Sunday, July 11, 2010

Function First: The G-Wagen

There's something very attractive about a purpose-built vehicle that manages to make its way into consumerdom for the rest of us to enjoy. Across history there have been some outstanding examples such as the Mercedes 190E 2.3 Cosworth and BMW M3 as homologation specials, The BMW 320Si, The McLaren M6 GT, The Lancia Stratos - good things come from tried and true race car platforms that trickle down to real-world application.

However, purpose-built vehicles aren't restricted to solely race cars. You can also have big, lumbering creatures like SUV's that come from a blue collar background. After all, SUV's were originally designed to carry gear and people for working in the field. My guess would be that larger, off-road vehicles tasked with work duty were simply "Utility Vehicles" and the "Sport" nomenclature was an afterthought. Want an example? The Hummer H1 serving quite successfully for the United States military prior to civilian-ready trucks.

One such vehicle is the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen or G-Wagen for short - meaning cross-country or Jeep. The G-Wagen started life as a product development for military contracts secured by Benz in the 1970's .

What most people in the United States probably don't realize is Mercedes-Benz manufacturers a multitude of vehicles outside of luxury cars. Namely, work trucks, vans and true utility vehicles are also MB products in Europe and other parts of the world. It would seem that Europeans are less caught up on brand prestige than we are here in the U.S. of A.

I digress, the G-Wagen came into life as Mercedes-Benz's(well, Daimler-Benz) answer to the German military's need for a light infantry vehicle. With the design process initiated in 1972, the model was given official approval for production by Steyr-Daimler-Puch(now Magna Steyr) in Austria by 1975. It would not be until 1979 that a civilian-ready G-Wagen would go on sale in a variety of shapes such as short and long wheel-base and a cabrio variant. However, with hindsight being twenty-twenty it almost seems laughable that an SUV of the G's size would initially have engines generating only 72 and 150HP. What nobody could predict at the time was that the G-Wagen would go on to live past a normal life cycle and survive for 25 years - with only one major restyle transitioning from the W460 chassis to 463 chassis in 1990.

What made the G-Wagen so special was the part-time four-wheel-drive but after 1990 equipped with permanent four-wheel-drive, a fully locking center differential and differential locks on both axles. This sort of technical prowess gave the G the ability to navigate extreme angles of terrain. During the design process, the G-Wagen was designed specifically to be highly competent as an off-roader but also functional and with cross-functionality of implementing parts-sharing from the Mercedes-Benz industrial truck lines. The commercial/military spec G showed considerable success after its 1975 debut with countries in the Middle East, Europe and South America placing orders for Teutonic light military vehicle.

Why wouldn't they want a handful of G-Wagens to use? Benz put the original W460 through rigorous trials of 14,000km of sand testing in Tunisia - encountering and overcoming up to 100% inclines. Hence the hardcore, loyal following of off-roading G-Wagen enthusiasts world-wide who still like to push the envelope of what the truck is capable of.

Once the civilian W460 was released in early 1979, many in Europe picked up the trucks which were already serving double-duty as work trucks across the continent. Initially, Mercedes hesitated at pushing the W460 in the U.S. marketplace as the reception of the G was still somewhat uncertain and only handful were imported and federalized through the 80's grey market at exceptional cost. However, with the 1990 restyling of the W460 to the W463, U.S. consumers were privy to the more luxurious but technically competent G when permanent four-wheel-drive was adopted along with a decadentl- revised interior, suiting the prestige of the existing Benz sedan/convertible line. Unfortunately, outside of engaged enthusiasts, the G-Wagen has been recognized less in the U.S. for its ability and more for the brand conscious, look-at-my-expensive-SUV type of buyer.

If the upscale reputation the G enjoyed wasn't enough, Pope John Paul II and the Swiss Guard deemed to W460 a capable enough vehicle to serve as the Pope's personal transport vehicle when greeting the public across the globe, eventually being succeeded by the ML-Class Mercedes-Benz. It's name? The Popemobile, of course.

Whatsmore, the G-Wagen, at the hands of Jacky Ickx and a co-driver took a converted, V6 280 GE and won the historic Paris-Dakkar Rally in 1983. Not hard to understand why the Magna Steyr facility in Graz, Austria has agreed to continue production of the current W463 through 2015 - where the truck is still partially constructed by hand. The current iterations of the G-Wagen comes equipped with an AMG-derived, supercharged 5.0L V8 and 7-Speed automatic transmission to help accelerate the G55 AMG to 60MPH in under 6 seconds.

So, the G-Wagen has won races across some of the most brutal terrain on Earth, served under a man capable of inspiring over a billion people and has served strict duty from the sands of Tunisia to the jungles of Argentina to the valet lines of Beverly Hills - all of which it has successfully conquered. Not hard to imagine how a truck with such a diverse, winning history is still in production after 25 years. The G-Wagen stands as a testament that the thought, design and testing that goes into purpose-built, function-first vehicles can last the test of time and continue to be successful despite the ever-changing needs of the automotive frontier.

We're only hoping to see it run another 25 because vehicles like this only come around once in a lifetime.


  1. It would seem that Europeans are less caught up on brand prestige than we are here in the U.S. of A.

    an astute observation ;)

  2. Haha, I guess my feelings on that also come from knowing someone when I was in school with a G55 AMG that was a bit snoody.

  3. for s****s and giggles:

  4. You've got to be pretty crazy to 3 wheel drift a 110k SUV! Proof these things can go anywhere and do anything.