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'G-Class is the stuff of automotive legend' - How an Austrian Mercedes became a global SUV icon

2018-05-10 05:30

Lance Branquinho

Image: Newspress

Cape Town - There are very few true icons that remain in the automotive world, but Mercedes-Benz’s longest-serving passenger vehicle is certainly one of them. 

Geländewagen is the stuff of automotive legend.

Until the second-generation W464 model was revealed earlier this year, it had been on sale for nearly four decades with only incremental changes.

Deprived of the G-Class

As South Africans we are well versed to the longevity of certain iconic designs – Citi Golf and Nissan 1400 thrived here for decades after their global discontinuation – but G-Class was never a value offering.

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It competed against Ranger Rover and even as the British luxury SUV was undergoing various iterations and complete redesigns, Mercedes-Benz was not bothered about modernising its original SUV. 

The legend of G-Class starts in the 1970s, when the Shah of Iran made a cursory suggestion to a Mercedes-Benz representative that it would be nice if they built something with 4x4 ability that wasn’t a Unimog.

One must imagine what the SUV market was like in the 1970s: Jeep Wagoneer, Ranger Rover and Land Cruiser 40-Series. The world’s most esteemed luxury vehicle brand could not be blamed for having to feign only passing interest in the matter.

Despite not really having any concrete business case for it, Mercedes decided to allocate engineering resources and crucially, considering how different the Geländewagen would be to anything else it built, optioned on contracting out the assembly to Austrian military vehicle specialist, Steyr-Puch.

New Mercedes G-Class: History of the G-Wagon

A legend in its own right

The rest, as they say, is rich history. Since 1979 diligent Austrians have been assembling G-Class SUVs in the city of Graz and the production volumes have only ever been limited by the meticulous, labour-intensive, assembly practices of Steyr-Puch. Demand has never been an issue. 

In classic Mercedes-Benz fashion G-Class was over-engineered from the start. The hulking bodywork attached to a very robust ladder-frame platform, with enormous housings for differentials and drive-shafts.

It was always engineered for military, instead of civil, applications. For those who were required by work or duty to travel to isolated venues, across inhospitable terrain, G-Class quickly became the default choice.
 
The instantly recognisable shape owes much of its proportions to Mercedes-Benz’s intuition that G-Class would be keenly adopted by the military. When its original customer, the Shah of Iran, went out of business in 1979; Mercedes was well pleased to find most of NATO’s continental armies fielding requests for G-Class wagons as their official staff vehicles.

And to accommodate officers during their Cold War manoeuvres meant G-Class would have to be a comfortable enough vehicle to accommodate four men, in combat uniform with battle helmets on. Hence the high roofline and tall doors.

Just like fine wine

Evolution came very gently for G-Class. In 1981 it was updated with an automatic transmission and Mercedes-Benz passenger car HVAC architecture, but it was only in 1989 that a thorough upgrade was made. By G-Class standards, anyway.

Whereas most rivals had perhaps a single-differential lock, Mercedes brought G-Class to market with no less than three lockable differentials, just as the Berlin was crumbling and the Cold War ending. As the hostilities which had made NATO such a necessity ended, demand for G-Class simply continued.

Mercedes-Benz added more luxury items to it throughout the 1990s, popularising G-Class in the North American market by leveraging on the parallel momentum of ML establishing a demand for true German luxury SUVs.

The most significant upgrade in terms of mechanical components came when AMG got involved, in 2004.

The G-Class has always had off-road ability beyond any reproach, but its tall profile, relatively short wheelbase and antiquated steering system meant it was never intended as a high-speed cruiser.

Power behind the looks

AMG paid all these issues absolutely no mind and simply engineered a solution to fit its supercharged 5.4-litre V8 into a G-Class. The result was G55 AMG, a 285kW high-performance SUV with Cold War military vehicle underpinnings.

Mercedes-Benz traditionalists were aghast, but the market enthralled, and AMG powered G-Class models have been enormously successful in the decade which followed.

The G55 upgraded to 373kW, before an even madder 6-litre twin-turbo V12 version was introduced in 2012, good for 450kW. What followed a year later was the 400kW turbocharged G63 and in 2013 Magna Steyr assembled a very limited edition of G63 6x6s, which will perhaps remain forever the ultimate double-cab bakkies. 

Finally, in 2018, the second-generation G-Class is with us. It might look much the same, but a host of mechanical upgrades make it a lot more comfortable to drive, especially at speed.

And speed is something it still does very well, as the 420kW new-generation G63 can attest to. And yes: they all still have three-locking differentials too. And a roomy enough cabin for you to drive around in a NATO issue infantry helmet, if you should want to. 

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