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When Bob Fritz took a test drive, the salesman offered him more than an ordinary spin down I-70. Fritz went flying and bouncing over logs and 5-foot berms on an obstacle course next to the dealership.
It was a tough introduction, but Fritz had had enough of the Olds 98 he was trading in. The vehicle he coveted was anything but your father's Oldsmobile. The retired oil-company executive from Town & County was trying out a Hummer -- a veritable minitank that replaced the Army's Jeep in the early '80s and hit the civilian marketplace in 1992. The vehicle first struck the public imagination during Operation Desert Storm, when it was called by its proper military name, the High Mobility Multipurpose Vehicle, or Humvee. Fritz had seen a Hummer on television, and he just had to have one.
Equally at home in the Arctic and the desert, the Hummer can go most anywhere, though not very quickly. With a top speed of 90 mph, the Hummer does zero to 60 in 18 seconds -- a sluglike time. It gets about a dozen miles to the gallon and costs more than $100,000. But Fritz doesn't care. Six years after that first test drive, he still remembers the day. "It was an experience like you've never had before," he recalls.
Fritz, who has since traded in that first Hummer for a newer model with a turbocharger, was hooked on the Hummer at Jim Lynch Hummer, a dealership just west of O'Fallon, Mo., that has quietly become the world's top seller of what is perhaps the biggest status symbol on wheels. You wouldn't know it from driving by. Just off Exit 214 on I-70, the entire dealership -- showroom, offices and service garage -- fits into a giant steel prefab building barely visible from the highway. Though utilitarian, the nondescript enterprise is the exact opposite of what a Hummer is known for: a loud proclamation that the driver is different, a rugged individualist in the mold of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, pitcher Randy Johnson and goofball Dennis Rodman, all of whom drive Hummers and don't mind crappy factory paint jobs and 3-foot-wide transmission humps separating drivers and passengers. Boxer Mike Tyson owns four Hummers.
The typical Hummer owner is male, not afraid to take risks, and rich. Lynch, who vows he won't be undersold, advertises a Hummer with a $106,543 MSRP for $88,900. He estimates that 10 percent of his customers regularly drive their Hummers off-road, and at 7,200 pounds (four times the weight of a Chevy Metro) and 16 inches off the ground (half-a-foot higher than other production SUVs), these trucks can take it. Built to withstand drops from military airplanes, Hummers can ford rivers up to 30 inches deep, ramble across seemingly impassable gullies and even go through brick walls (check out "Stupid Hummer Tricks" and "Are Hummers Safe?" on Lynch's Web site, www.lynchhummer.com). Just 1,000 Hummers are produced each year, and Lynch, who sold 162 (including 71 used ones) last year, has the biggest share of the market. Competing against 50 other dealers across the nation, Lynch sells nearly twice as many as the next-biggest dealer, located in Arizona.
What's a dealership like this doing in a place like St. Louis, far from four-wheel country and Hollywood?
Once the general manager of a Toyota dealership owned by his father, Lynch got into the Hummer business shortly after buying one for himself in 1994. "I noticed that people would follow you into parking lots to talk to you about a Hummer," he recalls. "I decided then that the best form of advertising for us was going to be word-of-mouth advertising. So we started six years ago with the intention that we never wanted a customer to ever say anything bad about us."
Lynch seems to have met his no-complaints goal. When Bob Bish, Webmaster for www.humvee.net, polled Hummer enthusiasts a couple of years ago to find out what they thought of dealers, Jim Lynch came out on top. "Everyone rated him a 10 except for just one 9," Bish recalls. "Jim Lynch was far and away the best-rated one. I'm sure you'll find no one who has anything bad to say about Jim."
Lynch doesn't like to talk about his days selling Toyotas, but he does say he doesn't like the car-selling business, or at least the way it's commonly practiced -- too much attention to squeezing customers and hitting preset profit margins on every sale. Lynch Hummer is no common dealership, and Lynch has no plans to sell any other brand. Every employee, including his receptionist, has spent a week at AM General's Hummer plant in South Bend, Ind., to receive factory training on basic mechanics and driving techniques. "I think the mental state for car dealers is completely different than the way we look at things," Lynch says. "We do it differently, and we like the way we do it. I don't care if we make anything the first time someone comes in."
It may sound a bit like the usual car-dealer shtick, but Lynch customers do come back. Lynch has sold the same Hummer as many as four times, thanks to customers who have traded it in for newer models. Customers rave about everything from Lynch's prices to the dedication of his employees, who have been known to keep the dealership open late for out-of-town customers, who are personally greeted at the train station, which isn't necessarily surprising, considering a Hummer costs more than many houses in the St. Louis area.