One of the most amazing skills exhibited by the human brain is its ability to sweeten memories. Many of us can remember when the civilian Hummer H1 was the coolest set of wheels this side of a Lamborghini, but most of us have forgotten how truly wretched it was to drive. Mil-Spec Automotive of Detroit, Michigan, has merged memory and reality. Its reconstructed Hummer H1s provide all of the testosterone-induced joy the H1 can deliver, while eliminating most—if not all—of the misery.
First things first: Mil-Spec H1s aren’t just old Hummers with new wheels and paint. MSA CEO and founder Adam Mitchell, a fan of the Hummer H1 since boyhood, worked with his small crew to learn all about the H1’s strengths and weaknesses—two very long lists, we’re sure—and engineer a series of carefully considered improvements.
Each Mil-Spec H1 starts with an existing H1 donor vehicle, either sourced by Mil-Spec or provided by the owner in exchange for a trade-in credit. The vehicle is completely disassembled down to the frame, with most of the suspension bits replaced or modified and then powder-coated. The original engine (GM’s comprehensively awful 6.2- and 6.5-liter turbo-diesels or the hopelessly overtaxed 5.7 gasser) is binned, replaced by a 6.6-liter Duramax diesel V-8 that is balanced, blueprinted, and assembled at Mil-Spec’s shop. Lest you think that owning a Hummer H1 signals a complete disregard for the environment, Mil-Spec Hummers can run on 100 percent biodiesel.
The original three- or four-speed automatic is replaced by a modern Allison 1000 six-speed. A part-time two-speed transfer case replaces the original full-time system, the differentials get ARB air lockers, and all driveline components are beefed up to allow for having a lot more power sent to half as many wheels. The geared wheel hubs, which help give the H1 its exceptional ground clearance, remain.
Inside, the interior is reworked as much as it can be. Mil-Spec trashes the original vacuum-formed plastic panels, then lays on five layers of sound insulation and builds a new aluminum structure for the dash and center cowling. Everything is covered with marine-grade vinyl and fabric. Why no leather? Because Mil-Spec wanted the interior to be water-resistant so that it can be cleaned with a hose. Switches, USB ports, and the stereo head unit are all waterproof marine-grade gear. What’s most impressive—besides the fact that the company has turned the H1’s cheap plastic interior into something truly hospitable—is the attention to detail: Every square inch of the interior is finished to the same high standard, even the nooks and crannies that buyers are unlikely to see. Would if other Detroit automakers were this thorough.
Of course, there are still the usual, er, quirks of the H1 interior—specifically that passengers rank second to the various mechanical bits that occupy the Hummer’s central spine. Wide as the vehicle is, the passenger areas are laughably narrow; Mil-Spec has done what it can to open them up and provide comfortable places to rest your inboard arms, but you’ll still feel like you’re sitting half a mile away from your passenger. On the bright side, if you have personal-space issues, this is the car for you.
We did spot a few areas that could use improvement, specifically the commercial-grade transmission shifter and turn-signal stalk, the wide swaths of unadorned vinyl on the dash, and the single-speed blower for the cabin heating and cooling system. But before we could ask, CEO Mitchell pointed them out to us himself and explained that they’re working on improvements for the next round of vehicles.
Unfortunately for Mil-Spec, only the privileged few who have been unfortunate enough to drive an original H1 will appreciate how much it has done to civilize the civilian Hummer. The Duramax diesel is as quiet and refined here as it is in GM’s HD pickups, and speaking of pick-up, yes, there’s plenty—Mil-Spec has timed the slant-back versions to 60 in 6.5 seconds, while other body styles are said to hit the mark closer to six seconds flat. That’s remarkably quick for a vehicle that weights nearly four tons.
The H1 we drove had an optional air suspension that delivered a comfortable, composed ride and stayed flat in sweeping turns. The original H1 had the same steering feel as your average bumper car; Mil-Spec’s upgraded steering delivers better heft and centering action. Braking is good too, and thanks to the inboard brakes and long driveshafts, Mil-Spec H1s still rock back-and-forth when stopped, one of the original H1’s few endearing traits.
We didn’t ask to go off-roading, because there’s really no point—we know from experience how capable H1 is off-road, its only practical limitation being its football-field width. Nothing Mil-Spec has done should detract from its abilities, and it has eliminated the trouble-prone central tire-inflation system, replacing it instead with an air compressor and a 50-foot air hose for those who wish to air up and down.
Of course, the Hummer H1 is still a huge pain in the ass to drive. It’s as wide as a commercial truck and its short, two-piece windshield, split by a thick central pillar, inhibits what little forward visibility you do have. Mil-Spec has helped where it can by enlarging the side mirrors and fitting a backup camera that can be switched on full time, but this thing is still about as maneuverable as an airship. Urban traffic can be nerve-wracking, and parking is best avoided altogether.
The Hummer H1 is only the beginning for Mil-Spec: It’s looking at other classic 4x4s on which to work voodoo, and while it isn’t ready to announce anything, we were told off the record about some promising candidates. Prices for the Mil-Spec H1 start at $218,499, and options can bring that past $300K. Crazy money? Not when you consider how much work goes into each vehicle. This is as good a place as any to talk about how much we like what Mil-Spec is doing: The firm isn’t taking awesome cars and making them as gaudy as possible; instead it’s taken an awful vehicle and turned it into a truly functional head-turner. And the quality of assembly and attention to detail are truly impressive, far better than what we’re used to seeing from small shops.
If you’re looking to get into a Mil-Spec vehicle, you’d better get in touch soon: MSA has built or planned just nine trucks, all but two of which were spoken for when we sat down to write, and it currently has just two build slots available. The Mil-Spec crew doesn’t see annual production inching up any time soon, either. If you’re ludicrous enough to drive an H1, there’s no question this is the way to do it. It’s far better than the H1 you remember.
|Mil-Spec Automotive Hummer H1 Specifications|
|PRICE||$218,499/$276,038 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||6.6L OHV 32-valve V-8 turbodiesel; 500 hp (est), 1,000 lb-ft (est)|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, 4WD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||15/19 mpg (city/hwy, mfr est)|
|L x W x H||195.5 x 86.5 x 85.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.0–6.5 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||96 mph|