As many of you know, I recently purchased a Hummer. For those of you who don’t know much about the Hummer, allow me to explain: this is a hardcore, serious, off-road-ready military vehicle designed to do battle in camel-infested nations, except mine has a CD player.
Today, I’m going to tell you how I bought it.
What I thought would happen: I could walk down to the used Hummer store and pick up just any ol’ example, because these things are ready for war, dammit, and so they must be robust, and sturdy, and tremendously reliable.
What actually happened: The Hummer is possibly the most unreliable piece of crap I’ve ever owned.
Now, I don’t say this to offend Hummer owners, because I actually happen to like this thing quite a bit already. It’s fun, it’s capable, it’s enjoyable, and I find it surprisingly exciting to drive. But these vehicles are saddled with almost innumerable issues and problems, to the point where I’ve kind of started to wonder if they were made to challenge Land Rover’s dominance in the highly competitive “SUVs that have a 50/50 chance of getting you home” segment.
But don’t just take my word for it. Consider this: in the military, the Hummer is referred to as the “HMMWV,” which stands for “High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle.” On the Hummer forums, the acronym has taken a different meaning: High Mobility Money Wasting Vehicle.
So let’s start with the Hummer’s biggest flaw, which is the “number eight cylinder” issue.
Beginning in about 1996, every single Hummer was fitted with a 6.5-liter General Motors turbodiesel V8, which combined the 194 horsepower of a Toyota Camry with the 438 lb-ft of torque from an angry farm tractor. This was a great engine for a vehicle the size of the Hummer, because you need TORQUE, dammit, so you can PULL STUFF.
Well, there was one little issue: every single one of these engines was manufactured with a casting flaw that resulted in a crack on the number eight cylinder. Fortunately, the fix was easy: you just replaced the engine. For more than $10,000.
Now, I’ve heard of casting flaws in certain engine runs before, so this problem didn’t surprise me too much. But check this out: it affected every single Hummer manufactured from 1996 to 2000. Not a few. Not a portion. Not some, not half, not most. All. Every single Hummer built from 1996 to 2000 has either had its engine fail due to the number eight cylinder issue, or will have its engine fail due to the issue. And some of the early ones that failed may have been replaced with more bad engine blocks, so by God you have no idea who to trust.
And yes, ladies and gentlemen, the military trucks were also affected, as they used the exact same engine as the civilian model.
Just picture it: you’re cruising along in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or wherever, searching for a group of crazy machine gun-toting militants cruising around in a ’92 Toyota pickup with the tailgate modified to say “YO,” when all of a sudden… nothing. Your truck has stopped. It won’t move an inch. It’s making awful noises. There’s some huge problem. And just what is that problem? A land mine? Enemy fire? A grenade that took out the differential? No! Your desert-fighting, terrain-tested, highly capable military vehicle has been disabled by none other than the General Motors Corporation, 100 Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI 48243.
But Hummer problems aren’t merely limited to the number eight cylinder issue. This truck also famously possesses a “central tire inflation system,” which allows you to inflate or deflate the tires depending on your current road surface. Allow me to explain:
How it’s supposed to work: You’re chasing a group of rebel forces through a large city, possibly Los Angeles, possibly on the set of a Michael Bay film. Suddenly, the crazed terrorists make a turn and – OH NO! – they’re driving on the beach! They’ve just hit an umbrella! A cooler! A towel! Beach volleyball players are fleeing in all directions! At this moment, you must stop for a minute or two to let the air out of your tires using a switch on your dashboard.
Eventually, you resume the pursuit. You’re right behind! Closing in! Neck and neck! When in an instant… they’re back on the pavement!! OH NO! But wait! You stop and press the dashboard switch once again. After a few more minutes, your tires are fully aired up! You’re back in the pursuit! You drive on the sidewalk! You hit a mailbox! There are explosions! A pickup truck smashes into a telephone pole! A cow is split in two!
But eventually you get the terrorist, who must’ve been driving a riding lawnmower in order to be caught by a Hummer, and the plutonium is recovered, and America is safe, at least until the sequel. And it was all because of your tires, which can add or remove air at the push of a button.
How it actually works: It leaks.
Apparently, the situation with the central tire inflation system is that there are a lot of complicated wires and hoses and lines going from the compressor to the tires, and so after a while these lines develop tiny leaks, to the point where you patch one and another sprouts, and so on, and so on, sort of like the Whack-a-Mole game for military mechanics. After checking out four Hummers with a leaking tire inflation system, I began treating this like Range Rover air suspension: I looked for trucks where the system was disconnected.
Of course, the problems aren’t merely limited to the central tire inflation system and the number eight cylinder. Since this is a unique, purpose-built truck, there’s also a wide array of other unique, annoying issues ranging from climate control problems to leaks that come from just about every orifice imaginable, including the driver’s pants when he goes down a narrow street. And then there are typical “old truck” problems like suspension, and brakes, and rust, and the fact that acceleration happens at roughly the same pace as an old person moving through an airport.
Over the last few months, I had four different Hummers checked over by mechanics, and three received a failing grade. One — which looked great on the outside — came with the disclaimer that its issues were “nothing ten grand can’t fix.” Mind you, this was for a 12-year-old Hummer with 120,000 miles that was already on sale for more than $43,000. I actually offered $33,000 for that Hummer, and I never heard from the dealer again.
And that brings us to another issue with buying a Hummer, namely: the kind of people selling a Hummer. Generally, they fall into two categories: one, people who thought it would be really cool to have a Hummer, so they bought one, and then they realized tires cost more than childbirth, so they’re panic-selling it on eBay with four total pictures. And two: guys who are incredibly wealthy, and they bought the Hummer three years ago, and they drove it a total of four times, and yes they’re selling, but they don’t want to really jump through any hoops to sell it, like taking extra photos, or bringing it to a mechanic for inspection, but by the way, their price is firm.
After calling or e-mailing on seven different trucks since December and getting four total pre-purchase inspections, I finally settled on the one I bought: a rare 1995 gas-powered model with faded yellow paint and a little surface rust on the body. The central tire inflation system is plugged. There’s a Chevy V8 under the hood. No diesel problems. No cracked cylinders. No complicated modern electronics. No issues, no problems, no drawbacks.
It’s been in the shop for a week.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.