The New Mercedes Unimog Thinks Your Land Rover Is Adorable
Born and bred in post-war chaos, Europe’s most intimidating off-roader has developed a bad attitude.
Ever since Land Rover was forced to stop selling its utilitarian Defender in the US (pesky airbag and basic structural safety requirements, natch), adventurous rich guys have swarmed foreign markets searching for pristine examples to import. Let them trifle, because, for the true collector there’s still the Mercedes Unimog, a sinister and unstoppable five-ton truck-tractor hybrid used by international villains, frozen Swedes, and the British Special Forces. With monster tires, snorty diesel engines, and the reliability of the tides, the Unimog is an engineering marvel that can essentially do anything. This year, Mercedes is releasing a new model, sure to be bigger and nastier than the last. To understand exactly why this icon of monster truckery exists, we looked into its life story.
The War Baby
In 1946, a young American man of sufficient means could purchase a Buick Roadmaster, pick up his sweetheart, and drive her to the soda fountain or pop counter or fizz desk or whatever on one of America’s well-kept highways. Young German men, on the other hand, had no way to navigate roads broken and pitted by bombs and bullets. Enter Mercedes’ solution: The Unimog.
A truck engineer at Mercedes sketched what he called a “compact tractor,” to be used both on war-torn roads and on the farm. The original Unimog’s 1.27-meter axel was built to span precisely two rows of potatoes, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t the coolest little cruiser in the de-industrialized state.
In 1955, Mercedes released the Unimog S model, securing a long term relationship with foreign militaries and the anti-zombie community. The S had a longer wheelbase and increased ground clearance for greater cargo capacity and off-road ability. Rumbling through late adolescence dressed in olive-drab, wire-covered headlamps, and a platter-sized Benz emblem, the Unimog began to cohere into the surly trucklet it would become.
The Evolved Adult
In 1966, the 100,000th Unimog crawled off the line. Not looking to mess with a
thing, Mercedes kept the look much the same: boxy frame, portal axles, and upright cab. Like most wheeled things in the mid-seventies, the Unimog gained a slightly wedgierprofile.
The Roughneck Senior
The nineties brought a sleeker nose, engines with up to 280 horsepower, and areconfigurable chassis that allowed the Unimog to be used as a firetruck or expedition vehicle. In 2003, Mercedes showed the Unimog U500 Black Edition in Dubai, providing a jet-black, two-ton upgrade for those who thought the three-ton
was too dainty.
The Elder Statesman
The latest version has a meaner look, more power, and the same robust frame. The top dog is the new U5023 model, which growls with 231 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque, and features a 14-speed transmission (eight forward, six reverse). With a wading depth of roughly four feet and a departure angle of 45 degrees, new ‘mogs can go over anything this side of the Weimar’s biggest slabs.
Our favorite feature? That surly new face. Small LED lights are arranged low on the front bumper, giving the Unimog a slit-eyed “come at me” expression. And that grill? The three bar design is a modified version of the one found on AMG’s newest project, the GT—about as close as that coupe will get to the rock-crawling awesomeness that is theUnimog’s life.
Plus, come next year, any stiff will be able to walk down to the Mercedes dealer, pass some C-classes, and order an GT. The Unimog, as ever, lives abroad, a special, rough-and-tumble prize for the dedicated connoisseur.
Photos by Mercedes