle and it certainly wasn't intended to be driven by movie stars up and down Hollywood's action-packed Sunset Strip.

How the battle-hardened Humvee military vehicle became the civilian-use Hummer H1 sport-utility vehicle might not make much sense, but it does make for an interesting story.

Designed for complete and utter off-road (or no-road) use, the Humvee's purpose in life is to take troops into nearly any combat situation that isn't bathing in five feet of water. Pavement? Don't need it, don't care.

The street version, which of course is no longer offered, was essentially the military-spec package with a shiny paint job, wheels and gussied-up innards. As such, it crushed the scales at a tank-like 7,500 pounds (the equivalent of two hefty sedans), barely fit into a drive-thru lane and seated only four passengers. Fuel "economy"? Funny.

So, how and why did this street transformation take place?

Ask anyone who owns a Hummer and you'll have your answer: next to a tank, it's just about the toughest thing to ever crawl through a ditch.

As was the case with the original Jeep that was developed back in the early 1940s, this mega-ute was built to a set of operational specifications that had nothing to do with fluffy stuff such as cupholders, low wind noise and carpeted floor mats.

In 1981, the U.S. Army put out the call for a vehicle that could perform a wide range of transportation tasks. After considering three finalists, the contract was awarded to AM General Corporation in 1983. At one time the company was controlled by American Motors, which had also owned the Jeep brand. The official name given to this new model, High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, was shortened to HMMWV, which became Humvee and then, ultimately, Hummer.

The expectations for the Humvee were high. They had to be, given its defined roles as a battlefield troop transporter, armament carrier or ambulance . . . up to 15 separate configurations in total. It also needed to be stout enough to survive considerable abuse, including low-level parachute drops, where the vehicle is dumped out the back of an aircraft that's flying only a few feet above the ground.

Designers constructed an all-aluminum body that was stretched over a steel frame. They managed to keep the height to 72 inches, despite the vehicle's amazing 16 inches of ground clearance. An extra wide 85-inch stance combined with a low center of gravity also helped this warrior handle sharp turns and navigate steep grades without fear of toppling. Fitted with a deep-water fording kit, the Humvee could tackle water up to five-feet deep.

Considering the vehicle is only a foot taller than that? Amazing.

A unique feature, even for the Humvee/Hummer H1 was tire-inflation system controlled from inside the vehicle. This allowed the operator to adjust the air pressure in each of its massive tires to maximize traction, no matter the terrain.

Under its stubby hood (and actually located between the driver and front passenger) resided a General Motors-built 150-horsepower 6.2-liter diesel V8. The powerplant connected to a three-speed automatic transmission and two-speed transfer case positioned in the middle of the chassis for optimum weight distribution. Topping up with 25 gallons of fuel gave the Humvee a range of about 300 miles.

With a zero-to-60-mph time of close to 20 seconds (about twice that of a compact car), those early Humvees, some 70,000 strong, weren't exactly quick, but they were tough workhorses that outdistanced their Jeep predecessors in terms of usefulness, carrying capacity and durability.

To date, more than 150,000 units have been delivered to U.S. Armed Forces as well as the military of more than 30 nations.

The general public's exposure to the Humvee came in 1991 when thousands were deployed during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. In fact, the off-roader's status as the ultimate cult-utility vehicle can be directly attributed to that conflict.
Prodded by publicity and profit potential, AM General began selling Hummers in 1992. Other than standard air conditioning, more comfortable interiors and added power, eventually topping out with a 300-horsepower 6.6-liter General Motors turbo-diesel, they were nearly identical to the military-spec Humvees.

Since that time, and with the marketing assistance of General Motors which took over responsibility for Hummer sales in 2001, the brand expanded to include the more (street) user-friendly, consumer-only Hummer H2 wagon in 2003 as well as the smaller H3 for the 2006 model year.

The U.S. Army has indicated that the well-proven HMMWV will remain in use for many more years, even if this mighty warrior has been all but shut down on the streets of America.

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