It is something of a paradox. When you think of a sports car, the first thing that comes to mind is long straight roads. Freedom accompanied by the sound of a roaring engine. But in reality, freedom comes to an end at the edge of the road and the exclusive vehicle becomes a status symbol. Anyone who wants to enjoy true freedom should better trust in the Unimog. Loads, inclines, mud, water and rocky terrain are the playground for the Unimog and its drivers. Asking why a van platform was writing about the Unimog is a legitimate question. But seriously: who cares about categories? The Unimog definitely doesn’t. Although originally a tractor unit with the power of a truck, it also shares the versatility of a van. Reason enough to pay tribute to this working hero.
You know the Mercedes-Benz passenger vehicles. But do you know this dream vehicle?
The history of the Unimog stretches back 70 years into the past and begins in 1945. After the Second World War, Germany is an agricultural nation. The majority of the population lives from agriculture. Albert Friedrich, an engineer for aircraft engines at Daimler-Benz AG, is looking for a way to make heavy manual labor easier and eliminate the need for beasts of burden. His idea is as simple as it is brilliant: an all-purpose tractor with a track width of two rows of potatoes. This principle remains part of today’s Unimog: four equally large wheels, all-wheel drive, portal axles, ladder frame and coil springs along with differential locks on both axes have long been an integral part of the successful design.
With the help of his friends, Hans Zabel and Heinrich Rössler, Friedrich continues to refine his drafts. The trio finally finds the first partner with Erhard & Söhne. A curious alliance given that the company is actually a jewelry maker and door handle manufacturer for exclusive Daimler vehicles. That is why it is even more remarkable that the first prototype of the Unimog is revealed to the world at the beginning of 1946. Mass production finally begins in 1948
Four years later, in 1949, the Unimog demands more. Erhard & Söhne has reached the limits of its capacity and the production of the Unimog is relocated from Boehringer to Göppingen. The Daimler-Benz AG supplier produces the Unimog until autumn 1950, including Daimler engines until the financial demands ultimately threaten to become excessive. Then the Unimog finally finds its true home at the Daimler-Benz truck plant in Gaggenau.
Yet the Unimog still does not quite look like a Mercedes-Benz. Its front bears the ox head icon with U-shaped horns designed by Hans Zabel. Nor does it have a roof. A folding cover is all that protects the driver. This changes in 1953 and the Unimog ultimately becomes a Mercedes-Benz vehicle. In addition to the star on the radiator grille, the Unimog is also equipped with a closed driver’s cabin from Westfalia with the design that will shape the face of all subsequent Unimog generations up until today.
In subsequent years, the Unimog rapidly gains popularity and becomes one of the most important commercial vehicles in the young Federal Republic of Germany. After 1955, its popularity gains new heights with the founding of the German Federal Armed Forces. In 1960, the Unimog even conquers the rails as a powerful multi-modal vehicle. To date, around 400,000 units from 30 different series have been sold. Covering every single series would be an extremely time-consuming project and the nomenclature of the series and models is rather confusing. However, we have compiled a list of the most influential Unimog models in the info box for everyone who does not have time to visit the Unimog Museum in Gaggenau.
Unimog (1949 – 1951)
Naturally, the very first Unimog series from Boehringer is essential. With 25 hp and the Ox symbol on the hood, it is the original Unimog.
Unimog U 401 & U 402 (1953 – 1957)
It is easy to see how the first Unimog with the Mercedes star on the radiator grille resembles today’s models. It was also the first Unimog with a steel driver’s cabin. It earned itself the nickname frog eye because of its headlight design.
Unimog U 404 Type S (1955 – 1975)
The first highly mobile all-terrain Unimog with a gasoline engine made the agricultural machine an appealing option for the military. The German military and foreign armies numbered among the largest customers. Here it serves as a tank mock-up. It is the most-produced Unimog series of all time. In 1975, the best-seller was replaced by the U435. However, the Unimog’s sales declined sharply after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
ATF Dingo (from 1990)
Strictly speaking, this is not a Unimog. However, the German military’s armored transport vehicles still rely on the Unimog’s robust chassis and demonstrate the uniqueness and popularity of the Unimog platform.
Unimog U 300 & U 3000 (from 2002)
These two models represent a new era in Unimog production. In 2002, the production was relocated to Wörth am Rhein. From this time onward, the series are divided into implement carriers (U 300, etc.) and highly off-roadable Unimog (U 3000, etc.). Optimized production processes manufacture the Unimog as we know it today.
The three auxiliary drives (also known as power take-off shafts) are another clever aspect of the Unimog concept. The power take-off shafts at the front, in the middle and at the rear can drive additional equipment such as mowers and pumps. This system combined with the Unimog’s high payload makes it a unique multi-talent. The image gallery shows just how versatile and diverse the Unimog’s uses are.
Even today the Universal Motor Platform has a unique place within the Mercedes-Benz company. The classic vehicle has been assembled by hand with a passion at the plant in Wörth since 2002. Only certified Unimog specialists are allowed to work on the assembly line because the robust chassis demands special skills. Mercedes-Benz continues the long-standing tradition of collaboration with numerous body and equipment manufacturers and “lends” the Unimog chassis to specialists from a variety of different fields.
There is no doubt that the Unimog’s target group has become smaller over the decades. Higher purchasing costs and the need for a truck license are some of the reasons. Nevertheless, the Unimog pays off as a durable investment in the future. In 2013, the Unimog was completely revised and the design modernized. Thanks to the efficient engine generation with exhaust-gas after-treatment, the Unimog is a clean solution in comparison to most tractors and also fulfils the Euro 6 emission standard. The Unimog is available in numerous variants. As an implement carrier and also as a highly off-roadable vehicle.
The implement carrier is especially versatile. It is capable of being equipped for up to 1000 applications. The large driver’s cabin with excellent visibility and comfortable interior distinguishes the Unimog from its predecessors. In addition to the Unimog’s typical connection options and all-wheel drive advantages, the implement carrier also features a camera system at the front. This significantly simplifies working with external devices. Smaller tyres are possible for many models such as the U 218. In comparison, the U 423 is more adventurous. In addition, the Unimogs are also available with small wheelbases beginning with 2,800 mm. The benefit: a smaller turning circle. The movable steering wheel represents the pinnacle of the Unimog’s variability. In a matter of moments, the steering wheel and pedals can be shifted from one side of the vehicle to the other. However, the implement carrier is first and foremost a powerhouse. Its powerful engines deliver up to 220 kW and 299 hp. On the road, the Unimog has a top speed of 90 km/h. On rails, as a multimodal vehicle from ZAGRO, the Unimog can even move an incredible towing load of 1,000 tonnes.
The mountain climber leaves any truck and van behind. Thanks to its typical portal axles, the Unimog has a ground clearance of half a meter. The Unimog also has no fear of water thanks to its wading depth of 1.20 meters. It proves its climbing talent thanks to its large spring travel with axle articulation of up to 30° and a climbing capability of up to 110% (approximately 45°). It can also handle steep driving slopes of up to 50° (depending on the equipment) thanks to its short chassis overhang.
Its last update not only added an optional double cabin to the all-terrain version but also featured a slightly modified engine layout. The positioning slightly further to the front lowers the vehicle’s center of gravity, an additional advantage when driving off-road while fully loaded. The Unimog is available in two variants, the U4023 and U5023. The two models primarily differ with regard to the frame and axle design. This results in a 4.5 tonne higher payload for the U5023, bringing the total payload to 14.5 tonnes.
We could continue forever. Simply sitting in a Unimog while it tackles an off-road obstacle course is an incredible amount of fun. The Unimog is truly fascinating in every situation. That is probably because in this vehicle, nothing seems impossible. The Unimog’s history is just as exciting as its present because these exceptionally talented vehicles enjoy enduring popularity and even the oldest of them can still handle the roads and rough terrain. Which sports car can claim that?
Power output (kW/hp)
115/156 – 220/299
Permanent all-wheel drive
Driving slope angle
25° – 35° (front)
2,800 – 3,900 mm
Permitted gross vehicle weight
10 t – 16.5 t
12.6 – 16.9 m
Power output (kW /hp)
Activatable all-wheel drive
Driving slope angle
42°/46° – 46°/50° (front – rear)
Permitted gross vehicle weight
10.3 t – 15 t
Photos: Mercedes Benz