Due to the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation, our website is currently unavailable to visitors from most European countries. We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to visit www.motortrend.com for the latest on new cars, car reviews and news, concept cars and auto show coverage, awards and much more.MOTORTREND.COM
  • |
  • |
  • World Adventure Special: Sahara Celebration With a Mercedes-Benz Type 463 G-Class

World Adventure Special: Sahara Celebration With a Mercedes-Benz Type 463 G-Class

Dune-Running in a G-Wagen

Tom Sheppard
Jan 18, 2007
Icon is an overused word, but if any 4x4 deserves the accolade, it's the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. To celebrate its production extension to 2010, I placed a special order for one. You can imagine the double-take and spilled coffee: "A what? A right-hand-drive, turbodiesel, automatic, long-wheelbase, van-body 461 with a heavy-duty rear axle?"
I waited five months to receive it from Germany. Although my local Mercedes-Benz dealer didn't know it, the Type 463 G-Wagen is alive and well and sold to aficionados in the U.S. (see sidebar) for around $105,000 (the price as of mid-2006). Like its kindred spirit Range Rover, it has evolved from a no-nonsense military vehicle into a ticket dispenser with leather and walnut trim. The core G-Wagen is built like a battleship and has a similar turning circle. With 100-percent mechanical driver-selectable axle diff locks front and rear, it's excellent off-road. On-road, it's smooth, solid, and well insulated from heat, cold, and noise. Incredibly, with so much unsprung beam-axle weight, there's less tire noise than on the E-Class that ferried me back from the dealership.
Photo 2/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen front View
In the Sand
The Sahara stretches across the top end of Africa--6000 miles or so from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Algeria's part of it is about three times the size of Texas. There's certainly space to be alone with the landscape. The scenery is addictively spectacular. That, and with books and photography in mind, is why I've been coming back for years. Though I've been doing this kind of thing for decades, my 461 G-Wagen--the "civil engineer version"--has been with me for six years and five trips totaling 30,000 miles on journeys to the desert. My trips are solo, with 600- to 750-mile, 10- to 12-day, off-track--not just off-blacktop--sectors; these are what I call off-the-planet (OTP) legs. Reliability and the ability to carry reserves of fuel and water are incredibly important.
Cresting the first high dune in the 463, where unexpected and mysteriously wide tire tracks led, I looked down in astonishment at what seemed to be a James Bond film set. Rows of engineers' caravans, tents, throbbing machinery, generators, huge trucks, and drilling rigs lay before me, tiny figures scuttling about on urgent business. "Ah, the hospitality of the desert," I thought, as they seemed to turn toward me, motioning to their friends to greet the newcomer. Then I realized they had rifles. The man in the lead had a two-way radio in one hand and a pistol in the other. His colleagues dropped to one knee and looked at me over the barrels of their weapons. It was time to dismount. Slowly.
Photo 3/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen front View
Fifteen minutes later I was sipping chilled orange juice and strong Arabic coffee in the chief engineer's caravan. The initial reaction of his men had been sensible. They had no way of telling how many other vehicles were behind mine over the lip of the dune or their intentions. There were bad guys roaming the Sahara and that was in late 2001. Later on it stoked up. In 2003, feeling a slackness of the purse strings, a gentleman rakishly nicknamed "Razzak the Para" and a group of ne'er-do-wells allied with one of the extremist groups took no fewer than 32 foreign tourists from seven separate groups hostage and gave them a summer tour of the Sahara dodging Algerian special forces. They finished up, after half the party had been rescued, in neighboring Mali, where it's rumored the remainder were freed in exchange for a large sum of money.
The authorities marked my last trip with a plague of escorts, "guides," new regulations, convoys, green gendarmerie, and battered khaki army vehicles. Though, after the kidnappings and extremist throat-cutting activity in the hills in recent years, misplacing any more foreigners would have been, as they say, bad P.R. Despite the nature of their jobs, the soldiers I met were unfailingly polite. There was invariably one in the group who could summon the English for "Welcome in my country!"
Finding My Way
It was typical of just about all the Algerians I met. In one remote town, I went to buy some minor supplies but didn't have the right money. The shopkeeper pondered no more than a couple of seconds, then said, "We'll take it anyway!" Unfortunately, I also encountered one of the other sorts, and being robbed of passport, money, credit cards, and return boat ticket tends to spoil your afternoon.
Photo 4/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen interior
Careful to never directly disobey any instructions given to me, I was nonetheless able to escape from the authorities' overprotective clutches on the most recent trip long enough to achieve the OTP route legs, exploring the desert or trying to find the remnants of the old French pistes of 50 to 60 years gone by. As brilliant as the French cartographers were, their 1950s maps often were difficult to interpret. Satellite images, however, were a different ballgame, but had to be geo-referenced--they had no lines of latitude or longitude. Just as GPS is only as good as the map it's used with, it's the same with satpix. I had to spend long hours studying the old French maps and then transferring the lat/long lines and making scales of intermediate values and miles or kilometers. Even after all that and with a good set of geo-referenced satellite images, you couldn't be certain about the going on the ground. Was the sand too soft, was there impassable vegetation in the wadi, was there a way through the low hills?
Photo 5/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen rear View
The old French route east toward Amguid over high rock hills brings equal praise for the mapmakers and road engineers. Fifty-five years of erosion and rock falls call for careful low-range work in many places, but heavy rain (which also blocked my line of retreat) threw a two-mile-wide flooded wadi across my path at one point. Desperation and a mother-of-invention 30-mile detour north to where I hoped the water would've sunk into the desert presented the longest snail's-pace low-range crawl in history. Unlike me, the G
Likewise, a driver who's always thinking about what might be up ahead appreciates the diff locks being 100-percent mechanical and driver-selected. And one of the three of them is at the front. It's almost refreshing that the design engineers trust you to use them when you need them and then disengage before the steering starts to feel odd.
In all the time I drove my G-Wagen, the biggest problem I had was when the drive-by-wire throttle light came on. The vehicle went into limp-home mode. Driving it home from 22o N to Munich, Germany, in that mode was not fun. Three months of discussions pinned it on a random internal harness short. Sad to say, the ECU interprets a blown fuse as a global systems failure. The quick fix was to cut and hotwire the suspect wiring and all is now well and ready for the next trip.
Photo 6/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen side View
Will there be trip number six into the Sahara? Of course, and soon.
13 Tips for Sahara Trips
• Drive very carefully. Forget macho. Nobody's watching.
• Don't go solo--do as I say, not as I do.
• Nit-pick. Be a granny--list everything.
• Pack so nothing rattles. Tie it down and put it on felt.
• Must-haves: satellite phone, a registered EPIRB, rescue flares.
• Also bring sand mats, a trenching tool, and an axle-lift claw.
• Soft sand? Admit defeat early. Don't spin wheels. Back out.
• Bring window nets--slipovers to keep the moths out.
• Avoid A/C--it's heavy, power-sapping, and precludes acclimatization.
• Monitor fuel and water usage every night.
• Bring spare tubes and tire levers, and the best synthetic oils you can find.
• When it comes to navigation, don't jump to conclusions. Prepare maps and satpics.
• How to deal with the locals? It's their country. Be polite. Be an ambassador.

Photo 7/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen side View
Photo 8/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen satellite Phone
G-Wagen Heritage
Rescued from a planned 2005 run-out, production of the G-Wagen has been extended to 2010. Originating from proposals for a military vehicle in the early 1970s by the Shah of Iran, a major Daimler-Benz shareholder, production of the G-Class began in 1979 with the 460 Series models. Engines ranging from 72 to 150 brake horsepower were available. The transmission was a four-speed manual with selectable 4x4. Low-range and optional axle diff locks could be engaged and disengaged on the fly. Synchronized range change was unprecedented then and is still rare today.
Assembled in a special facility in Graz, Austria, with engines, driveline, and steering components coming from Stuttgart, the G-Wagen was marketed (under the Puch marque) in a few countries but elsewhere as a Mercedes. A CKD version was produced by Peugeot in France as the military P4 using a 2.0-liter Peugeot engine, which is still in service. The 1981 upgrade included the first automatic transmission. In 1983, G-Wagens took first and third place in the Paris-Dakar rally, and in 1985 diff locks became standard.
In 1989, the current Model 463 with permanent four-wheel drive, bigger engines, and three electrically selected diff locks was introduced and, with a plush interior, joined Range Rover at the luxury end of the market. On a separate evolutionary path, the 461, which might be termed the civil engineer's model, appeared in 1992, a direct successor to the original 460, with selectable 4x4.
The 100,000th G-Wagen rolled off the line at Graz in 1992, and a year later the first V-8 G500 5.0-liter engine was installed. The 175,000 production mark was passed in mid-2004, and the vehicle is currently available in Europe, Asia, Australia and, as the G500 and G55 AMG super-performance luxury models, in the U.S., currently priced at around $81,000 to $105,000. A small batch of these in RHD short-wheelbase form are being exported to the U.K. to sell for over #100,000.
Tom Sheppard is the author of "Four-by-Four Driving." He gained the Royal Geographical Society's Ness Award in 1976 for leading the first lateral coast-to-coast crossing of the Sahara.

Photo 9/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen front View
Photo 10/11   |   mercedes Benz G Wagen rear Side View

Photo 11/11   |   trucks front View

POPULAR TRUCKS

MOST POPULAR

Subscribe Today and Save up to 83%!

Subscribe Truck Trend Magazine

Subscribe to:

Truck Trend
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
Subscribe Diesel Power Magazine

Subscribe to:

Diesel Power
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
Subscribe Truckin Magazine

Subscribe to:

Truckin
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
SUBSCRIBE TO A MAGAZINE
CLOSE X
BUYER'S GUIDE
SEE THE ALL NEW
NEWS, REVIEWS & SPECS