Evolution of the Mercedes G-Wagen

From military forces to drug dealers and everything in between, AutoClassics delve into the history of the iconic Mercedes G-Class

The boxy design may appear to have remained untouched since 1979, but under the skin it’s a different story. Remaining true to its off-roading nature, the G-Wagen has adapted and grown to a demanding market, pumping the drivetrain full of steroids and lavishing the interior with enough comfort to see off any situation. A popular choice with security forces, celebrities and even the Pope, the indestructible G-Wagen also found favour with those of an underworld nature. It’s best that we stop there…

Now winning over a new generation of admirer with Mercedes' revamped 2018 incarnation, we look back though the weighty brute’s evolution from farmer’s friend to cultural icon and global status symbol. For those of a double-barrelled surname, and those who use double-barrels to prove a point, the G-Wagen has been, and will always be, the prime candidate for any social situation.

First Generation: 1979

Christened the G-Class, 1979 witnessed the introduction of a new range in sturdy off-roaders. Immediately popular with the armed forces, the G-Wagen was offered in two wheelbase forms – a short (2400mm) and long chassis (2850mm).

There were also three body styles in the form of a two-door short wheelbase convertible, two-door SWB wagon and a long wheelbase four-door station wagon. Windowless two-door vans (known as Kastenwagen in Germany) were also available for florists and those who needed a hose-clean rear tub – no questions asked, there.

Reliable and almost unstoppable in the rough stuff, the strength of the design allowed ambulance, fire engine and communication vehicle conversions without loss of power or ability. It was even the base for the Vatican armed ‘Popemobil’ – it would take more than an act of God to attack his Holiness with the G-Wagen prowling around.

Sporting an almost Spartan interior, featuring sharp edges and less comfort than an evening with Ted Bundy, the first-generation G-Wagen was more Land Rover than Range Rover – all about tackling the terrain, rather than the class structure. Employing differential lock amid a plethora of rough-and-ready off-road equipment, the original incarnation took serious skill to manoeuvre.

However, the basic cabin and hard-wearing mechanicals won the no-frills design a lifetime of fans. The German GSG9 – equivalent to the SAS and the secret police – utilised the Range Rover until the G-Wagen stormed onto the scene, the hardy Brit trumped in terms of dependability and build quality.

The first ten years found 50,000 examples rolling off the Austrian production line in Graz, and while not originally sold in the USA, by means of the murky waters around ‘casual importation’, examples found themselves on American soil commanding an eye-watering $130,000.

Full Revision: 1989

The G-Wagen underwent significant surgery for the 1990 model year, introducing a high standard of base equipment. Anti-lock brakes were provided as a life-saving customary, alongside a permanent full-wheel drive system and electronically-locking differentials for when the going became seriously difficult.

Besides improved underpinnings, the interior was upgraded from the frugal comforts of the original towards class and decadence. Wood trim and a minutely refined centre console were added to the cabin, dulling road nose and muting the sound of lesser cars passing under the floorpan.

To compete with the new, and rather complex, Range Rover P38a, 1997 specimens received a broadened engine range and further luxury for passengers. A torquey 2.9-litre turbocharged diesel plant was introduced alongside a 3.2-litre V6 petrol. Sales were strong, but the vehicle’s current ‘no-nonsense’ image as the godfather of off-road vehicles didn’t surface until a revamp in 2002.

The G63 AMG V12 was launched as a special edition for 2002, harbouring a 6.3-litre longitudinal V12 – with 36 valves, three per cylinder – producing 438bhp. The square bulk could hit 60mph from a standstill in 5.9 seconds – an incredible half second quicker than the G55 AMG V8 of the same year. For its time, nothing could touch it. If one appeared in your rear-view mirror, you were already dead.

As 2005 rolled in, Mercedes-Benz considered terminating the vehicle’s presence on the American market; however, an order for 157 vehicles from the US Marine Corps changed everything. Ordered to replace their ageing and outclassed Desert Patrol Vehicle – Mercedes celebrated by unveiling their Grand Edition for 2006, a limited run of 500 vehicles.

The 2005 model year also saw the introduction of the G55 AMG model, boasting 469bhp from the rabid V8 powerplant. This variant took a minuscule 5.2 seconds to crack 60mph – and could drain its fuel tank in less than 30 minutes. The following year found another update gracing the G-Wagen range, with the exterior breathed upon and running gear tweaked for maximum efficiency.

The Russian president enjoyed use of an extended limo version of the G55. But it’s best that we stop there…

During this generation’s time in the factory, AMG, Brabus, Lorinser, Carlsson, ART and RENNtech have all modified the vehicle’s interior, exterior and engine. Some tuned examples can tear your face off and command enough respect on the road to leave ambulances pulling over to let the driver pass.

Reborn: 2018

On the face of it, the current reinvention of the Mercedes legend wears the same suit; the bodywork remains a time warp back to the decade that taste forgot. Mercedes was smart enough not to mess with the iconic shape, although the frame has been forced through fat camp.

The 2019 G-Wagen is 170kg lighter despite being a tad bigger – 53mm longer and 121mm wider, to be exact. This provides extra space and an injection of opulence for the cabin. The seats massage, heat and cool – a bit like the staff belonging to original G-Wagen owners – whereas the instrument cluster is now completely digital. There is a host of parts from the E- and S-Class, too.

Technology has crept its way in – with virtual instruments and an optional central display above the centre console, alongside two 12.3-inch displays which blend into a ‘Widescreen Cockpit’. That phrase back in 1979 would have applied purely to a Star Wars script. The LED headlamps won’t be to everyone’s taste, but for lighting that drugdeal in the Columbian rainforest there is no substitute.

Under the bonnet rests a 4.0-litre, twin-turbo V8 providing 416bhp, certainly enough poke to escape any city for the designated safe house. Ride comfort is smooth and sophisticated, like receiving a fireman's lift from Pierce Brosnan, with the off-road ability unquestionable in face of grim terrain and unfavourable circumstances.

With a constant yearning for iconic SUVs that can venture further than a grassy horse show car park, the G-Wagen's identity and future look firmly secured. However, if you require persuasion, let Bruce Willis give you a personal demonstration...

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