The history of all-wheel drive models from Mercedes-Benz

Over 100 years of traction to the power of four

  • Foundations of all-wheel drive technology laid in 1903
  • Passenger cars: from the “Dernburg-Wagen” (1907) to the CLS 4MATIC
  • Off-roaders: from the G1 to the G-Class and the ML, R, GL and GLK SUVs
  • Commercial vehicles: Unimog, trucks and vans

Paul Daimler, the son of the company’s founder, came up with the first designs featuring all-wheel drive as long ago as 1903. In 1907, the “Dernburg-Wagen,” as it was known, was produced for driving in Africa. Although built on the basis of a truck, it was designed as a passenger car, making it the forefather of today’s cars with 4MATIC drive. The first ever all-wheel drive passenger car from Mercedes was the W 124 E-Class model series, whose 4MATIC versions made their debut in 1985 at the IAA International Motor Show in Frankfurt. 

The “Dernburg-Wagen,” the world’s first all-wheel drive passenger car, built in 1907

Today’s off-roaders and SUVs have a long ancestry too. Mercedes-Benz unveiled its G 5 model in October 1938 at the London Motor Show as a “colonial and hunting vehicle.” Alongside the G-Class, which has been powering through cross-country terrain since 1979, the G 5 is therefore the forerunner of today’s SUV models in the form of the M-, R-, GL-Class and the GLK.

Besides this, the company also has a tradition of building commercial vehicles with off-road capabilities – from the legendary Unimog to trucks to delivery vans such as the Vito and Sprinter. 

The first all-wheel drive car for everyday use is built by the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in 1907. The “Dernburg-Wagen”, as it is known, even features all-wheel steering. It is designed for the then Secretary of State Bernhard Dernburg, who was to drive many kilometres in it while on colonial service in Africa the following year. Engineer Paul Daimler, son of the company founder, uses a truck chassis from the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft as the basis for the new vehicle, which has a price tag of 34,750 Marks. It is fitted with a touring car body including two seats on the chauffeur’s bench and a total of four seats in the rear. With a length of around 4.90 metres and a height of a good 2.70 metres including the roof structure, the majestic vehicle weighs around 3.6 tonnes when fully laden with all the special items specified by the Colonial Office, such as a particularly heavy-duty clutch, as well as petrol and coolant reserves for tropical conditions, replacement parts and tools.

In 2006 DaimlerChrysler made the decision to recreate the “Dernburg” as a highly detailed model on a scale of 1:4, in order to mark a centenary: “100 years of all-wheel drive in passenger cars”. The model had its first major public outing in a showcase at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, in January 2007.

The four-cylinder engine generates a very respectable output of 26 kW (35 hp) at 800 rpm from a displacement of about 6.8 litres – allowing a maximum speed of around 40 km/h (25 mph) on level tarmac. Far more important for the vehicle however, in view of the special operating conditions, is the climbing ability made possible by the all-wheel drive: an impressive 25 percent.

The vehicle features permanent all-wheel drive with the engine transmitting its power to the four wheels via a sophisticated mechanical system. A shaft connects it to the transmission with four forward gears and one reverse gear that is installed exactly in the middle. From there, propshafts transfer the torque to the front and rear axle differentials.

The design engineer Daimler takes special precautions to keep fine airborne sand out of the drive components. Because the solutions used limit the maximum steering angle to just 23 degrees, the vehicle is equipped with steerable wheels at the rear too in order to achieve a reasonable turning circle.

A highly prestigious vehicle for off-road terrain

1934 sees the introduction of the mighty, six-wheeled G 4 passenger vehicle (W 31 model series), which is built at the Untertürkheim plant. Heads of state and high-ranking military officers soon came to appreciate the 3.7-tonne vehicle as a highly prestigious vehicle with off-road prowess. Power is transferred to the two rigid rear axles by a propshaft, while two locking differentials ensure good off-road capabilities (climbing ability when fully laden: 43 percent). Counting all the engine variants, a total of 57 are made up until 1939.

Type G 4 from 1939

The first series (1934 to 1936) is powered by a model M 24 5.0-litre eight-cylinder engine developing 74 kW (100 hp) at 3400 rpm. For the second series (1937 to 1938) the engine is enlarged to a displacement of around 5.3 litres with an output of 85 kW (115 hp), increasing again to 5.4 litres and 81 kW (110 hp) in the third series. Although more would be feasible, the G 4 is only permitted to drive at a maximum speed of 67 km/h (42 mph) owing to its great weight and the limitations on tyre stability at the time. The G 4 has an immense thirst for fuel, with figures of  28.0 l/100 km (8.4 mpg/US, 3.6 km/l) on the road and 38.0 l/100 km (6.2 mpg/US, 2.6 km/l)  off-road. So it is little wonder that some models are fitted with a 140-litre tank (37 gal/US).

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