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Hummer Bummer 

Going for a test drive the day after explosions rip through a dealership

Thursday, Aug 28 2003
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In the early-morning hours last Friday, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the loosely knit, anonymous band of eco-saboteurs, torched 20 Hummer H2s and damaged another 20 of the ersatz-military gas-guzzlers at Clippinger Chevrolet in West Covina. Explosions of gas tanks and tires shook the neighborhood of modest tract homes around 5 a.m. The burned and charred hulks, lined up on a rear lot at the San Gabriel Valley dealership, looked like they’d been flown out of Mogadishu.

What had been yellow and pewter and black and white were now a uniform gray crackle. Windshields had popped out and crumbled, tires were reduced to smoldering mounds, and leather interiors were incinerated. Graffiti scrawled across the sides of the $50,000-plus road warriors read “I’m a greedy little pig” and “I love pollution” and “Fat lazy Americans.” A spare-parts warehouse was also destroyed by fire. The ELF tagged another 26 sport utility vehicles at Duarte Mitsubishi, 20 at Ford Advantage Lincoln Mercury, also in Duarte, and nine at Rusnak Mercedes-Benz in Arcadia.

Four privately owned cars were hit in Monrovia, including a 1998 black Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer Edition damaged by a Molotov cocktail tossed into the back seat. An owner of one of the cars, Boston Fields, 22, of Monrovia told reporters, “The whole inside looked like a shish kebab. I agree with them. They are gas-guzzlers. I won’t be buying an SUV.”

After the Clippinger flames were doused, West Covina Fire Chief Richard Greene, visibly annoyed that his firefighters were put at risk “over what they [ELF] feel is a good cause,” commented that the toxic fumes sent more pollution into the air than the destroyed SUVs would have spewed in a lifetime on the road. On Friday, the ELF posted a statement on its Web site saying it had been “made aware of three ELF actions occurring in the early-morning hours of August 22, 2003. Although the ELF Press Office has received no communications about these actions from the persons responsible, spray-painted signatures at all scenes indicate claims of responsibility by ELF activists.” The ELF did not reply to the Weekly’s inquiries.

Friday’s attacks, causing more than $2 million in damages, were the second arson attributed to the ELF in three weeks. On August 1, a blaze consumed a five-story, 200-unit apartment project under construction in La Jolla, in San Diego. That fire caused an estimated $20 million in damage.

 

Where the San Diego arson decimated its target, by Saturday morning Clippinger was selling H1s and H2s as if nothing had happened the morning before. The dealership sits on a squeaky-clean frontage road in an elongated auto park just south of the San Bernardino Freeway. Clippinger’s showroom and the lot that spreads from beneath the building’s canopy were untouched by the attack. Twenty-five H2s, the second-generation Hummer that is the less hefty and considerably wimpier cousin to the H1 made popular by Arnold Schwarzenegger, were arrayed facing the street — a battalion of 316-horsepower, 8,600-pound machines capable of scaling a 16-inch wall. Fifteen $106,000 H1s were perched on a landing, parked tightly up against the glass-walled exterior of the showroom as if they’d climbed into a defensive formation, each made up of 10,300 pounds of rivets, stamped steel and tinted glass. There wasn’t a scratch or a singe on any of the vehicles.

A salesman approached, offering a test drive in a black H2 with a sticker price of $65,000 — the chrome package, tire carrier, snazzy bullet-hole wheels, a brush guard, running board and tubular assist step, and LoJack, among other amenities, adding the extra $15,000 to the total. Getting into a Hummer requires a bit of a climb, but once inside, you are ensconced in a spacious womb that is comfortable — the AC provided a welcome blizzard against the 90-degree heat — without being too cozy. The automatic-transmission gearshift is a simple L-shaped bracket just beefy enough to feel masculine, the instrument panel is black on laboratory white, distracting without being fussy. The seat cushions are ribbed like an alligator’s belly. As the promo material says, “In a world where SUVs have begun to look like their owners, complete with love handles and mushy seats, the H2 proves that there is still one out there that can drop and give you 20.” Well, maybe. The Hummers still look like Tonka toys when seen from 25 paces back.

For all its military prowess, the Hummer drives more like a Cadillac than an authentic jeep — the kind seen in every skirmish from Angola to Colombia. The H2 is so quiet and so high off the road that you aren’t sure you are actually driving on land. As my salesman-guide said, “You can steer it with your little finger.” The monster engine has lots of torque, that is, pickup, but you still feel like a 4-ton weight is dragging behind you — the way a locomotive feels when it is moving at full speed. Not sluggish, but heavy. I suspect that’s what people like about the Hummer. It’s enormous and yet it moves. My salesman put it this way: “It’s fun, really fun to drive.”

Following the test drive, the salesman asked if I owned a business. When I answered yes, the pitch kicked into high gear. Clippinger’s finance salesman offered me a seat and began to explain that by buying the Hummer for my business, I’d be able to write off its cost. “You see, it’s a law, on the books, they did it for machinery, but it doesn’t matter if you use it in your business or not. No one does. You just drive it, and you deduct it.”

He began to explain a loophole that Senator Barbara Boxer and Taxpayers for Common Sense tried to close earlier this year while Congress was passing President Bush’s unprecedented $1.5 trillion tax cut. Hummers, along with 37 other SUVs weighing more than 6,000 pounds, qualify for a “heavy equipment” expense — as the salesman was correctly explaining, because back in 1986 Congress wanted to help small businesses purchase certain types of machinery. Congress never anticipated the SUV boom or the production-trucks-on-steroids masquerading as everyday vehicles. But, with the passage of the White House tax package, the first $102,000 of an H1 and the entire price of an H2 can be used to offset a small company’s bottom line. The U.S. Treasury is subsidizing the purchase of these 11-miles-per-gallon land yachts. Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that the subsidy costs $800 million a year.

My financial savant wasn’t quite through explaining how much less the car would actually cost me out-of-pocket than the list price. “And you know,” he said, “it’s exempt from luxury tax.”

“What?”

“Yup. It’s a business expense. It’s not a luxury item.”

That would save me anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000.

As I pondered adding a winch to the front of the vehicle, the finance guy joked that no one really thinks of taking Hummers into the outback. “I like to say about the only time those vehicles go off-road,” he said, “is when their owners pull them into their driveway.”

Up the 605 freeway, about 10 miles northwest of Clippinger, are two of the other dealerships hit on Friday morning. Neither showed any sign of its business having been affected. At Duarte Mitsubishi the sales manager, Bryan White, said, “Sure, go have a look,” when asked if it was possible to see the SUVs that had been tagged. About a dozen Monteros were in plain view, all of them hastily spray-painted, in Bruin blue, some with squiggly lines like radio waves on an oscilloscope, others labeled “ELF,” still others “Pollution . . .,” the rest of the slogan having been wiped off with lacquer thinner.

White said, “They didn’t hurt us. They didn’t do a thing. We’ve already got a product that will wipe it [the paint] off. A lady called this morning. She saw it on the news, and she told us there’s a product. She had found it because she had to take paint off her car. She called just to be nice.”

He gave me the Web site for Sol-U-Mel. Sure enough, the product White plans to use, which is made from melaleuca oil (from the myrtle tree), is environmentally friendly. It’s biodegradable and derived from renewable resources. You can even use it to make you dog’s coat shiny again.

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