The latest design trends in the automotive marketplace can be depressing to enthusiasts. Fake exhaust tips, the ever-shrinking number of vehicles available with a manual transmission, four-door “coupes”, excessive amounts of badging — the list goes on and on. Today’s vehicles are objectively better in every measurable way, but the immeasurables and subjectives come up short. For that reason, the resto-mod market is booming. The appeal of a classic silhouette and obsessively perfect build-quality combined with just the right amount of modern technology is undeniable. From Defenders to Power Wagons to Broncos, the 4×4 resto-mod scene is rife with competition now, but only Mil-Spec Automotive has the audacity to take on the John Henry of trucks: the Hummer H1.
To put it plainly, outside the realm of military use the original Hummer H1 sucked. It was slow, inefficient, impractical and uncomfortable. Still, the H1 is one of those vehicles that stirs people, despite it being little more than an eight-foot-wide box on wheels. Fortunately for all of us with “the sickness,” the founders of Mil-Spec Automotive understand the simple beauty and huge potential of the H1. In just over three years the company went from lofty concept to striking reality: reimagining the truck to suit civilian connoisseurs of extreme vehicles. The company has produced a string of quarter-million-dollar final products, all mostly sold. And I drove Chassis #001, The Launch Edition.
It took all of five minutes talking with the CEO and Owner Adam Mitchell for me to fully understand that his work is above all else a labor of love. We walked around Chassis #001 before I drove away for the afternoon, and Adam’s eyes were glowing with pride as he pointed out each detail that makes their interpretation of the H1 special. Nearly every element of the platform has been replaced; only the original donor frame rails and body cores are retained. Of course, the 12-person team that hand-builds each Launch Edition pores over those meticulously as well, stripping them down to bare metal before they are essentially re-manufactured.
The first step in the process involves applying a gloss black powder coat to the frame and all its components to protect against corrosion. The aluminum body receives a thorough restoration from an in-house metal works specialist; Mil-Spec’s custom tri-level insulation system is also installed. The body receives a high-grade primer and coated sound/heat insulation products. Then the damn thing gets a coating of thermal deadening, sound deadening fiber — before Kevlar-infused exterior paint is applied. Adam is particularly happy with that last choice given that he grew up off-roading on trails in Michigan where branches wreak havoc on paint. Not only does Kevlar-infused paint make the truck look even more badass, but it also keeps the truck looking badass. The invisible effects of all these upgrades are equally impressive too. By significantly reducing the amount of heat around the truck’s powertrain, efficiency and performance increase greatly. Noise, vibration and harshness levels are also vastly improved by the coating process, resulting in a transformed cabin experience.
Mil-Spec’s attention to detail was immediately apparent when I set out on my drive. Everything feels tight, premium, carefully chosen. There are no rattles, no visible hints at design or engineering shortcuts, no reasons to doubt that this may be the finest hand-built 4×4 in America. It’s certainly the finest application of the all-star “LBZ” 6.6-liter Duramax Turbo Diesel on which GM built the reputation of their best generation of heavy-duty pickups. The Mil-Spec team has tuned the motor using their own software and the result is a truck that comes standard with 500 horsepower and 1,000 lb-ft of torque. Even in a vehicle this massive, that is astonishing grunt. Perhaps even more impressive are the fuel economy figures: 14mpg city and 20mpg highway, which surpass those of a number of new factory-built SUVs currently on the road. The tune also allows for bio-diesel compatibility. Who would have ever thought we’d be discussing the efficiency and environmentally friendly aspects of the H1 in 2019?
While the addition of some practicality to the equation here is welcome, I certainly didn’t forget that the H1 is one of the most unreasonable vehicles ever to pound the pavement. Thanks to Mil-Spec, this is now a truck that’s no more difficult to cruise on the highway in than a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen or Jeep Wrangler. You certainly have to keep in mind how wide the damn thing is, but I found it easy enough to keep it centered in my lane of choice on the highway. Using the backup camera and large mirrors I was able to parallel park without breaking a sweat.
Mil-Spec has taken this once lumbering, impractical and intimidating truck and produced something that’s downright accessible and enjoyable in everyday life. Not only is that an improbable proposition, it’s also totally unexpected. Designs were done right the first time around on vehicles like the Bronco, Defender, and Land Cruiser, and similar to the H1, all three were subpar anywhere but off-road. Of the bunch, the H1 stands apart as a relic of a bygone era that was never meant for this kind of approachable, beautiful use. Mil-Spec has dusted off the beast and brought it to a whole new level.
None of that matters to me as the H1 and I sling mud around a mountain top. All that matters is how hilariously fun this truck is. I’ve got the remastered edition of Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 pumping through the JL Audio system as I rollover more technical sections of this “top secret” test trail without hesitation. Shortly thereafter I’m back on the 101 freeway cruising comfortably at 75mph with one hand on the steering wheel. A minivan comes up alongside me on the right, and the driver gives Chassis #001 a once over and nods. A head appears from his far side: a kid leaning forward to catch a glimpse from the passenger seat. He gives me an enthusiastic thumbs up. If only he knew the half of it.