ARUN RATH, HOST:
The reign of the Humvee is coming to an end. The trucks rolled out in the '80s and quickly became a symbol - the American cavalry has arrived. Now, a new symbol is on the way. This week, the Pentagon awarded a contract to the Wisconsin company Oshkosh Defense to build tougher, more nimble vehicles for the Army and Marines. Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport has written about the long and storied career of the Humvee. He says it was the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that revealed the vehicle's shortcomings.
CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: We find ourselves in conflicts now where there's no clear front line. And the Humvee, in a lot of ways in Iraq particularly, came to be a symbol of, you know, many of the problems that led to - at least the early stages - being called a fiasco. I mean, these Humvees were out there on the battlefield, which was, in Iraq, pretty much everywhere, and they didn't have the armor to withstand front-line combat. And they weren't designed for it. They were designed mostly for behind-the-line, rear echelon transporting troops and cargo in relatively safe places.
RATH: So the new vehicle - the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle - what can the JLTV do that the Humvee can't?
DAVENPORT: Well, the JLTV, if you think about it, it's like mating a tank with a Jeep. The Pentagon realized we want something that has sort of that level of what they call survivability that can protect against certain level of bombs and blasts, but also has the sort of nimbleness, if you will, of the Humvee, which, you know, can ford rivers. It can go through forests, over rocks. In many ways, it's like a Jeep. And it, you know, can sort of go off-roading.
RATH: And the Humvee, of course, spanned a popular, for a time, civilian offspring - that would be the Hummer. It just seems like such a different time now. Can you explain - remind us why some civilians found the Hummer so alluring?
DAVENPORT: Right. They do spring these commercial offshoots. So for example, the Humvee - Arnold Schwarzenegger actually saw a fleet of them, I think, in California and said, you know, hey, I want one of those and went to the manufacturer at the time, AM General, and was like hey, you guys got to build me a commercial variant of that. And he pushed them, and ultimately, they did. And the Humvee, as we all know now, became the Hummer.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUMMER ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A vehicle that defies comparison or categorization, a vehicle not in a class, but a universe all its own, a wolf in a field of sheep.
DAVENPORT: That production line has ended. I mean, it came to symbolize sort of American excess - I mean, you know, for getting so few miles to the gallon and became very expensive. But, you know, the Hummer was driven by sports stars and, you know, rap stars and musicians and, you know, actors. And, you know, who knows? Maybe there'll be a commercial version of the JLTV.
RATH: So getting back to the military vehicles. As they get phased out, what is the military doing with all those retired Humvees?
DAVENPORT: Well, it'll take a while for the Humvee to be phased out entirely. They still have many, many of them, and there are many uses for them, you know, sort of behind the line. But what's interesting in researching this article, I found that you can go and buy a used Humvee. I'm sure Arnold Schwarzenegger would be very interested in this. There is a website called IronPlanet, and they have a contract with the Pentagon to sell surplus military equipment, including Humvees. And it seemed when I looked, the bidding generally started about $7,500. So these auctions I believe are held on Wednesdays online, and you can go out and buy yourself a Humvee.
RATH: I've got to say, it'd be kind of fun pulling one of those into the NPR parking lot. Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Washington Post. Christian, thanks so much.
DAVENPORT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.