In a class of its own: the Mercedes-Benz G
- From indispensible crawler to luxury off-roader
- The G-Class is equal to even the most difficult terrain
- A monolithic classic on the market since 1979
The development of the Mercedes-Benz G-Model commenced in 1972, when a cooperation agreement was signed between Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria. The decision to start series production of the G-Class was taken in 1975. At the same time it was decided to construct a new plant in Graz, where the vehicle has been built mainly by hand throughout its time in production.
There were four model series in the G-Class. The 460 (from 1979 onwards), 461 (1991) and 463 (1989) series were produced in Graz, while the 462 series was assembled from CKD kits in Thessalonica, Greece from 1991; these vehicles were exclusively intended for the military and police. A small number were also assembled from CKD kits at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Aksaray, Turkey.
Contrary to the popular view, the G-Class was neither conceived as a military vehicle, nor as a passenger car: the designers initially had their eyes on the civilian commercial vehicle market. There was a change of direction during the concept phase, however, and the vehicle was designed for operation in extremely difficult terrain. The vehicle’s backbone was a box frame with enclosed side members and cross-members, ensuring exceptional flexural and torsional strength. The frame carried robust, rigid axles with large coil springs and a long spring travel – an advantage in off-road operations. With a climbing ability of up to 80 percent, a tilt angle of up to 54 percent, a 21-centimetre (8.3 in) ground clearance and angles of approach and departure of 36 and 27 degrees respectively, the G-Class impeccably mastered even the most difficult off-road stretches. At the same time the chassis ensured safe and comfortable handling characteristics on the road.
In terms of body design, the designers and engineers opted in favour of large surfaces, because these were cheaper to produce – particularly in view of the fact that production was also planned for countries of the Third World. At the time, however, the design came in for severe criticism for its simplicity. This is seen differently today: precisely because the appearance of the G-Class is characterized by its great practicality accompanied by a timeless design, it has secured its place in the car market as a straight-talking, uncompromising classic.
A separate sales and production company – Geländefahrzeuggesellschaft mbH – was jointly set up in which Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch each held a 50 percent share. The vast majority of vehicles produced were to bear the Mercedes-Benz star on their radiator grille. In countries such as Austria, Switzerland and in Eastern Europe they were marketed under the Puch brand – a well-established name for off-road vehicles in Alpine countries. This only accounted for around 10 percent of total production, however.
The chief designer of the G-Model was Erich Ledwinka, who had already gained a good reputation with the extremely robust, four-wheel-drive Haflinger all-terrain vehicle from Austria. Accordingly the new project was initially named H2, which stood for “Haflinger 2.” Since this name was too closely associated with Steyr-Daimler-Puch, the partners subsequently changed it to the simple but memorable “G” for “Geländewagen” (= off-road vehicle). At the time nobody could have predicted that this was an almost clairvoyant decision with respect to the current system of Mercedes-Benz model designations using just one letter (E-Class, S-Class etc).
The first model, which was built of wood, was presented to management in 1973. The first prototype of metal construction, powered by a 2.3-litre petrol engine, was ready in September 1974. One year later this was followed by two further prototypes with short and long wheelbases. In 1978 a first prototype designed specifically for the military, with a fabric roof, a folding windscreen and removable doors was presented. At the time it was assumed that most of the vehicles would be equipped in this way; however the majority of customers opted for the closed version, the station wagon.
A very large order in the mid-1970s provided a great incentive to develop the vehicle to series production maturity: the Shah of Persia ordered 20,000 units for his imperial army. As an irony of history, the new rulers cancelled this major order when they proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 – in the very year that production of the G-Class commenced.
The German armed forces were also slow to become customers. While they had been involved in the concept phase of the project at an early stage, with corresponding high hopes of a large order on the part of the factory, they decided to opt for the Volkswagen Iltis as the successor to the DKW Munga in 1976. It was only years later, when the Iltis needed to be replaced, that the German armed forces ordered the Mercedes-Benz G.
Meanwhile other customers had also appeared during this early phase, including the Federal German Border Police, as well as the Argentinean and Norwegian armies. As was so often the case with all-wheel-drive vehicles, their capabilities were particularly appreciated by the military, who were initially the main buyers of the G-Class. Later on, civilian and military customers each accounted for around fifty percent of sales.
From the very first the vehicle could be ordered with special requests, as the Mercedes-Benz G had a very wide range of applications. The designers were therefore geared toward providing individualized equipment.
The French army also placed its trust in the capabilities of the G. Produced under license by Peugeot and named the P4, this vehicle had a number of its own features such as rectangular headlamps, different seats and a French engine. The front differential lock was also omitted.
World famous, too, were the vehicles built for Pope John Paul II, which came to represent the term “Popemobile” par excellence. The Mercedes-Benz 230 G painted in mother-of-pearl accompanied Pope John Paul II on numerous journeys all over the world. Mercedes-Benz first made this vehicle available to the Pope for his visit to Germany in the late autumn of 1980 – initially as a loan. An outwardly almost identical 230 GE followed in 1982. A powerful air conditioning system in the rear ensured a comfortable temperature in the Holy Father’s compartment when the sun was shining, while in rainy weather and high humidity the system prevented the windows from misting over. Various spotlights were also installed in the sides, floor and roof of the compartment, so that direct and indirect illumination made him more easily visible when darkness fell.