There was a time when all cars were cars. Unless they were trucks, in which case they were pickups, or maybe a big-rig. But for the non-trucker there were station wagons, coupes, sedans, convertibles — all different flavours of the same steely American tradition.
Then along comes Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s 1990. He’s fresh off filming Total Recall, which would go on to gross over $100 million. He’s doing well. And he doesn’t want to drive a car, or even a truck. He wants to drive a Humvee, just like the ones the Marines are driving on CNN as Desert Storm gets underway; just like ones the 82nd Airborne drove when they invaded Panama.
Schwarzenegger saw a troop of Humvee’s roll past when he was filming Kindergarten Cop, according to a Washington Post story. Maybe he was feeling insecure. He wasn’t Kindergarten Cop, goddammit. He was Commando. He was the motherfucking Terminator. And he needed to drive something as big and tough and wide as he was.
The Humvee was built for war, a four- door passenger car on a truck chassis. It didn’t protect its occupants very well from gunfire, but almost nothing else could stop it. That V8 motor just kept on chugging, through Panama, through Kuwait, everywhere. Arnie convinced AM General to sell him one. Then he convinced AM General to put it into mass production for civilians. The Humvee became the Hummer. It was just like the ones the Marines drove, but it could be had with a leather interior and other luxuries. Because you want to look like a Marine, not actually be one of the few, the proud. That’d be too uncomfortable.
This, I think, is the birth of the modern Sport Utility Vehicle. This is the moment when we all began to need an SUV. True, Jeep and Land Rover got into the game earlier, but those were off-roaders, for people who occasionally drove into the woods or had a country home. The modern SUV is about image. Not what it can do, but what it says about what you can do.
Paris Hilton bought a black Hummer. Hugh Hefner got a stretched one with leopard-print interior. Dennis Rodman bought one and paid to have nude women painted all over it.
Sales were good. But the Hummer was expensive. To reach more consumers, General Motors, who purchased the Hummer brand, made a cheaper version, the H2. It was watered down, a Tonka-toy version of what the Army was driving. Eventually there was an even cheaper model, the H3.
In 2009, following the recession, General Motors went bankrupt. Hummer was dead, gas was expensive, SUV sales were down. But it wasn’t the end. The modern SUV was born and not even a recession could kill it.
Cars were no longer cars. Trucks were no longer trucks. There was this new grey area: Sport Utility Vehicles — whatever that means — caught in the middle.
These things are everywhere Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Maserati, Lamborghini, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Volvo, Jaguar, Cadillac: all of these brands now make tough-looking, rugged SUV-flavoured vehicles. They have driven the auto industry to year after year of record-breaking sales.
Why? Maybe because we all feel like Terminators, pratfalling our way through Kindergarten Cop. We live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance, where our self-conception is at odds with our reality. We want to feel like a badass on the road and in life. We want this dangerous, uncertain world to know we’re all ready to break away and conquer mountain trails at a moment’s notice, live off the grid, under our own road rules. At the very least — and this extends far beyond the vehicle we drive — we want to show everyone how busy and full our lives are — much too busy and full for a mere sedan! If Arnold was susceptible to all these emotions, if he didn’t feel rugged enough out on the streets without a mobile command unit on wheels, what chance do the rest of us have? In trying times, with our identities under threat along with every thing else, the SUV is indispensable, a safety blanket with a five-star crash safety rating.
It’s what’s on the outside that counts.