Size Does Matter

I still remember the first time I saw a Hummer. I had certainly heard about it, read about it and even seen pictures of the car; nothing prepared me enough for the live version. This huge bright yellow tank-like machine came out of nowhere and parked with one side overstepping the sidewalk in a blatantly appalling fashion. It was shocking to experience such a vulgar display of power up close. I looked around me and every person in view was staring mesmerized at the car; they were all waiting to see who would step out. Subtle is not the way a Hummer arrives, and subtle is not the Hummer driver!

Some designs develop cults. They attract types of people who develop strong opinions—love, hate, or a bit of both, but rarely indifference.

The Hummer was developed for military use back in the Persian Gulf War when the United States Army was looking for a vehicle to transport troops in less than ideal surroundings. It was launched for consumer use in 1992 by the company that designed, engineered and built it, AM General. In 1999 GM bought the commercial rights for the Hummer, introducing a whole range of cars over the years – the H1, H2, and H3 that come in different sizes and engines.

On another continent during the same period, Nicolas Hayek, founder and CEO of the Swatch group was unveiling his own plans for a very small ForTwo car: an affordable, accessible, eco-friendly car with the same quirkiness as his watches. The car would cost less than $10,000 and would feature low pollution emissions due to a hybrid system of battery and gasoline. It would always be stylish, allowing partial customization and change of colors of the exterior thanks to replaceable and recyclable body parts. The concept was exactly what Europe needed, as it addressed the problems of driving in dense, old cities: lack of parking, narrow roads, fuel economy and accessibility. But ultimately the Smart car wasn’t developed to Hayek’s specifications, and rather than be associated with the design we know today, he withdrew from the joint venture with Daimler-Chrysler. Their visions did not coincide on the final outcome. 

Around the time both were introduced in the 1990s, the press wrote about both new designs in different mindsets–novelty, excitement, and discovery for the Hummer on one hand, and curiosity coupled with skepticism for the ‘Swatchmobile’ on the other.

“Is the Swatchmobile ticking towards reality, or just marking time?” In January 1994, Jaques Neher wrote an article for the International Herald Tribune voicing the European cynicism over the realization of Hayek’s dream car; people just did not think it would be executed. Doubt was understandable at the time since several car manufacturers rejected the project. At the same time a lot of journalists were questioning the need for such a miniscule car. Many proclaimed the venture to be crazy even. This questioning approach informed the public of the manufacturing plans, while at the same time made them more hesitant about waiting for the execution.

Around the same time in the US, the Hummer was going through a discovery phase where writers were test-driving it and discussing performance, gadgets, options, and driving feel. Critique was based on the experience of the car–both physical and social. This can be seen, for example, in two articles that appeared in the New York Times, one in November 1995 by Jeffrey Tarras and the other in April 1998 by James Cobb. Both comment on their Hummer driving experiences, and pointed out positive and negative things. “But the Hummer is not hard to drive. While it is a stretch for its builder to assert that it handles more like a sports car than a truck, it cruises comfortably at highway speed, tracks well on curving freeway ramps and behaves on city and suburban streets, so long as you don’t ignore its extreme width (86.5 inches, not counting mirrors). Cobb enjoyed the driving experience while Tarras did not really impress his date; “It’s not as big as I thought,” my date said disparagingly when she answered her door. More disappointment followed as she climbed inside and found that holding hands was out of the question. Indeed, by effectively dividing the cabin in two, the engine and driveline tunnel — which is nearly three feet wide — acts as a purdah, safeguarding a companion from any romantic inclinations.” One thing was for sure; it was the Hummer era! It became talk of the town at that time, or more accurately the country!

In nine countries in Europe, the launch of the Smart car in 1998 was all the hype. This was not just another car launch; it had a controversy attached to it. Media was talking about this new phenomenon but was also highlighting the withdrawal of the Swatch group from the project. “Today they have a nice car. It’s for two people, it’s a little bit too expensive, and it doesn’t have the propulsion system we developed–the hybrid one, meaning half-electric half-normal engine. Its just petrol,” Hayek proclaimed in an interview. The car did deal with some of the issues, like being small enough to park in tight spaces, even if it did not meet the whole brief it started out with. It was also not a commercial success at the start resulting in financial losses for the Daimler Chrysler Company. Did the controversy affect sales? It certainly seems that a certain reluctance and trust was lacking with the launch. Only now have Smart cars claimed success in Europe.

The Hummer came to represent a whole set of issues in the media which subsequently affected the broader American mindset. It became the symbol of things that were socially and environmentally wrong in recent years. Almost all of the press moved from talking about the Hummer’s details to negative Hummer perceptions and implications. Times are changing, though! Gas prices have increased tremendously and the economic situation is making the Hummer a more impractical car on a day-to-day basis. This will likely tighten the Hummer fan base, but definitely not grow it. Many Web sites have been developed for Hummer-lovers while others joining Hummer-haters. Hummer owners and drivers have become a certain stereotype, but arguably one based on reality.

The Smart car has received a lot of mixed reviews in America recently as well. 30,000 Americans have already paid the $99 booking fee for the car, waiting impatiently for their cute little Smart to arrive. Many blogs have erupted about this unique small gem, explaining their enthusiasm and sharing experiences. Chris Woodyard writes about this in his article in USA today—“America crazy about breadbox on wheels called Smart car.” Others are a lot more skeptical about the introduction of the Smart car in the US. “Is Smart A Dumb Idea?” Marc E. Babej and Tim Pollak believe that the Smart car will fail in the US.They make several good points, indicating resistance by some American consumers by stating that the car was not designed for “American soil and roads.” They also challenge with other thoughts; “By the time Smart launches in the U.S., the concept will be a decade old–and outdated. In an age of hybrids and other fuel-efficient technologies, will Americans feel the need to–much less want to–achieve fuel efficiency through so drastic a compromise on size, function and convenience?” Alternatively, the manufacturers of the car claim that there are about 90 new parts on the American version that were not on the European version. These sound points aside, the Smart car has long diverged from its initial mass plan and seems to be content with a smaller, discerning consumer base—economical hipsters perhaps?

Ironically, the Hummer and Smart designs ended up being very similar on many levels. They both ended up far from their initial conception. They are not mass appeals. They answer very specific needs. They are cars that you would probably need to own with another car. They are designs that can only be valued within context, made for specific places and roads. Both play on size, the smallest and biggest cars out there.

More importantly, they have become much more than a design debate and evaluation. Both represent certain lifestyles, values and identities. They are less about performance and much more about image; people make a statement with these designs. They scream for attention, on the road and in the press. Whatever feelings they evoke, we can see new groups being formed, especially online, to honor or trash these brands. Hate groups and love dedications, people are on one side or the other. Today everyone has an opinion and is voicing it. Whatever side you are on, reading critiques of the Hummer or the Smart makes one side even more one way or the other. Just like the presidential election now where voters just become more loyal and extreme favoring McCain more or Obama more.

Oh yes, going back to my story at the beginning: the Hummer driver was a young preppy woman, she dismounted the vehicle not at all annoyed by the dozens of eyes following her with mixed feelings—hatred, disgust and maybe a little intrigue. And no, it wasn’t Sarah Palin!


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