A Swiss army knife is an important piece of kit to own. It’s a single tool that is capable of serving its owner in so many ways. Anything from hunting, preparing and eating food, self-defense, hygiene, cracking a beer at a party and everything in between. However, for much larger task’s like road maintenance and repair, agricultural duties and getting much need supplies to a battlefront in rough terrain, the jack-of-all-trades has always been, and will be the Unimog.
Built by Daimler-Benz, the Unimog is one of the world’s most capable off-road vehicles. They are still pretty rare here in North America, as the vehicle was never sold here, however, the Unimog’s icon status in Europe has meant several private importers have been slowly trickling the specialty vehicles into the country for over a decade now. Very quickly the Unimog, both older and newer versions are becoming the darling of the off-road community, allowing four-wheelers to go deeper into the unknown.
The Unimog has an interesting beginning, as it’s creation mimics that of the Land Rover in several ways. After the fall of World War II, the British where looking for a vehicle that would serve both as rural transportation and take on many tasks of a tractor. With the successful Willies Jeep 4WD vehicle making a name for itself in their military, the British wanted a similarly useful vehicle of their own, creating a truck that could navigate through the rain soak rural fields, and had power take-offs to power saws, winches, mowers and just about anything that could be jimmied up to take rotational force to do a job.
It was around this same time that Albert Friedrich, previously the Head of Aeroengine Design at Daimler-Benz, was thinking along the same lines. He put forward a concept for a vehicle with a basic design that would be versatile for tasks of all kinds, possess superior off-road mobility with a four-wheel-drive drivetrain featuring portal gear axles and differential locks front and rear. It would also have a compact cab, outstanding robustness and power take-offs front and rear for attaching a multitude of working implements. This was the concept being thrown around as early as 1945, and was a hit at the 1948 German Agricultural Show, with 150 orders made. With that the project was streamlined for production with the Massrs. Erhard & Sons coming on as development partners.
The truck was given the name Unimog, which is an acronym for "UNIversal-MOtor-Gerät," or universally applicable motorized implement. An unusual name even for the Germans, but described its abilities well. The first versions were simplistic to
say the least with a small open cab, flat bed and equal size wheels in order to be driven on roads at higher speeds than standard farm tractors. They were powered by Daimler-Benz’s 25-hp OM636 diesel engine became standard equipment in the first production, while the track width of 1,270 millimeters was equivalent to two potato rows. This was a truck aimed at the agricultural community and they embraced it, as its power take-offs allowed farmers to attach a myriad of useful machines to work in the fields and forests.
Production began in 1948 at the mechanical engineering factory of Boehringer in Schwäbisch Gmünd. Erhard and Sons did not have the production capacity needed, and due to wartime concessions, Daimler-Benz was not permitted to build 4WD vehicles. These laws changed with the creation of the West German Republic and the success of the Unimog prompted Daimler-Benz to take over the project completely, moving production to their Gaggenau plant in 1951.
1955 saw the first complete redesign of the Unimog, introducing the infamous 404. This truck would become a legend as its abilities and usefulness meant it wasn’t discontinued until 1980, with 64,242 units produced. However, this truck was geared more toward cross-country trucking rather than an agricultural implement. It featured a massive upgrade in power with a 2.2L 82 hp straight-six petrol engine mated to a synchromesh gearbox. This much larger
could climb a 70% grade, while capable of a 90% decent. It had a ground clearance of 40 cm, could ford nearly a meter of water, had a side slope angle rating of 46 degrees, with 46 degree approach and departure angles. Off-road abilities were coupled with a weight of 2,900 kg and a 1,500 kg payload. These numbers were impressive in 1955, and when the cold war started to pick up, West Germany began to re-arm the military, and the Unimog faired heavily in their plans. Over half of all 404’s built went to the German military while countries all over the world saw the potential of such a vehicle, snapping up nearly all the rest.
Over time, the simplicity, durability and down right unbeatable versatility of the Unimog continued to be a success. Exploited by both the agricultural and military industries, the commercial industry was now starting to take notice, and Daimler-Benz listened. Soon specialty vehicles could be ordered with fire fighting or ambulance kit, be configured to be a mobile workshop or weather forecasting station, or kitted for municipal and rail maintenance. The possibilities were endless, while the added go-anywhere abilities only made the choice for businesses to go mobile all the more attractive. Because of this Daimler-Benz also started to increase the production range, now building lightweight, mid-sized and heavy versions. The OM 352 diesel's now used for power introduced direct injection for the first time, raising power quickly from 70 to 80 hp to 100 hp used by a new 416 series launched at the 1969.
In 1976, the face of the Unimog changed once again with a new angular design. The new 424 was complimented by the renaming of all Unimog versions. The traditional rounded style Unimogs were designated U 600/L, U 800/L, U 900 and U 1100/L. New angular shapes were the hallmark of the Unimog U 1000, U 1300/L, U 1500 and the flagship, the U 1700/L with a 168 hp engine. The letter "L" indicated the long-wheelbase version. These new trucks feature many improvements including disc brakes for the first time.
Today, you can’t go anywhere in Europe without seeing a Unimog doing some kind of labour, whether it be hauling goods, cleaning tunnels and sign posts along the Autobahn or carrying troops and equipment. It is the workhorse of Europe. The latest design has been so popular that special editions such as the Funmog and the Unimog Black edition be created for wealthy eccentrics to play on their acreages. Travelers outfit all years and ranges with living quarters to explore the world over. They are used for absolutely everything, and have created a cult following.
Unfortunately, the Unimog is still not commercially available here in Canada, a country that would have a great use for such rugged and versatile machinery. However, it’s becoming more and more common to spot them on the roads, as importers are bringing fifteen year old vehicle into the country as they are so popular with off-roaders and small businesses that need to get equipment out into the bush or mines. Like the influx of Japanese JDM vehicles into the country, the abilities of the Unimog will be exploited.