Originally published January 12, 2003
When things in the Middle East finally kick off, George W Bush will be able to field 120,000 troops, three carrier battle groups and more than 1,000 aircraft, including naval F-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats. There will probably be three nuclear submarines on stand-by, too, as well as countless tanks and Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Now let’s be brutally honest, shall we? A force as big as this would be enough to conquer Britain or France. Probably both. At the same time. So why use it on Iraq, which has no navy, an air force that was wiped out by George W’s dad and an army that would much rather be back in Baghdad, running the family carpet shop?
The problem is, of course, that Iraq has access to a limitless supply of the Third World’s most fearsome fighting weapon — the Toyota pick-up truck.
Whenever you tune to the news coverage of some far-flung conflict, the motley army with its collection of home-made AK-47s is always seen tearing to the front line in a wide and varied selection of flat-bed Toyotas. It’s the Taliban Tonka toy, the Tamils’ Tiger tank, and it’s not hard to see why.
One minute it’s a troop transporter and the next it’s a hospital ship. And that’s just the start. With a tube on the back, it’s a Scud launcher, and with a gun it’s an armoured personnel carrier. Fit a conning tower and it could probably pass muster as a hunter-killer submarine, too.
Furthermore, the Toyota pick-up is a fearsome off-road campaigner. Many years ago I drove one extensively around the Arabian desert, and though it was old and knackered — we called it the Millennium Falcon — it really could reach parts of the Middle East that other beards couldn’t.
For the past decade or so America’s answer to the multi-skilled Toyota has been the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. Or the HMMWV, for short. Not that HMMWV is particularly short, which is why most people call it the Humvee.
With its wheels spaced far apart so it can run in the tracks left by tanks, it has a 6.5-litre diesel engine and 16in of ground clearance — double that of any other four-wheel-drive car.
2003: the year in cars
The red-carpet star in Hollywood is … the Toyota Prius. The hybrid is so trendy that it’s used to take stars including Cameron Diaz and Harrison Ford to the Oscars.
Britain’s first toll motorway, offering relief from M6 jams, opens around Birmingham.
After the Second World War General Patton said victory was due in no small measure to the Willys Jeep and some said the same of the Humvee after Desert Storm in 1991. (Though the Iraqi army’s decision to run away might have had something to do with it as well).
Indeed, back at home Arnold Schwarzenegger was so enamoured of the Humvee he went to the manufacturer and insisted it make one for civilian use.
The result was spectacularly bad. Conversation between the driver and a passenger was impossible, partly because the seats were 5ft apart and partly because in between was that huge, rattly diesel engine. But also because the driver in question was Schwarzenegger, whose accent is indecipherable even on a clear, still day.
Then there was the price: $100,000. Not that this put people off. I have a friend in Abu Dhabi — I won’t give you his name: it starts with His Highness and ends two weeks later — who bought 20 of the damn things, and then sent one to Germany to be fitted with an electrically operated soft top. That cost him another $100,000.
Just last week we went for a spin in it through his garden and it was fine, scaling 600ft dunes with consummate ease and flattening those that didn’t measure up. We didn’t even need to get out to pump the tyres up — it was done by a switch on the dashboard — but after 20 or so miles on his tarmac drive, my ears were bleeding and my spine was bent. Off road, fighting wars, it’s a fine tool. But for everyday driving, on normal roads, it is about as much use as a sniper’s rifle.
Today, however, things are different. General Motors has bought the rights to make civilian Humvees, which are called Hummers, and now the big old military barge has a road-going little sister. It’s called the H2 and while I was out in the Middle East I thought it would be a good idea to try one out.
Sadly, GM doesn’t actually sell them out there, but getting one was easy. I would just hang around the lobby of the hotel and ask the first Arab who walked by. Crazy plan? Not at all. Asking someone in a dishdash if they’ve got an H2 is like asking if they’ve got a prayer mat. And, being the most hospitable, generous people I’ve ever met, they were duty-bound to ask if I wanted to try it.
So here’s how it went. “Excuse me. Have you got an H2?”
“Of course. Would you like to drive it?”
So there I was, with Ahmed Seddiq M al-Mutawaa by my side, going for a cruise to Jebel Ali in one of the most extraordinary cars I’ve ever had the good fortune to try.
It’s based on a normal American 4×4 called the GMC Tahoe, which is very probably the worst off-road car in the whole of human history. It’s too ugly, too big, too thirsty, too slow, not well enough equipped and hopeless when it’s presented with snow, mud, gravel, soil, grass, stone, drizzle or even a light breeze. It doesn’t work on the road either and when I took one into the desert I ended up coming home on a camel — that’s true, that is.
Anyway, the H2 has the same basic architecture as the Tahoe, but with shorter overhangs and the same engine: a 6-litre V8, which, according to Ahmed, does 3.3 miles to the gallon when taken off road. He’s not bothered because out there petrol is cheaper than water and he’s very rich. But I suspect that in Britain 3.3mpg might be unacceptable.
The size mightn’t work either. It’s shorter than a Range Rover and not so high either. But to give it that Hummer look, it’s considerably wider. It’s so wide, in fact, that it might need a police escort on motorways.
Other things? Well, it doesn’t appear to be very well made, and while the top speed is good — for a boat — the acceleration feels geological, the brakes are poor and the space inside cramped.
However, I loved it. I loved the look of the thing most of all and I loved the detailing. The door handles are such as you would find on an old barn, the tow hooks seem to have been lifted from a Boer War cart and the gearlever looks exactly like the throttle on an F-15.
It sounds, then, a triumph for the heart over the head, as if style, once again, has walked all over substance. But dynamically the H2 does do some things well. The ride is exceptionally good and a quick check of the dash showed that it has all the toys you might need should things get sticky in the middle of nowhere. The only thing that’s missing is a centre differential lock.
Inside, you have a choice. If you have the 3ft-tall spare wheel in the boot, you get only one seat back there, but if you mount it on the tailgate, you get two, which adds up to seating for six — seven at a pinch.
Really, then, it can be viewed as a wide, thirsty alternative to the Land Rover Discovery or the Volvo XC90.
Price? Well, it is for sale in America for $49,000, but don’t bother checking the exchange rate because for some reason I’ve never been able to fathom — greed, perhaps — the car industry works on the basis that one dollar equals one pound.
So, by the time you’ve got it here and fitted a few options, you must reckon on the H2 being at least a £50,000 car. You must also reckon that as you drive around people will think you are Chris Eubank. But this is a small price to pay for something genuinely different and genuinely interesting.
I really did like it, a lot. Think of it as a caramel chocolate — a hard outer shell with a soft chewy centre. Think of it as a nightclub bouncer with a heart of gold.
And that — trust me on this — is the only support America’s military machine will be getting from me in the next few weeks.