Friday, April 17, 2009

In 2005, Jim Lynch placed a big bet on a big vehicle.

He was already a successful Hummer dealer, but he spent $7.5 million on a new 34,000-square-foot showroom in a wealthy suburb of St. Louis. He even turned 60 acres of Missouri River flood plain into a rough-terrain test track, with visions of people coming from afar to try, and buy, his brawny sport utility vehicles.

General Motors cheered him on, he says, telling him he could eventually sell as many as 1,300 Hummers a year — which start at more than $30,000 and can cost more than $100,000, not to mention the thousands that many owners spend on accessories — more than enough to cover his monthly mortgage payment of $60,000. He sold 70 new Hummers a month when he opened the store, but now sees only a handful of customers each month. “That doesn’t even pay the interest on my inventory,” Mr. Lynch said. “Now I’m lying awake at night trying to think of what I can do with this big, beautiful building.”

Sales of Hummers over all have fallen so far — 51 percent last year, the worst drop in the industry — that General Motors is trying to find a buyer for the brand. Without one, the company might close Hummer. An announcement about Hummer’s fate may be made Tuesday.

“It’s a brand that represents a lot of what people want to get away from,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with the research firm I.H.S. Global Insight.

“Even if gas prices are lower, it still kind of radiates conspicuous consumption,” Ms. Lindland said. “Hummer was suddenly perceived as all that’s wrong with America’s dependence on foreign oil.”

A spokesman for Hummer, Nick Richards, said G.M. remained “in discussion with several parties” and had not determined what to do with the brand, though the company ruled out keeping Hummer in February. If Hummer is closed, it would be phased out “rather quickly,” G.M.’s president, Frederick A. Henderson, said last month.

The demise of Hummer would be cheered by environmentalists, who have relentlessly criticized its model lineup, which gets, on average, less than 10 miles a gallon. Other brands, such as Land Rover, have similar mileage ratings, but Hummer came to be viewed as the quintessential gas guzzler. A Web site that asks visitors to send in pictures of themselves giving a one-finger “salute” to Hummers has posted nearly 5,000 of them.

For Mr. Lynch and the 379 other Hummer dealers worldwide, however, it would be a sudden end to a brand that once seemed to have a strong future.

Among its staunchest advocates was Robert A. Lutz, G.M.’s product development chief, who is retiring this year. Shortly after joining G.M. in 2001, Mr. Lutz envisioned Hummer as a global brand that could challenge the rugged image and off-road supremacy of Chrysler’s Jeep products.

“I think Hummer has a lot more potential than even G.M. knows,” Mr. Lutz said at the time. “It stands for something, and that’s what people want.”

Now Hummer is a symbol of a time when S.U.V.’s ruled American highways and pumped big profits into the coffers of G.M. and other automakers.

“There was a lot of reason for optimism within the brand, but that was a very different market,” Ms. Lindland said. “Everything changed very, very quickly. It almost collapsed as quickly as it shot up.”

It has been a rude awakening for Mr. Lynch, 46, who began selling Hummers 15 years ago, shortly after A. M. General, based in Mishawaka, Ind., began manufacturing a civilian version of its military Humvee.

Mr. Lynch bought one of the 6,200-pound behemoths in 1994, while working at his father’s Toyota dealership, and ended up quitting and becoming the only Hummer dealer in Missouri.

“I thought I was the only one goofy enough to want one of those big beasts,” he said. “But then I realized it was like no other vehicle and had capabilities that you can’t find in just a regular vehicle.” Mr. Lynch loved the Hummer’s handling and its ability to drive almost anywhere, and he later realized its durability in two accidents. In each case, the vehicle that struck him was totaled, but he drove home with no visible evidence of a crash.

For seven consecutive years, Mr. Lynch was Hummer’s largest-volume dealer, often selling more than double the number of vehicles as his next-closest competitor. A mural on the side of a customized trailer he used to transport Hummers to events around the country boasts of his being the “world’s #1 Hummer dealer.”

These days, he keeps about 50 new Hummers on his lot. Four years ago, he stocked about 300 at any time, enough to fill an adjacent field.

Mr. Lynch sold more of the original Hummer, the H1, than anyone else before it was discontinued in 2006. He runs a thriving parts and accessories business that he plans to focus on more, particularly if Hummer goes away.

His building is for sale, though he hopes only to move back to a smaller location, not to close the dealership outright. That would mean abandoning the track on which he has held huge free rallies for his customers several times a year.

He already has sold the Bobcat utility vehicle that he used to maintain the track, which he worked on around the clock to finish in 2005 before a crew from the Travel Channel arrived on short notice to film a segment about it. “It was mostly me and my parts manager, with chain saws and Hummers,” he said.

G.M. has told dealers very little about its plans for the Hummer, but Mr. Lynch says he hopes executives find a way to save the brand that has been his livelihood for 15 years.

He recalled a snowstorm last winter, when many tractor-trailer trucks were stuck on Interstate 64 near his store. He pulled two of them back onto the highway and over an icy hill by hitching the cabs to the 1997 Hummer he drives.

“We were the only things moving,” he said. “I told them, ‘Next time somebody tells you everybody should be driving a hybrid, you tell them about this.’ ”


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