The Mercedes-Benz Unimog - Truck Trend Legends
Conquering Farm Lands, Battlefields, and Race Courses Worldwide
The Mercedes-Benz Unimog is ingenuity on wheels. If there’s terrain the Unimog can’t tackle, then it’s likely nothing else can, and it’s time to call in the helicopters. Versions that don’t have four-wheel drive deploy six-wheel drive instead. It works for various armed forces around the world but also helps civilians as a fire truck, snowplow, disaster aid vehicle, or safari bus. It’s even been able to pull a freight train. There have been many versions, configurations, and engines throughout the Unimog’s gloriously rugged career -- some with 22 forward gears and 11 reverse gears -- but the go-anywhere, do-anything principal has been a constant.
It’s part Jeep, part tractor, part commercial vehicle and designed with absolutely no regard for aesthetics, which means the Unimog has that peculiar beauty that only the purely functional can ever achieve. Its lofty ground clearance comes courtesy of portal axles, geared hubs that push the axle height above the wheels’ centers -- just like the Humvee. Modern Unimogs also have the ability to adjust tire pressures on the fly. And they can be converted, in the field, from left-hand to right-hand drive.
Unimogs have been used as support vehicles for racers in the Dakar Rally and occasionally won the truck class by default. It has never really won the hearts of Americans, though. Homegrown competition does certain jobs well, but can never be the single solution to multiple problems like the Unimog is. It’s not surprising that Arnold Schwarzenegger owns one. The Marines and the Army own a few more.
Like many things, the Unimog was a response to necessity. After the second World War, Germany’s industrial base had been bombed to pieces or dismantled by the victorious allied forces. There was only one thing to do: go back to the land. The man with the Unimog vision was Albert Friedrich, former engineer of Daimler-Benz aircraft engines, who understood that agriculture was essential for the recovery of his stricken fatherland.
West Germany, as it was known in late 1945, covered about 97,000 square miles, about the size of Oregon. So there was a lot of arable land that needed mechanical assistance to cultivate. Friedrich set about developing a tractor of sorts, with a frame construction, all-wheel drive, the same size of wheels at each corner, plenty of ground clearance, self-locking differentials front and rear, the ability to attach farm implements at various points, and a cab for two occupants.
Considering Friedrich was an engine man, he, or at least someone in his team, knocked the suspension setup out of the park. It’s all down to the torque tubes. These contain the Unimog’s driveshafts and connect its solid axles with the transmission. Throw in a flexible frame and coil springs at each corner, and the result is a comfortable ride with remarkable wheel travel, unencumbered by leaf springs or multi-link suspension parts. Torque tubes also prevent axle hop and wind-up.
By 1948, the Unimog had gained a Daimler-Benz diesel engine, and reactions were increasingly positive. Daimler-Benz took the Unimog to the next level in 1951, shifting production to a facility in Gaggenau, at the edge of the Black Forest and about 60 miles west of Stuttgart. The three-pointed star was affixed to the grilles from May 1953. Around 320,000 Unimogs were built in Gaggenau, until operations moved to Wörth am Rhein in 2002.
The Unimog phenomenon started with the U25, so called because its engine developed 25 hp. Made from 1955 to 1980, the Unimog S or 404 Series was a best seller. It enjoys a longer wheelbase and extreme axle articulation. To give some idea of its capabilities, the S could climb a 70-percent grade with 1.5 tons on board. Approach and departure angles were 45 and 46 degrees, respectively, ground clearance was 16 inches, and fording depth (without specialized equipment) was 31 inches. A medium-heavy duty 406 launched in 1963.
There’s also the 1994 Funmog, a limited run of 12 units with leather seating and (gasp) carpets. Mercedes-Benz has said it wouldn’t look out of place parked in front of a disco. Hmm, maybe if it had just delivered a new lighting system to a nightclub in the Rockies.