The history of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class

Feb 12, 2019

40 years ago, the G-model celebrated its world premiere in Toulon, France, from 4 to 9 February 1979. On the occasion of the press event at the Circuit Paul Ricard racetrack, Mercedes-Benz emphasised the values of “uncompromising off-road and on-road capability” as well as “maximum variety of use” in the press kit. And development and production partner Steyr-Daimler-Puch underscored that “the technical design of this universal model series [...] sets new standards on the expanding market of off-road-capable light vehicles”.

Already four decades ago, these statements precisely cut to the core of what the G-Class continues to stand for unchanged to this day. This was made possible in particular by the continuous advancement of the off-road vehicle in many small and a number of major details. As a result, the G-model and since 1993 the G-Class has remained true to itself and its creators with great success along the way. The new generation of the 463 model series, which celebrated its premiere in January 2018, carries these strengths further into the future – in concert with the iconic design and the highest standards on comfort, ride quality and performance.

The pro

The G has penned a number of success stories so far. For example, as a strong and versatile utility vehicle, which initially was embodied especially by the panel van version. The chassis with cab, which was available from 1987 onwards, also was aimed at professional users. Starting in 1992, the G-models for this customer group were assigned to the 461 model series. Later, this segment in the 463 model series is covered by the professional models of the G-Class. In addition to pros from such different industries as mining and plant nurseries, operators from municipal entities as well as fire brigades and civil protection services rely on the versatile off-road vehicle.

The focus on competence and exclusivity is another guiding theme in the success story of the G. This chapter already began early on, among other things with Recaro individual seats for driver and front passenger as optional equipment in 1981 and the interior appointments enhanced as standard in 1982. The dynamics of the development increased significantly after the premiere of the 463 model series in 1989. This model series moved the off-road vehicle away from its previously prevalent utility nature, which of course continued to live on in the 460 model series and from 1992 in the 461 model series. The 463 model series offered features that made the G-Class even more attractive in everyday life for many users, for example, with permanent all-wheel drive, anti-lock braking system (ABS) and again enhanced interior appointments. As such it acquired entirely new buyers from the circle of private users in the years that followed. Fittingly, the G-model of this series was from then on the responsibility of the Mercedes-Benz passenger car division – the G had belonged to the commercial vehicles beforehand.

Little by little, the vehicle was even given luxury attributes. A first highlight in the history of refined performance on and off the road was the Mercedes-Benz 500 GE with a V8 engine. It was presented in 1993 as an exclusive small-series model. From 1998, the G 500 then was the standard top-of-the-range model of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, as the family of off-road vehicles has been called since 1993. In 1999, this top position was assumed by the G 55 AMG, which formed the basis for the lasting success of the Mercedes-AMG performance vehicles in the G-Class as well. Further standards in this regard were set by the G 55 AMG with compressor engine (2004), the G 63 AMG and the G 65 AMG (both 2012), the G 63 AMG 6x6 (2013) and finally the Mercedes-AMG G 63 of the new G-Class presented in February 2018.The highly exclusive models in the guise of the G 500 4x4² (2015) and Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet (2017) are also part of this tradition.

Leading by tradition

That the G-model and the G-Class were able to stay true to the basic concept from 1979 was by no means a given. The fact that the off-road icon succeeds in achieving this master stroke is down to the culture of continuous advancement of Mercedes-Benz. Contributing factors in this regard included the standard-fit power steering (first in the 280 GE and 300 GD, from 1987 in all models) and standard-fit differential locks (1985) as well as the introduction of a closed-loop three-way catalytic converter (from 1986 as optional extra at first on the 230 GE). The major facelifts in particular represented important development leaps for the technology of the G. For example, the 463 model series was launched in 1990 equipped with permanent all-wheel drive, while the 460 model series continued to have the on-demand all-wheel drive.

Powerful engines with six, eight and twelve cylinders were used and increased the performance range of the G-Class over the years. Comfort and safety also kept pace with this evolution. For example, starting in 2001 the G-Class was equipped with a unique combination of driving dynamics and all-wheel-drive systems, which comprised the electronically controlled traction system 4ETS, the Electronic Stability Program ESP®, and BAS Brake Assist.

Joining forces for success

The values which were the focus at the presentation in 1979 already specified important guiding principles for the development history of the G that started in the early 1970s. Because only if you have a clear vision of the concrete product can you take it from the first idea to market readiness in as technically and stylistically impressive fashion as was the case for the G-model.

It was a close cooperation that made the success of the G-model possible: already in summer 1969 – that is to say ten years before the premiere of the 460 model series – then Daimler-Benz AG contacted Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG (SDP) in Graz to sound out a potential cooperation between both companies. Of course, this not only involved the G-model, but also widely different segments of the respective product ranges from passenger cars to buses and off-road-capable commercial vehicles.

The name Steyr-Daimler-Puch provides a hint that the two companies shared some roots. SDP was in fact created in the early 1930s when Steyr-Werke merged with Austro-Daimler-Puchwerke AG. The Austro Daimler brand dates back to 1899 when Österreichische Daimler-Motoren-Commanditgesellschaft was founded as the representative of Cannstatt-based Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG). In 1902, the Austrian company was acquired by DMG and operated from then on as a subsidiary. Independency follows in 1909 as Österreichische Daimler Motoren Aktiengesellschaft. The company, whose chief engineer was Ferdinand Porsche, became independent in 1909. The vehicles were marketed under the Austro Daimler brand. In April 1913, DMG divested itself of its last shares in the former subsidiary. In 1928, Austro Daimler merged with Österreichische Flugzeugfabrik and Puch-Werke AG to form the Austro Daimler-Puchwerke AG.

Heinz Schmidt, Member of the Board of Management of then Daimler-Benz AG, also implicitly referred to the historical connection between Daimler-Benz AG and SDP AG at the press launch of the G-model in Toulon in 1979: in his speech, Schmidt calls Austria a “country that has a special place in the history of Daimler-Benz and where men came from who have provided important stimuli for the development of vehicles bearing the Mercedes star”. As an example, he cited Ferdinand Porsche at this juncture, “who had taken over the technical leadership in our company from 1923 to the end of 1928”.

The talks at the start of the 1970s also touched on the inclusion of the light-duty off-road truck, the Puch Haflinger (named like the heavier Puch Pinzgauer after a famous Alpine horse breed), in the Mercedes-Benz sales and marketing: maybe the Haflinger would be able to round off the model range of the Unimog? This did not happen after all, instead the focus of the cooperation was initially on the bus sector.

However, both the Puch brand as well as the Haflinger model name were still to play a role in the history of the G-model. Because when initial concepts for the off-road vehicle were created at Steyr-Daimler-Puch, the project was given the code name Puch H II – the abbreviation stood for Haflinger II. And until 1999, part of the production output of the G-model and later of the G-Class was marketed under the Puch brand name.

From the Schöckl to the Sauberg

On 15 June 1971, an internal comparison drive of the off-road vehicles Puch Haflinger, Puch Pinzgauer and Mercedes-Benz Unimog on the Sauberg Mountain near Gaggenau illustrated the extent of the joint competence in matters of highly off-road-capable commercial vehicles. Board members of both companies attended the event. For the SDP representatives it was particularly exciting to see how the Puch models would fare. This was because the Haflinger and Pinzgauer had been tested constantly during their development on the legendary Schöckl, the local mountain of Graz. Later the Schöckl would also become the yardstick for every model series and every generation of the G. However, in 1971 the Haflinger and Pinzgauer competed on the home turf of the Unimog. The specialists of Mercedes-Benz were astonished to see how well both vehicles did here.

For economic reasons, Daimler-Benz Board Member Dr Rolf Staelin responsible for export already recommended expanding the contacts to Steyr-Daimler-Puch on 22 June 1971. In so doing, the German company was going to secure important production capacities in the long term to be able to satisfy peaks in demand more flexibly. In addition, he argued that both partners would benefit from access to the other’s markets.

The project Geländewagen

In autumn 1971 the idea of jointly building an off-road vehicle (“Geländewagen”) was fleshed out for the first time. It was to combine extreme off-road capabilities with good handling on the road. With it, the two partners intended to close a gap in the current worldwide range of off-road vehicles. In hindsight, this decision proved to be particularly far-sighted. Because with the consistent combination of ride quality and off-road capabilities, the G-model also laid the foundation for the subsequent success of the SUV models from Mercedes-Benz. The genes of the G are in all of these model series until today.

The potential of the G-model was confirmed by the analysis of global trends towards off-road vehicles that focused on leisure. Mercedes-Benz market research also already concluded on 8 May 1972 that such a vehicle was going to enjoy especially great prospects just after its market launch in the civilian sector – that is to say among private customers with a corresponding need for hobby and leisure pursuits. Designs of leisure vehicles were already created early on in the development process of the G. However, they were not realised for the time being.

The relatively meagre appointments of the first G-model from 1979 seemed to focus instead on professional operators, for example, from the trades, municipalities, and rescue services. Was it mainly groups such as public works departments and mountain patrols or forest rangers and fire brigades that were to buy the “off-road-capable estate passenger car” as the new vehicle was called in an internal paper in 1971? No, the vision of the partners from Germany and Austria for the market of the off-road vehicles was not this narrow. From the start, the G found many private buyers.

The positioning between leisure and utility vehicle reflected what the developers understood the G to be. In January 1979, Mercedes-Benz summarised the place of the G-model in the model range of the Stuttgart-based brand as follows in preparation for the presentation: the off-road vehicle was to be classified “as an independent vehicle between passenger cars and commercial vehicles”. The “robust interior appointments” matched the deployment scenarios, which the pronounced off-road capabilities entailed.

The balance between off-road prowess and ride quality on the road furthermore was to appeal to a third target group – the military. Armies from all over the world were seen as potential buyers already early on during the development process – even though the vehicle was not designed for them specifically. This was substantiated by corresponding drawings and 1:5 scale models for a “military vehicle” with short wheelbase and soft-top in the performance specifications from April 1974.

In line with this genesis, the technical description of the “Mercedes-Benz Cross-Country Car” published in 1975 for internal use said this about the joint development work with SDP: “The goal of this development is to achieve a cross-country multipurpose vehicle suitable for civil as well as military operation, with a payload of approx 700 to 1000 kg, depending upon the kind of body used”.

The expansion of an in-G-enious idea

Probably as early as autumn 1972, the CEOs Dr Joachim Zahn (Daimler-Benz AG) and Dr Karl Rabus (Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG) came to a basic understanding on jointly developing the light-duty off-road vehicle. The construction team was headed by Erich Ledwinka personally, Chief Engineer of Steyr-Daimler-Puch. The son of Austrian automotive pioneer Hans Ledwinka joined SDP from Tatra after the Second World War, where he became chief engineer from 1950 to 1976. Ledwinka’s long-time employee Dr Egon Rudolf, since 1975 head of the off-road vehicles division of the Austrian manufacturer, took over as head of G development in 1976.

Arthur Mischke, head of development commercial vehicles of then Daimler-Benz AG, described the nature of the cooperation in February 1979: “It was a given that [...] all the resources of Daimler-Benz were fully brought to bear, in the technical design department, the styling department, in the calculation department, and to a great extent in the testing department. Steyr-Daimler-Puch contributed its expertise from building all-terrain vehicles and with regard to the work capacity focused for one especially on the constructive treatment of the body shells and on the assembly operations leading to the complete vehicle for another. The major components and their peripherals, with the exception of the transfer case, were developed at Daimler-Benz”.

In the mid-1970s, the developers had no inkling yet that the G-Class would undergo an extremely successful metamorphosis from a utility all-rounder to a charismatic lifestyle vehicle with great performance and excellent off-road capabilities. Although the mentioned concepts by the Puch designers for a leisure vehicle based on the G did exist, as a universally usable off-road vehicle, the interior of the future G was to be appointed relatively sparsely in series production. The plans for the technical equipment were all the more extensive: standard-fit on-demand all-wheel drive, fully locking differential locks, and a power take-off. Both the versatility as well as the robustness off the road came courtesy of the design using a frame and rigid axles with coil springs.

While rigid axles and coil springs were aimed mainly at maximum off-road capabilities, the frame construction was selected also in light of the great variety of body styles. In February 1979, Arthur Mischke said about this topic: “The frame construction is a logical consequence of the intended range of applications. It allows practically unlimited variations of body styles from open vehicles with tarpaulin top and vehicles with enclosed body and more than two doors to the chassis with the possibility of different special-purpose bodies”. Furthermore, Mischke stressed the corrosion resistance of the frame construction when used under climatic extremes.

Detail development and design

The first wooden model of the H II, as the development continued to be called, was created in April 1973. In 1974, Mercedes-Benz and Puch commenced the detailed development work and tested the first roadworthy prototype. Photos from the time and the pictures in the technical description published internally in 1975 show how quickly the designers and engineers arrived at a design that already came very close to the eventual G.

The final styling of the off-road vehicle with its clear profile was defined by Mercedes-Benz Design headed by Bruno Sacco. It was the first product there for the commercial vehicles division of Mercedes-Benz, because that was where the vehicle was managed until the introduction of the 463 model series in 1989. The stylists succeeded in harmonising the large, smooth surfaces of the vehicle body and the technically defined parameters. This included the large approach and departure angles as well as the ratio between a relatively large vehicle height with a rather small overall width of 1700 millimetres (tailored to Alpine paths).

A dedicated production company emerges

In 1977, Geländefahrzeug Gesellschaft mbH (GfG) was founded, which was to handle the production of the G. Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch each held 50 percent of the company, whose production facilities were set up at the SDP plant in Graz-Thondorf. This is where there already was a great deal of experience in building all-terrain vehicles and small-series production runs of specialised automobiles with a high level of individualisation. These competences later benefited the building of the G. Dr Siegfried Sobotta (Daimler-Benz AG) and Dr Fritz Ehrhart (SDP) were appointed managing directors of GfG. Ehrhart as member of the board of SDP was significantly involved in the creation of the “G” since 1969 and the project beginning.

Gerfried Zeichen, Managing Board Director of SDP for the two-wheeler and all-terrain vehicles business division, said this about the decision in favour of Graz-Thondorf in February 1979: “Capacities for building off-road vehicles had been established there already in the early ‘70s and an interesting and cost-effective combination of small-series production operations for special-purpose cars and the large-scale production of two-wheeled vehicles had been achieved. There was a basic understanding in Graz of the high-quality and reliable Mercedes manufacturing standard as the result of the accomplishments of the off-road vehicles of the Haflinger and Pinzgauer models produced there”.

SDP erected a new production building to manufacture the G-model. Series production started in February 1979. The off-road vehicles were assembled on a production line that was 180 metres long. All in all, the following spaces were available for building the G: 1500 square metres for the frame shop, 4500 square metres for the body shop, 6500 square metres for the paint shop, and 6500 square metres for final assembly. In addition, there were staging areas for the major components from Mercedes-Benz and for the kits shipped for CKD assembly (“completely knocked down” – disassembled kits for assembly in foreign plants), which together covered an area of 6800 square metres. Up to 1000 employees in all were supposed to be able to build up to 10,000 vehicles a year in two-shift operations.

Mercedes-Benz delivered engines, axles, the steering systems, and other components from various locations in Germany to Graz. These proven and reliable components from large-scale production contributed to the success of the G in countries all across the world. In his chronicle of the Puch automobiles published in 1991, Friedrich Ehn emphasised: “The vehicles seamlessly integrate with the Daimler-Benz passenger car and commercial vehicle range. This means that a very large number of parts and components, to some extent with specific adaptations, could be adopted from already existing mass production. This integration with the passenger car and van range of Daimler-Benz through the system technology ensures the good parts supply with worldwide service outlets, the simplified maintenance and cost-effective repairs”.

Large stamped parts for the body shell were also produced in the plants of the Stuttgart-based brand and supplied to Austria. However, the fully synchronised transfer case for the off-road vehicle was developed and produced at SDP. It had a lightweight design and allowed switching between two and four-wheel drive as well as engaging the reduction group on the fly. Switching between two and all-wheel drive was not discontinued until the launch of the 463 model series in spring 1990 following its presentation in September 1989. From this generation of the G-model on, the off-road vehicle icon was equipped with permanent all-wheel drive as standard. However, the on-demand all-wheel drive was retained in the 461 model series.

In June 1978, the Austrian government extended invitations to a conference about the future of the country’s automotive industry. The conference in the Hofburg in Vienna attended by many high-ranking participants also saw the presentation of the wooden models of the G model, which had already progressed to an advanced stage. However, its key innovations could not be seen on the wooden model, rather they required looking at the details of the real vehicle, whose premiere was to follow a few short months later.

The G launches into the world

After the press launch in Toulon in early February 1979, the public premiere of the G followed at the Geneva Motor Show in early March 1979. SDP managing board director Zeichen said that “these weeks see the beginning of the journey of a new car into the world of the demanding motorists, in the mountains, on sand or in the jungle such as in the thick of the heavy traffic in overcrowded big cities”. Its creators agreed that the G was ready to take on any challenge. After all, the new vehicle had clocked some 1.5 million test kilometres in the months leading up to its premiere: On the legendary Schöckl Mountain in Graz, but also on test tracks and roads in Germany, Austria and France. The company also conducted winter testing north of the Arctic Circle and test drives in the heat of the Sahara.

Fresh classic for the future

Since 1979, the G has always remained recognisable at first sight and has carried its values into the future. Continuous technical advancement ensured that the classic from the 1970s always stayed fresh and attractive. The success of this strategy is evident in the market: for example, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class was in higher demand than ever in 2016 with a total production output of 20,000 vehicles that year. And the 300,000th G came off the assembly in Graz in 2017.

In January 2018, Mercedes-Benz started the next chapter in this success story: the new G-Class premiered at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. Once more, the G remained true to itself and its values, but also exhibited important technical innovations for the future. This includes the chassis developed jointly by Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes-AMG, which features a classic rigid rear axle and a double-wishbone front axle with independent suspension. What has not changed are the excellent off-road capabilities – the new G-Class even surpasses its predecessor in many disciplines. Or as Ola Källenius, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, responsible for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, said: “The new ‘G’ remains a ‘G’, only better”.