Hummers `Claw' Into Civilian Car Lots

It can traverse muddy roads, climb steep hills, and go up walls - a letter from South Bend

FOR reasons I don't fully understand, my left foot taps the brake pedal while I accelerate with my right. Up a steep knoll we go, over six big logs, through a muddy road.

"The trick to driving the Hummer is to let the engine claw its way up the hill," says Craig Mac Nab, public relations man for AM General Corporation. We are crawling all right, up a steep hill that should be off-limits to anything but a tank. My knees are nearly level with my shoulders. This, Mr. Mac Nab tells me, is the thrill of driving a Hummer.

Hummers are the military vehicles that replaced the jeep (and several other military trucks) in 1985. The United States armed forces use them for everything from carrying troops to deploying TOW missiles. Now, AM General wants to sell the vehicle - sans missiles - to the public. That's why I'm here, driving a Hummer over the company's obstacle course outside South Bend, Ind.

"The vehicle has a very powerful effect on some people," Mac Nab says. "There's almost something mystical."

There's nothing mystical about the downgrade I'm staring at. This slope should be a ski run. Don't brake, Mac Nab tells me, as I reach instinctively for the pedal. The low gear eases us down slowly. More than two tons of truck are riding on my back.

The Hummer I'm driving is a military version of what soldiers call the Humvee (for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle). The company calls it a Hummer. Civilian Hummers are due out in June.

The civilian vehicles will sport a few small changes, like real steel doors, instead of the plastic frame-and-fabric ones I have to wrestle with to close. The electrical system will be a standard 12 volts instead of the military's 24 volts. There will be more comfortable seats, interior padding, and honest-to-goodness door and ignition locks instead of the primitive cable and padlock built into the military Hummer. (Military vehicles don't have ignition keys; you turn the Hummer on by flipping a switch.)

Other than that, it's all Hummer.

Good thing, too, because the 22-inch concrete wall I'm approaching looks like it would stop just about anything. The left wheel meets the wall. I execute more two-footed wizardry with the brake and accelerator. Slowly the left side of the Hummer rises up, then the right side. Before I know it, we're over the wall. The vehicle's aluminum body flexes a lot better than steel.

At $40,000 to $54,000 a pop (depending on options, like air conditioning), Hummers won't break any sales records. The company hopes to convince cattlemen, rural firefighters, police S.W.A.T. teams, and others that this is their dream machine. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger of "Terminator" fame has one. Of the 1,000 Hummers to be produced this year as a limited edition, all are spoken for.

There are plenty of skeptics,

"That plant is not going to produce jeeps to the American public," says Daniel Shine Jr., director of aviation, aerospace, and defense consulting at Arthur D. Little. Moving from the defense to civilian industry is always harder than companies expect, he says. AM General claims the move into civilian sales is an expansion rather than a transition.

Reviews are mixed in the Hummer factory. One worker grumbles they're too expensive. Assembler Paul Bolka thinks they'll sell. "Lamborghini makes one for over $100,000, he says.

Personally, I'd pick the Lamborghini for on-the-road travel. Off-road, especially the flooded rut that lies just ahead, give me the Hummer any day. "Can we make it?" I ask.

"Children's play," Mac Nab says. Sure enough, the vehicle goes through the stream and then another. Water starts to flood the floorboards before we make our way back to land.

"You're a natural," says Mac Nab, beaming as we finish the course. Really? Well, the secret is in the braking, you know.

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