You know this car all-too-well. Mercedes can’t stop putting out crazier and crazier versions of their G-Class while the Russian oligarchs and middle-Eastern princes maintain a steady demand for them. But it wasn’t always like that. Before the G-Class got 6 wheels, 12 cylinders and 1024-way adjustable seats, it was an honest, down to earth go-anywhere machine, dubbed the G-wagen.
This was Mercedes’ first venture into the world of military off-roaders since WWII, so in 1972 they turned to military tech experts for help. These experts were based in Graz, Austria and went by the name of Steyr-Daimler-Puch. The following year there already was a full size wooden model of the square-ish 4x4. From then on, metal prototypes were developed and rigorously tested from Sahara desert to the Arctic. A large share of the development work was done on Steyr’s home turf in Austria as well, as this Mercedes publicity film illustrates.
After such painstaking development, the Geländewagen (roughly translating as a cross-country vehicle) was finally ripe for its release in 1979. It was a rough start, as Mercedes-Benz-Steyr-Daimler-Puch’s first major order fell through. Before the off-roader was released, Shah of Iran ordered 200,000 units of it. Unfortunately, both for Mercedes and the Shah, there was a military coup in Iran, toppling him from power and leaving no funds to pay for the G-Wagens. Pretty soon though, the ruggedness and dependability secured this SUV born in Graz (and still assembled there these days) a position in both military and civilian garages. Even the pope had one for a while. A one-off G had a tall translucent plastic cabin for his saintness to greet the followers from. Right now, the car is retired and is displayed in Mercedes-Benz museum.
Mechanically, the original G-Wagen was as tough as nails and tackles difficult terrains without a hitch. Initially, there was a plethora of petrol and diesel powered engines to choose from, ranging from 4 to 6 cylinders and from 2.0 to 3.0 l in displacement. More importantly, it had three (!) locking diffs so the tough guy exterior wasn’t just for show. When it came to choosing a car for the demanding Budapest-Bamako rally, Dyler’s own team opted for a trusty G-Wagen due to its aforementioned virtues.
Mercedes G had bucketloads of character, which granted some unexpected attention from across the pond. Rich playboys began smuggling the off-roaders into the US. This square-shaped machine was never sold in the land of the free and from 1987 it was even outlawed. Keen enthusiasts had to find ways to circumvent the rules. Pretty soon, businesses converting and importing this forbidden fruit sprouted in US, Europa Car being the most established of them all.
Eventually, the Germans realized some buyers weren’t swayed by Geländewagen’s off-road credentials and introduced a more refined revision of the model in 1990. The new iteration was named 463 and retained the tough looks but lacked the initial crudeness. Officially, it even dropped the G-Wagen name and was known as the G-class from then on. It even came in a G500 guise, powered by a 5.0 V8. Not perfect for military or farming applications, but this version was brilliant for cruising around Malibu and parking it in front of the trendiest restaurants and clubs.
It wasn’t just US where the Gs were in demand, with Soviet Union crumbling they started appearing on the streets of Moscow and Sankt Petersburg. Persian Gulf millionaires were quite fond of them too. Mercedes listen to their customers’ wishes, especially if they can deliver stacks of cash. AMG and Mercedes released some ludicrous variants which made the G500 seem tame and rational. G65 AMG had a twin-turbocharged 6.0 V12, for instance. Of course, it’s low-profile tarmac tires made it worse off-road and high center of gravity made it terrifying when going fast. But it is a perfect way to splash all of the money you saved by avoiding taxes.
If it just isn’t enough, there were also 6x6 versions of the AMG G-class. Nothing is impossible in the world of millionaire excess and Mercedes could even sell you a V12 twin-turbo G with a long wheelbase, convertible top and the interior snatched from the S-class. Provided your pockets were deep enough. A new version of the legendary off-roader was released by the start of 2018. It looks very much the same as the outgoing model and you can bet it’s also going to come with ridiculously powerful engines.
The G-class dinosaur is well past its expiry date and is only kept alive for the amusement for the rich, much like the pandas. That is not a bad thing, because the rich keep the Graz plant running. And because of them, the militaries and civilian adventurers around the world retain an option of buying this rugged off-roader that stood the test of time. With Land Rover Defender discontinued, the G-class is the last of its kind.