The South African public are big fans of 4×4’s and off road driving, so much so that at almost every traffic light you can see a modified Hilux or Ranger. But there is one off-road vehicle that trumps all, the Mercedes-Benz Unimog. Reuben van Niekerk finally got to drive in one.
In 1946 the first Unimog prototype was built, an identifying feature of which was that it had to have a wheel track of 1,27 metres to span two rows of planted potatoes.
Right from the beginning the Unimog was conceived as a go-anywhere, do-anything agricultural device, a truck, tractor and mobile agricultural machine rolled into one. With four-wheel drive, massive ground clearance and three power-take-off points around the vehicle, the machine was first produced by a company called Boehringer from early 1947. Very early Unimogs used a red badge depicting ox horns, an association with its use for ploughing.
Daimler-Benz took over production in 1951, where after Unimogs began to carry the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star.
By 1966, no less than 66 different agricultural devices could be attached to the Unimog.
The Unimog has a very interesting history in our country. Many South Africans will remember these massive off-roaders from their stints in the South African military in the early 1970s, when Unimogs did duty as ambulances and special field vehicles. Later the Unimog chassis was used by the SA Military to produce the famous Buffel. Some 7 000 Unimog chassis and powertrains were imported for military use.
Nowadays Unimogs are used for all sorts of activities in the bush, by farmers, fire fighters and are highly popular as overland travel vehicles for tourists wanting to travel through Africa.
I was fortunate enough to finally hitch a ride in a 2017 U4000 model of this legendary vehicle as the Unimog club of South Africa began their 70th anniversary celebrations at Gerotek.
A feature of the Unimogs go-anywhere status is its massive ground clearance, achieved through a special transmission design using portal axles. Instead of the ends of the axles entering the centre of the wheels, the shafts enter the top of the wheels and are then geared down, enabling the engine and gearbox to be located far above the centre line of the wheels.
The Unimog does not use a bolted frame, like a normal truck, as the chassis has been designed to twist up to 30 degrees. The engine and the gearbox are also attached in such a way as to not impede this flexibility.
Combine flexibility with extreme wheel articulation of almost 500mm in each direction and the Unimog is sure footed in that its wheels, like a cat, are always touching the ground, no matter the severity of the terrain.
The gearbox is a very heavy item, due to its robustness, but has been mounted as low as possible to aid the centre of gravity. The U4000 has eight forward gears, six reverse, plus an additional eight in each direction when you’re in low. Swapping cogs is effortless thanks to electrical pneumatic shifting, you press forward on the gear lever to go up, pull back to go down, and there’s another button below it to engage forward or reverse. There is also the option of manual or automatic mode, with the clutch pedal folding away when you select auto.
The cabin is only mounted to the chassis at three points and on flexible points, making for a very comfortable ride over the harshest conditions. This mounting system allows the chassis to move around underneath the cabin without transferring this movement to the passenger compartment. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror at the load bed, while tackling an axle twister and it becomes evident at how this vehicle twists as it works. While cornering on tar the cabin remains level while the chassis leans through the turn.
Under the bonnet is a 4 250cc four-cylinder turbo-diesel truck engine that produces 130kW from 2 200rpm and 675Nm from 1 200rpm and boasts a very flat torque curve. In the configuration that we tested Gerotek, it is good for a top speed of around 115km/h.
4×4 ability is unrivalled, with numbers as follows. A 38 degree ramp angle; 45 degree climbing ability; 44 degree approach angle; 51 degree departure angle; 1,2m fording depth and 38 degree tipping angle. These are the kind of numbers that 4×4 designers and enthusiasts dream of.
And Mercedes-Benz was not hesitant to show this off, taking us up and down the 100 percent, 45-degree concrete slope at the Gerotek. The thrill of this experience can be likened to that of a theme park ride, but it is all in a days work for the Unimog.
Kalahari sand was also no match, thanks to on demand 4×4, multiple diff locks and an on the fly tyre inflation and deflation system, which is located inside the axles in order to remain free from damage.
The Unimog is a niche product, it is a vehicle that was designed to be a workhorse, but many of the South African owners have taken a liking to using this ability as the basis for the ultimate leisure vehicle, whether that means towing and launching their boat on the Skeleton Coast or building what is basically a caravan onto the back and travelling through Africa.
Models currently available in South Africa include the U4000 with a 9,5 ton GVM and a payload of 5 tons while the U5000 has a 13,8GVM and a payload of between 7 and 8 tons.
The Unimog has been affectionately likened to a Swiss army knife on wheels, as it is a true multi-role vehicle that knows no competition. No other commercial vehicle in the world can function as a tractor, towing vehicle, truck, fire fighting and exploration vehicle, bus and working machine, like the Unimog can. Militaries still love them because they can do anything, like tow a train or get to the same places as tanks.
The latest iteration of the Unimog sells for around R1,7 million in South Africa where after it will need some work at a bodybuilder to get it ready for the owners specific requirements. That might sound like a lot of money, but when a Mercedes Benz G63 costs R2,4 million rand, the Unimog starts to make a lot of sense.