09/18/2006 12:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Spinning the Hummer

On the way home from school, my son asked me, "How much do you think it costs per month to lease a Hummer?" I guessed around $500, but my son said no, around $200, because no one wants a Hummer anymore.

When my son tells me something related to the culture, I figure the information has already passed through a hundred nimble minds attuned to the secret ways of the world. The information may not be
strictly true, but it usually reflects the zeitgeist.

Myth has it that Schwarzenegger gave birth to the Hummer. After spotting a convoy of Humvees while shooting "Kindergarten Cop" in 1992, he persuaded AM General to build a consumer model. The gigantic 3 ton Hummer, with its $130,000 price tag and absurdly bad gas mileage, became an instant symbol of patriotism, wealth, and arrogant disregard for the environment, depending on who you talked to. In the early months of the Iraq invasion, the Hummer became ubiquitous in L.A. Like the Iraq War itself, this tricked-out military truck seemed to embody the three estates of American power -- Hollywood, Business and the Military. Gangsta rappers embraced it as a symbol of having arrived, a kind of vehicular bling.

I recalled a car from my childhood with equal symbolic significance: the Volkswagon Bug. Originally marketed by Hitler under the name Kraft durch Freude (strength through joy), the Bug got 33 mpg and during the dog days of the Vietnam War became an anti-status-symbol. Try to fit a family into an anti-status-symbol. I remember long trips from New York to Maine in my parents' black Beetle, fighting with my brother the whole way. We named the bump on the floor dividing the back seat "the DMZ," after the demilitarized zone in Vietnam: our scrunched-up feet were not allowed to cross this area. The Bug dwindled in popularity with the counter-culture, but my parents kept theirs until its engine died.

After talking to my son, I was sure the Hummer's days were numbered too. The debacle in Iraq had made it seem a ridiculous celebration of hubris, like a tee shirt with the slogan "Shock and Awe." Certainly Schwarzenegger would have gotten rid of his fleet of seven Hummers. We don't really expect politicians to practice what they preach, but after signing a bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Governor couldn't possible still drive 7 monster SUVs that get 12 mpg.

When I came home, I Googled Hummer. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that sales of the Hummer had gone up, not down, in August 2006. Some further investigation revealed that GM had slimmed the truck by 17 inches in its latest H3 model, given it a 5-cylinder engine and brought the price down to $30,000. My son was right that Hummers had gotten cheaper, but was he right that people didn't want them anymore? And who did he mean by "people"? That McDonalds includes toy Hummers in its new Happy Meals suggests that GM is pitching to the masses. Is the new Hummer a faux status symbol that will inevitably lose its appeal with popularity, a last attempt to milk the brand? Meanwhile Schwarzenegger claims to be retrofitting one of his Hummers to run on hydrogen. So he drives the green Hummer when he goes hiking. What about the other 6?

Old symbols die hard.