Meet the Shop Reviving Hummer’s Reputation With Custom H1s
Should you give three 20-somethings $200K to build you a custom Hummer?
Jay Leno says they’re “like driving an office building.” Motor1 says they’re perfect for people who live in deserts or giant forests. We say they mark the resurgence of a much-maligned auto brand.
“They” in this instance refers to the custom Hummer H1s being unleashed on the world by Mil-Spec Automotive. We’ve written about a couple of the Detroit-based shop’s centerfold-worthy builds before, but as the relatively small company has grown and shown itself as a worthy contender in the crowded custom vehicle space, we wanted to get in touch and ask the tough questions.
Chiefly: Who is buying these? Where is MSA getting the Hummers? And, most importantly, why are they spending all this time and energy on the Hummer brand — which went kaput back in 2010 — in the first place?
To answer those questions and many more, we dialed up Ian Broekman. He’s the Chief Innovation Officer and Lead Designer at MSA, and a co-founder alongside CEO Adam Mitchell and President Chris Van Scyoc. Oh, and he’s only 23 years old (Mitchell and Van Scyoc are both 24).
Below, some excerpts from our conversation, including an answer to the question on everyone’s mind: Should you give three 20-somethings $200K to build you a custom Hummer?
How did you meet Chris and Adam? And why did you start MSA?
Adam and I went to high school together and were always interested in cars. There wasn’t a huge car scene, so we gravitated towards each other and hung out, talked about our cars and talked about the industry. We kept in contact after he went to UW Madison and I went to Lawrence Tech here in Detroit for Transportation Design.
While he was at school, he met Chris, who at that time was a huge vintage car and boat enthusiast. They hit it off and one trip out to Silver Lake Sand Dunes he invited me out, and the three of us connected and started talking about the industry and where it was going. We are huge fans of what Jonathan Ward at Icon does and what the guys at Singer do, [and we thought] there a lot of other vehicles, specifically in a military context, that deserve the same attention to detail and treatment. That’s how the genesis of the research phase began and then it turned into a crazy business model. It didn’t make too much sense, but three years later, here we are.
You founded MSA in 2015, but you’re still in your early 20s. What was it like starting relatively young compared to the rest of the industry?
A lot of people ask us that question, and we like to think of our age as an advantage because we’re not married, we don’t have kids, so we’re able to pour ourselves completely into our passion. We were able to work 70-80 hours a week and not have any consequences for it. It was a lot of trial and error, lots of mistakes and a lot of development. We were in development basically for two, two-and-a-half years before we even released the product. We were having to find ways to generate other avenues of revenue and keep the business afloat, but they don’t really teach you that in college. So it was a crash course on business for the three of us.
What are you bringing to the table that’s not already out there in the custom vehicle and restomod industry?
We focus on vehicles that were developed for a military purpose. A lot of those vehicles have a nostalgia and an interest in the enthusiast market, but they were never really intended to be used by civilians. For example, although the [Hummer H1] was developed later on in its life to be a civilian vehicle, that was a rush job in our opinion. There were a lot of corners cut and it never got the treatment in terms of powertrain, on-road and off-road handling or interior comfort, and never had a chance to start from a good place and evolve. Our approach is focused on re-engineering and redesigning the whole platform rather than just improving upon a bunch of little elements.
How does the process work? Can you walk us through getting one of your custom Hummers?
We only work on the Hummer H1 right now and that’s due to the fact that if we offer a vehicle that we work on, we want to make sure that we have at least a year to two years of development. So customers right now will come to us and say, “I’d like a Launch Edition,” which is our first run of 12 restorations on the H1 platform, and then we source a donor truck or they bring us a truck to utilize for the restoration. Once the truck is taken in, we have to do a complete analysis on it and tear it down to the frame rails and body. And then the frame rails and the body are the only parts that get reused.
I thought that most of these trucks would definitely be garage queens, but actually it’s been quite the opposite.
The client works directly with me and a couple members of our team to design their truck based on our options sheet and we go back and forth, 20, 30, 40 emails discussing exactly what finishes and materials they want along with options, and then once we have a very good idea of the spec of their truck, that’s when the production begins. And then we make some changes based upon how the truck evolves as it’s being produced.
How did you decide to work with the H1? Didn’t you first start with actual military Humvees?
Yeah, we felt like the H1 was the ugly duckling of the off-road space. It had, or still has, a bad reputation. The bad reputation wasn’t really garnered by the H1. It was more so garnered by the mismanagement of the Hummer brand, in my opinion. So the H1 seemed like a great place to start because they had a very, very dedicated enthusiast following, and also [the vehicle] was extraordinarily capable and had a reputation for being one of the most capable off-road vehicles ever made.
We started out looking at military surplus auctions because that was the most affordable way to attain one of these. And the three of us being younger guys, initially, we didn’t have all of the funding necessary to dive into a full vehicle program. So we started by restoring and upgrading original military surplus Humvees. That in itself evolved very quickly in the first three or four months into a vehicle program just because we realized the pitfalls of the truck after spending lots of time with them. Then we realized that in order to be able to have an actual chance to make a vehicle line, we have to use something that has a 17-digit VIN. Humvees don’t have VIN numbers, they just have serial numbers. So we had to switch over to the civilian trucks about a year-and-a-half into development.
Do any of you have personal connections to Hummer? Or was there something beyond the vehicle’s capabilities that drew you to it?
I’d always had personal experience as a kid with Land Rovers because my dad is from the Netherlands, so I’d go over [there] and his friend was part of a Land Rover club and he had a couple Defenders, so that’s where my love for 4X4s kind of started. Adam was always a huge Hummer enthusiast, always loved the H1, but could never afford one. So he had an H2 I believe in high school, which I made fun of him for occasionally. We started going off-roading with Adam and realized that the H2 was far from capable and Adam said, “We need to figure out a way to get involved with H1,” so that’s when we started to look. It was right around the time that the GovPlanet auction started to become more prevalent and you could get one of these military surplus Humvees for, at the time, $5K-$8K.
Who are your customers? Have you found any similarities?
The clients we’ve delivered trucks to, they’re usually blue-collar business owners. The cool thing is they actually use their trucks — aside from one of the deliveries [that went to] a car collector as more of a showpiece — whether it’s hunting or taking them to vacation homes that have access to land. All of them are rugged, outdoors-oriented guys that obviously bought these things to be used, which is something we’re very happy about. I was concerned initially with a restoration of this caliber and a project like this, I thought that most of these trucks would definitely be garage queens, but actually it’s been quite the opposite.
Do a lot of them have previous experience with Hummer?
Usually what happens is, from what we’ve seen, most clients have driven an H1 in the past. They thought that [the custom MSA version] is the way the truck would be, but then they got inside of an original H1 and, for the price point, it’s not what they thought it would be. There’s plastic everywhere, the car’s loud, it’s slow, it doesn’t brake well, and they realize that they can’t live with the thing every day even if they wanted to. Where we come in, it’s an opportunity for most of these guys to actually get into one of these, have the truck start on the first crank and be able to have A/C that works and have a driving experience that actually lives up to what they’re expecting.
When people look over the specs on your website, is there anything that sticks out to you that you people might miss?
The performance upgrades are obviously an important part [Ed. note: The engine is an upgraded Duramax 6.6L LBZ Turbocharged Diesel V8 that puts out 500 HP and 1,000 lb-ft. of torque, almost double the power of the Hummer H1 Alpha]. But what’s been fun for us and what’s been a differentiating factor is the interiors, because we spent a lot of time redesigning and repackaging the interior of the truck. It shares no original components with the H1.
What are some of the customization requests that have caught you off guard, either in the interior or in terms of performance?
You can imagine with a vehicle like this, you can attract some pretty interesting potential clients. We’ve had a lot of interesting area codes and people that have asked us for materials that aren’t exactly ethically correct. It’s hard when you’re at this level of restoration and when you’re working with a client that closely, it’s hard to say no, but we always think with ethics first and there have been a few materials that have been suggested where we can’t do it in good conscience. The main one would be material choice for the interior, and then also some personal defense items that have been asked for that we have no interest in accommodating because it would hurt our brand.
We’ve learned that it comes with the territory. But being younger guys, the three of us, we’re focused on efficiency and not tainting the image [of the Hummer] more. We don’t want to do anything that’s not tasteful. So we always try to encourage clients to have imagination, but have an imagination within reason.
If you want to learn more, buy a Launch Edition or inquire about customizing your own, head over to MSA’s website: http://www.milspecauto.com.
If you want to see their previous lane eaters in action, check the team out in a recent episode of Jay Leno’s Garage:
Questions and answers condensed and edited for length in places
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