When Dick Olmstead bought a used 1997 AM General Hummer in 2002, he never thought the Colorado Department of Revenue Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) would send him a letter cancelling his vehicle title and telling him he could no longer drive it on the public highways.
But it happened. And not just to him.
On March 22, the DMV sent out an unknown number of letters to Hummer owners voiding their highway-use titles and issuing them an “OHV-Surplus Military Vehicle” title that only allows them to register their commercial Hummers as off-highway vehicles.
The action effectively lumped Olmstead’s commercial Hummer – and how many others is unclear – in with military High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles together, forcing them all off of Colorado’s highways.
The controversy stems from recent amendments to motor vehicle law, but legislators who sponsored that legislation said that wasn’t their intention and they don’t support the revenue department’s interpretation of the law.
In 2019, lawmakers amended the motor vehicle code regarding military vehicles. In particular, Senate Bill 19-054 added a new definition defining a “surplus military vehicle” as one that was “purchased for nonmilitary use” and “built for the United States Armed Forces.” This definition does not mention vehicles built for other countries, such as Germany, Switzerland, the UK and Australia, which effectively means foreign military vehicles can be registered, but not American ones.
The legislation also added surplus military vehicles to the definition of an “off-highway vehicle,” which incudes ATVs, snowmobiles and other recreational off-road vehicles that cannot be licensed for on-highway use.
But there remains an explicit exemption from the definition of surplus military vehicles for “historical military vehicles.” The definition of a historical military vehicle includes any vehicle “manufactured for use by any nation’s armed forces” that is “valued for historical purposes” and is maintained in its military configuration and appearance.
Rep. Donald Valdez, one of the sponsors of SB19-054, told The Denver Gazette he never intended for existing registered military vehicles to have their titles effectively revoked.
“I believe the intent was to register military vehicles, but in that aspect, I was talking with the Colorado Public Safety and Department of Revenue and at that time they wanted to allow only for historical (military vehicles) and also for use for certain events,” he said.
Asked if the statute as the DMV is interpreting it should be reviewed, Valdez said, “Absolutely.”
“I think we need to look at this,” he said.
Rep. Patrick Neville, who signed on as a co-sponsor, said he cannot recall any discussion indicating an intent that the law be used to revoke titles and removed licensed vehicles from the roads.
“I mean if there was discussion about revoking titles, the bill was supposed to make it more permissive, not less permissive,” Neville said.
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, who was also a co-sponsor of the 2019 law, told The Denver Gazette, “I don’t support their interpretation.”
“We’ve used them on highways. Their definition says that they were never designed for highway use. Yet our military uses them on highways all the time. But then when they go in the private sector, for some reason, they don’t view them as roadworthy anymore,” he said.
Olmstead, the Hummer owner, said DMV’s letter blindsided him.
“I had a current title and registration on it and insurance on it since 2002,” said Olmstead, who bought his Hummer for $64,000. “I haven’t driven it for the last number of years. I had heart failure and went in and out of the hospital and the truck is in the middle of being worked on. But out of nowhere I just got this new (OHV) title issued to me.”
Derek Kuhn, a communications manager for DMV, stated in an email that the division has “transitioned 802 vehicles, which only had titles to off-highway vehicles.”
“Vehicle owners will receive their new OHV titles over the next week or so. Vehicles with on-highway registration will be addressed in the next phase,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn added that DMV transitioned 537 AM General military vehicles to OHV titles.
When asked how how many commercial Hummers have been or will be lumped in with actual military surplus vehicles for transitioning to OHV-only titles, Kuhn replied, “If the owner of a vehicle that was identified as commercially produced can provide that information to DMV, we will work with them to correct it.”
Olmstead said DMV told him, after more than an hour of discussion, that his only recourse is to file for an appeal hearing with the DMV within 60 days.
Dave Breggin, a long-time Hummer owner and past president of The Hummer Club Inc., said he has not received a letter from DMV yet.
“I don’t think there’s any malevolent intent,” said Breggin, who bought his Hummer in 1995 at Medved Hummer in Denver for about $69,000. “I think the actions of someone at the DMV has exceeded their understanding. This mistake is going to be expensive in terms of inconvenience and cost.”
Breggin, widely considered an expert on Hummers and part of a cadre of early adopters of the commercial version of the military “HUMVEE,” as it’s commonly known, disputes the notion that the commercial Hummer qualifies as a “surplus military vehicle” because it is clearly not “built for the United States Armed Forces.”
“They were built partly on the same line, but on the third part of assembly they were driven across the parking lot to another line,” said Breggin. “All the electrical and DOT required stuff was installed there.”
Commercial Hummers are not the only vehicles being affected by the change state motor vehicle authorities implemented.
Owners of historical military vehicles going back as far as WWII and sometimes even earlier that have been titled and licensed by the state for decades will now have their titles transitioned into only off-highway use “in the next phase,” according to Kuhn.
Phil Movish, president of the Military Vehicle Collectors of Colorado, an organization that strives to preserve military vehicle history, said DMV should reconsider its interpretation.
“Our organization goes back to 1968. We are members who collect and restore vintage military vehicles for display, for support of veterans and patriotic events, selected charity events and educational events,” Movish said. “Between 1968 and about 2019, the world has left us alone to do what we do. We educate the public on vintage vehicles. We’re even called out by elementary schools to bring them over and educate the kids about them. Let them climb on them, get in them. Our vehicles are titled. They are registered, they’re insured. We use them for very limited purposes.”
Movish said he suspects DMV is trying “to get rid of all the military vehicles that are out there on the highways” in Colorado.
He said that, based on his meeting with the Department of Revenue, the change would affect three hundred vehicles.
“I would think that the Department of Revenue has far more important things to do than worry about 300 former military vehicles in this state,” he said.
Movish lamented that, under the change, vehicles that go back to the Korean War and Vietnam War can no longer be titled or registered to drive on the highway. The obvious issue, he said, is that members of his group have been driving their vehicles of years without any problem.
”No accidents and not even one traffic ticket,” he continued.
Movish also said the implementation of the change is uneven, with some county offices registering military vehicles while others won’t.
“It’s total luck of the draw. Some guys are finally getting notice that they will not title or register military vehicles at all. Others are finding that they’re getting titles registered – no trouble at all,” he said. “It makes utterly no sense at all. Why is the State of Colorado putting all this effort into a very small microcosm of the vehicles that exist in this state? I don’t know how many million vehicles there are, and they’re worried about three hundred lousy old military trucks.”
“Yeah, that’s a shame, because, you know, we take them on the road. We put them in parades and stuff like that,” said Mel Bernstein, who owns 133 military vehicles that are on display in his military museum. He said about 25 are registered for on-highway use. “You know, just because it’s an army vehicle and it’s green and maybe people don’t like to see stuff like that on the road. (But) we’re Americans, we should be able to have whatever we want as long as we don’t disobey the law.”
“I drive around with my Jeep with four working machine guns on it, and the cops, they give me thumbs-up. They love me,” he added.
Sonnenberg, one of many legislators who cosponsored the 2019 change, offered a work-around for military vehicle owners.
“Here’s what I told everybody that had trouble with them,” said Sonnenberg. “What I told them was license them in another state and then they can’t stop you from using them here.”