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Sunday, April 16, 2006

WEEK 3

IF I HAD A HUMMER . . .

Ugly and macho or ultimate supercool on wheels?


Staff writer

The streets of central Tokyo are thronged with countless high-end automobiles, but one model above all others stands out from the crowd. Two meters high and 2.1 meters wide, with a mean, military-style mien, the Hummer H2 is hard to miss among the massed ranks of Toyotas, Nissans, Beemers and Mercs.

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A Hummer H1, H3 and H2, line up in a PR shot from GM motors. (above) COURTESY OF MITSUI BUSSAN AUTOMOTIVE; the interior of the H2 replete with ultraviolet lights on the dashboard COURTESY OF MAGAZINE BOX; one of the two stretch limousine H1s available for hire at Y300,000 per day from Hummer Japan COURTESY OF HUMMER JAPAN.
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News photo

The H2, and its compact cousin the H3, have become the stuff of urban legend, with famous folks like pop idols Takuya Kimura and Ayumi Hamasaki, sumo wrestler Asashoryu and baseball player Kazuhiro Kiohara all proud owners.

The Hummer started life in 1983 as the Humvee, a "High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle" developed by Indiana-based automobile manufacturer AM General for U.S. military use in extreme weather conditions. It came into the public eye when it was widely used during the first Gulf War, and in 1991 AM General launched a civilian SUV model and called it the Hummer. Then, in 1999, General Motors bought the marque and later introduced two new models, the H2 and smaller H3, renaming the original vehicle the H1.

Although production of the H1 was temporarily suspended in 2005, the civilian version of the military staple Eendorsed and promoted by Arnold Schwarzenegger Ehas long since had a cult following in Japan, where enthusiasts thrash their macho mean machines around off-road circuits and hang out at the Hummer Cafe in Tokyo's Gotanda district. For corporate types looking to do some unusual entertaining, Hummer Japan, which handles the licensing for the H1 in Japan, has two stretch limousine versions available for hire at E00,000 per day.

Japan's Hummer boom, however, is centered around customized versions of the H2, most of which are imported nearly new from the United States, where it roared to fame after appearing in dozens of hip-hop videos as the ultimate macho bling vehicle and on the popular car customization show "Pimp My Ride." While dealer-approved models start at around E million, previously owned H2s shipped over from the West Coast can be had for just over half that.

"Of course there are plenty of advantages to buying a dealer-owned vehicle," says Koichi Nishiyama, editor of the bi-annual Hummer H2 Ultimate Guide, the world's only all-Hummer magazine, which carries scores of ads for chrome wheels and door handles and state-of-the-art audio systems. "It's just a whole lot cheaper to import a nearly new vehicle," he says through a haze of cigarette smoke in his Shinjuku Ward office.

Osamu Nakato, sales and marketing manager of Mitsui Bussan Automotive, the master importer of the Hummer H2 and H3 models, says that the firm has sold some 200 H2s since its release in 2003. But H2 Ultimate Guide editor Nishiyama and other experts estimate that there could be as many as 5,000 of the bulky beasts at large in Japan.

Mitsui's Nakato says that although there are no official figures available, according to the firm's research, the actual figure is nowhere near that high. He put the number at "just a few thousand."

That leaves a big question mark about the channels through which so many Hummers appear to arrive on these shores. One editor of a luxury car magazine, who asked not to be named, said that criminals in the United States often use expensive cars as a way of laundering their ill-gotten gains, and that before the H2 was officially available in Japan many of them Eoften bought with cash and resold just days later Ewere shipped over to Japan.

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An Owners Club convoy of 18 Hummer H2s cruises through Tokyo ANATOEL PAPFILIPPOU PHOTO; MARTIN WEBB PHOTO; PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGAZINE BOX

Although this practice is less common now that Hummer is a more established brand, many of the vehicles destined for Japan first spend a few weeks going through extensive customization at one of dozens of specialist workshops in California. The firms that run them work with showrooms in Japan, who relay their customers' specifications.

One such agent is Kazumi Saruyama, president of Speedworx Japan, one of Tokyo's leading custom-Hummer specialists. She says that around 20 percent come to her with Hummers they already bought, the rest she imports from the U.S. Her firm handles five or six orders a month, with each car taking around three months to process. Customers for whom money is no object have the customization done in Japan, where craftsmanship is meticulous. Most, though, choose to have the work done in the U.S. where costs are lower.

Among Speedworx's many celebrity clients is fashion designer Yoco Morimoto. Replicas of her white custom H3 model, replete with crystal-studded steering wheel, are available for a cool E6 million. Saruyama, 35, says her youngest customer is just 20 years old, and that although "not very many" of her clients are women, she hopes to change that through her association with rising star Morimoto.

Japan's most successful custom-Hummer agent, with over 2,000 customers (including around 60 pro baseball players), is Saitama Prefecture-based Calwing. The firm reports an annual turnover of some E billion.

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Kazumi Saruyama, president of Speedworx Japan, in her H2

Calwing is the preferred port of call for most members of the H2 Owners Club, who meet once a month in the Tokyo area to drive in convoy and show off their latest modifications to fellow enthusiasts. Speaking at an event last Saturday, club president Tomohiro Tamura said the year-old organization now has 55 members.

Driving out toward Tokyo Bay from Shin-Kiba, where two of the club's vehicles greeted visitors to an event held at nightclub Studio Coast, Tamura declared himself to be a "regular salaryman" working at an I.T. firm. Responding to the obvious raised eyebrow this bland description prompted, he grinned and added, "Yes, you could say I'm quite successful."

The 18-strong cavalcade is an awe-inspiring sight, and other road users gawp in amazement as the 2.9-ton gas-guzzling beasts roar by. However, despite having a top speed of just over 160 kph, as Tamura points out, "The H2 is more of a car to cruise in."

Among the other 18 H2 owners participating in the meet, many run their own companies, like sign-maker Atsushi Horikawa, who drives an understated model with a Bulgari clock on the dashboard and upholstery in his company's signature blue. Meanwhile, the proud owner of an all-white number with lowered suspension turned out to be a 35-year-old bureaucrat at the Tokyo Regional Taxation Bureau, while three club members were in the Self-Defense Forces.

While the brand's military provenance is not lost on most of these H2 owners, both Tamura and Horikawa denied the H2 is some kind of gung-ho symbol. Indeed, none of the Hummer crowd was wearing fatigues, and a lone Support Our Troops bumper sticker was the only evidence of a U.S. Army connection.

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Fashion designer Yoco Morimoto's H2

The principal attraction for these enthusiasts is the opportunities the H2 affords for creating something unique. With a vast network of custom workshops built around the car, it is easy to get add-ons or made-to-order modifications. After the Owners Club convoy pulls in to the Umihotaru highway service area beside Tokyo Bay, members show off their impressive audio systems, huge TV screens and flashing neon lights. One member has an NYPD badge and cap on his dashboard and a siren that emits the whoop-whoop of "New York's finest."

Although the number of H2s imported privately must be galling for the official distributor Mitsui, spokesman Osamu Nakato seems unfazed. The firm is focusing on the more manageable H3 model, which is marketed with the slogan "Just Size," to highlight its compactness in comparison to its predecessor.

Indeed, H2 owner Kenji Uchida, who runs patisserie La Primeur in Tokyo's Nerima Ward, says that although his Hummer is great for his family of four, he is sometimes turned away from department store car parks. Sign-maker Horikawa says that he avoids narrow roads, which can be inconvenient in central Tokyo where there are so many.

Mitsui reports having sold more than 1,000 H3s since its 2003 launch. At Auto Emporium, one of Tokyo's two Hummer dealerships, sales manager Masami Iinuma says his showroom's 2006 quota of 80 H3s has already been sold Eand the same goes for some 30 H2s. Customers, he says, are drawn by the distinctive look and the lure of the brand.

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The current issue of H2 Ultimate Guide, the world's only Hummer magazine.

Mitsui's Nakato attests to the huge popularity of the Hummer brand by showing off the huge amount of unpaid publicity the H2 and H3 have received Ean estimated E million of editorial coverage since their 2003 launch.

Not all of the publicity has been positive, however. With Japanese carmakers leading the way in fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, the Hummer's average fuel economy of 19 liters per 100 km Ewhich can drop to 26 liters in urban environments Eseems like an abomination. According to Yuki Kudo of the Ibaraki Prefecture-based Lifecycle Assessment Research Center, part of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the H2 is "probably the worst car for the environment on the roads of Japan."

While the Hummer brand may be a major affront to the green lobby, production rolls on. Last month, GM established a new plant in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with the first vehicles Edestined for export to Australia, Britain and Japan Eexpected to roll off the production line this winter.

But with prices dropping as more vehicles go onto the used market, and an H2 featuring strongly in pop idol Ayumi Hamasaki's latest music video for her single, "Startin',E no doubt more and more of Japan's nouveau riche will be treating themselves to one of these rugged rides as soon as they can scrape together the cash.



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