Today best known for the gargantuan Hummer H1, Hummer vehicles are the byproduct of a legacy extending all the way back to 1903. One Claude Cox, then an employee of the Standard Wheel Company bicycle manufacturing concern of Terre Haute, Ind. developed a vehicle known as the Overland Runabout.
Two years later, Standard worked a deal with Cox to set up shop in Indianapolis as the Overland Automobile Company. The Overland cars were quite successful and attracted the attention of John North Willys (Willis), who opened a dealership to sell Overland automobiles. Willys, a serial entrepreneur, saw an opportunity to acquire the Overland company in 1908 when the company faltered a bit—in part because of supplier related problems.
Under Willys however, those problems were resolved and the company got back on solid footing. Willys bought another car company in 1909, the Marion Motor Car Company and merged it with Overland. Another car company, the Pope Motor Car Company went defunct, but had a nice factory, so Willys bought the factory and moved Overland production to the former Pope facility in Toledo, Ohio.
Having renamed the company the Willys-Overland Motor Company in 1912, Willys continued his strategy of growth through acquisition. Purchasing the Edwards Motor Company of New York in 1912 got him the license to produce the Knight sleeve valve engine. His tactic of savvy mergers, along with producing a highly desirable automobile soon found Willys in the position of owning the second largest car company in the United States. From his state of the art seven-story office building in Toledo, Willys either directly, or indirectly, provided employment for one-third of the residents of the city.
Things were looking good until labor problems surfaced in 1919, resulting in a violent strike. The factory was shut down for several months. While Willys’s business was profitable, he was doing it all on credit, which meant he needed a steady cash flow to keep his creditors sated. When production stopped, the flaw in his approach came to light and the company got into financial trouble. Willys’s financial backers had him bring on Walter P. Chrysler as a consultant for two years at a salary of one million dollars a year to try to turn things around.
Instead of helping Willys, Chrysler tried to engineer a leveraged buyout of Willys-Overland Motor Company to fuel his own dream of being an auto manufacturer (at which he was later successful) but it didn’t work out. By 1921, the company’s money problems caused the bankers to insist Willys sell off part of the company to get himself on firm financial footing. He did, and things went well until the Great Depression hit in 1930.
By 1933, Willys was in bankruptcy. To save the company he had to sell off the vast majority of its assets. When all was said and done, the organization survived—but the glory days were behind it. The reorganized company was renamed Willys-Overland Motors. Willys died in 1935; sadly, before his company’s crowning achievement came to fruition.
With World War II looming, the War Department was looking for a company to build its new lightweight truck. Based on a design by the American Bantam Company, the vehicle ultimately became known as the Jeep. Willys-Overland, along with Ford and American Bantam won contracts to produce the automobiles. The true origin of the name is murky, however most people assume it was derived from the fact the military called it a General Purpose vehicle. This was shortened to “GP” vehicle, which when pronounced phonetically came out to be “Jeep”.
At the end of the war, Willys-Overland successfully trademarked the Jeep name and an American icon was born. The company abandoned all of its other products and focused on the Jeep. Thanks to its four-wheel drive, robust character and reliability, farmers, ranchers, hunters, and outdoors-people of every stripe found value in Jeep automobiles.
Meanwhile, another entrepreneur was eyeing the popularity of the Jeep. Henry J. Kaiser, who’d made his considerable fortune even more considerable building Liberty ships during the war (he was also one of the contractors who built Hoover Dam) bought Willys-Overland Motors in 1953—renaming the company Willys Motors. In 1963, he changed the name again to Kaiser Jeep.
Kaiser formed a special division of the company devoted specifically to developing vehicles for the U.S. Government. The division’s first real success was a contract to build mail trucks. Called the DJ-5 Dispatcher, the vehicle was soon embraced by police departments, utility companies, and small package delivery firms as well. More than 150,000 of them were built. The success of the vehicle got American Motors interested. That company bought Kaiser Jeep from Kaiser Industries in 1970.
In 1971, American Motors created AM General Corporation to focus on producing vehicles for government applications. In 1979, AM General started working on its M998 Series High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV or HumVee). This was the birth of the now legendary Hummer H1. In March of 1983, AM General got the contract to produce 55,000 of the vehicles over a five-year period. The order was subsequently raised to 70,000 vehicles.
That same year, AM General’s current owner, LTV Aerospace and Defense Company bought the company. Civilian versions of the Humvee went into production in 1992. In 1999, AM General did a deal with General Motors to pursue product, marketing and distribution opportunities. This resulted in the HumVee being renamed the Hummer H1. The Hummer brand was born. As part of the deal, General Motors got ownership of the Hummer brand name, however GM never owned any part of AM General.
From this partnership, the Hummer automobiles; H1, H2, and H3 were born. However, only the Hummer H1 vehicles were based on the AM General design. The Hummer H2 and H3 automobiles were based on civilian market GM platforms. Highly capable, the H2 and H3 were introduced toward the end of the SUV boom of the late 1990s—early 2000s. AM General built the Hummer H2 automobiles, while Hummer H3 vehicles were built by GM.
Ultimately, the mid-decade economic downturn of the 2000s—along with escalating fuel prices—conjoined to end the consumer market’s appetite for Hummers.