The road to world success: the chronology of the G-Class

Apr 30, 2018

Ten years before the première of the G-model, then Daimler-Benz AG and Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG (SDP) in Austria got into contact. Both companies sounded out the possibility of cooperating in several areas.

On the off-road test track of Mercedes-Benz on the Sauberg Mountain near Gaggenau, the Unimog was compared with the Puch all-terrain vehicles Haflinger and Pinzgauer. The Austrian all-wheel-drive commercial vehicles proved to work very well. Considerations to jointly build an off-road vehicle that combines excellent off-road capabilities with good handling on the road began to take more concrete forms.

Both companies made the decision to develop and produce the G-model. The technical development was led by Erich Ledwinka from Puch. The first wooden model was created by the following year.

The first roadworthy prototype of the G-model was tested. Many details of the design already corresponded to the eventual production version.

Daimler-Benz and SDP established the jointly owned Geländefahrzeug Gesellschaft (GfG), which would handle the production of the G. The new production facilities with a capacity for up to 10,000 vehicles a year were erected in Graz-Thondorf. The cornerstone for it was laid on 11 March 1977 by Austrian Chancellor Dr Bruno Kreisky. Afterwards, the chancellor participated in a test drive of the G-model.

The Mercedes-Benz G-model entered the world stage: the press trial drive took place from 4 to 8 February 1979. However, the off-road vehicle from the Stuttgart-based brand built in Graz was presented neither in Germany nor in Austria, but rather in France: The presentation of the 460 model series took place in Toulon. This is were the company found an appropriately demanding off-road course near the Circuit Paul Ricard racetrack to demonstrate the off-road capabilities. The distinctive profile left an equally deep impression on the première guests as did the outstanding off-road capabilities. Both values accompany the off-road vehicle to today: the new G-Class presented in 2018 is recognisable as a modern twin brother of the first G-models at first sight (fuel consumption, combined: 13.1-11.5 l/100 km; combined CO 2 emissions: 299-263 g/km*). Although there were some critical voices in 1979, which deemed the lines of the new off-road vehicle to be too utilitarian, history also proved the creators of the G right in this regard: the straightforward and timeless design played a pivotal role in its standing as an automotive classic that is still in production today. The media coverage of the presentation of the new vehicle was overwhelmingly positive. In the press clippings of Mercedes-Benz from April 1979 it says: “The G-series [met] with a positive response across the board, which attests it a top position in the international market for off-road vehicles. The following statements were made in this regard: ‘New standards on the expanding market of all-terrain vehicles’ (KFZ-Anzeiger), ... ‘for the first time a vehicle model on the market that has optimal on-road and off-road capabilities’ (Krafthand), ‘King of the Alps’ (Autotouring, Vienna) and ‘Hats off to the engineers!’ (Kurier, Vienna)”. Mass production of the off-road vehicle started in February 1979 at the Graz-Thondorf plant. Production was in the hands of Geländefahrzeug Gesellschaft (GfG), in which then Daimler-Benz AG and Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG each held 50 percent of the shares. In Austria itself, but also in Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Mongolia and the Eastern European COMECON countries (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), the G-models were launched under the Puch brand name. The reason behind this were the all-terrain vehicles Haflinger and Pinzgauer, for which Puch was known. Private customers could order the G-model of the 460 model series with on-demand all-wheel drive and 12-volt electrical system in two different wheelbases (2400 and 2850 millimetres). The models 240 GD and 300 GD with diesel engine as well as the 230 G and 280 GE with petrol engine were available. The 461 model series initially only comprised the variants with 24-volt electrical system aimed at military customers. In addition, there were CKD kits (completely knocked down) of both versions, which were put together in the assembly plants around the world. These CKD versions were given the model series designation 462 and were assembled, among other places, at ELBO in Greece and the Mercedes-Benz Aksaray plant in Turkey. The G-model was initially launched as an open two-door vehicle (short) as well as an enclosed two or four-door vehicle (short and long). Particularly strong demand for this version as a station wagon quickly became evident. The panel van with closed rear side walls in both wheelbases followed soon after the market launch as an additional body style.

The annual production output of the G was already increased to 7500 vehicles. The G-model also achieved global fame in 1980 as the result of the Popemobile based on a 230 G, which Mercedes-Benz developed and built for the Vatican. Today, it is part of the permanent exhibit of the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. In 2007, the Vatican received an open G 500, which is being used alternately with other vehicles at public appearances of the Pope.

The product range of the G-model was expanded further. Innovations included a four-speed automatic transmission for the 300 GD and 280 GE models in April 1981. A windscreen hinged at the bottom and flipping forward for the open vehicles and a single-wing rear door followed later in the year. The previous double-wing rear doors continued to be available as an optional extra – just as Recaro individual seats for driver and front passenger. Furthermore, the production operations were reorganised already in July 1981: the joint enterprise GfG established in 1977 was transferred entirely to Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Since then, the Austrian company (today Magna Steyr AG & Co. KG) has been producing the G as a contract manufacturer for Mercedes-Benz. This means that from then on, the Stuttgart-based company would be the official manufacturer of the G-model.

The initially rather austere G slowly evolved towards a comfortable leisure vehicle with extreme off-road capabilities: from 15 May 1982, the interior appointments were enhanced with improved upholstery and the four-spoke steering wheel with impact absorber from the S-Class (126 model series). Before then, it had a two-spoke steering wheel from the TN van. Moreover, the new 230 GE with injection engine presented at the Turin Motor Show in 1982 replaced the previous 230 G.

Through sand and over rocks to rally victory: on 20 January 1983, a Mercedes-Benz 280 GE with the team Jacky Ickx/Claude Brasseur won overall victory at the legendary Paris–Dakar Rally. The year before, Ickx and Brasseur driving a 280 GE had already crossed the finish line in second place. The winners in 1983 were joined by eight more 280 GE models that occupied 5th, 8th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 17th and 19th place. Another report of success was in line with the motorsport victory noted worldwide: on 16 February 1983, the 25,000th G-model was already produced. Starting in August 1983, power steering became standard on the 230 GE, four years later power steering also became standard on the new entry-level model 250 GD.

Another series of expansions of the product range took effect in 1985. These included the introduction of a version with folding soft-top (January 1985) as well as the standard-fit front tow coupling, standard-fit differential locks on both axles, and an electrical central locking system (October 1985). These measures stood for a culture of continuous advancement, which the engineers of Mercedes-Benz and SDP had been nurturing since the première of the G in 1979. In so doing, they laid the cornerstone for the unchanged sustained success of the G-model already during the early years of this unique history. Also in 1985, SDP delivered the first Puch G to the Austrian Army.

The 230 GE became optionally available with closed-loop three-way catalytic converter. The G could also be used in mines starting in July 1986, because the 300 GD with the OM 617 engine was also available as a special version for underground work. In 1986, already the 50,000th G came off the line in the Graz-Thondorf plant. This meant that the capacity of 10,000 a year expected in 1979 was largely exhausted.

The 250 GD with OM 602 five-cylinder engine (62 kW/84 hp) known from the passenger car 124 and 201 model series replaced the previously available 240 GD from August 1987. In September 1987, the standard specification was expanded with the brake pad wear indicator for the front disc brakes, heated windscreen washer nozzles, and split rear bumpers. The list of options added an automatic antenna, power windows for the front doors and a luggage cover. As an additional body style, Mercedes-Benz added the chassis with cab and 2850 millimetre wheelbase to the product range. It was an indispensable variant for upfitting special bodies. In 1987, initial plans were also drawn up for a more comfortably appointed G-model – it would result in the 463 model series, which Mercedes-Benz presented in 1989.

The G celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1989. On the occasion – some 75,000 vehicles of the G-model had been built to date – the special model 230 GE Classic was launched, limited to 300 vehicles. The new 463 model series celebrated its première at the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt/Main in September 1989. It was the most extensive modification to date in the production history of the G-model that spanned just ten years. The engineers implemented a whole string of technical changes. Among other things, the G-models of the 463 model series were now equipped with permanent all-wheel drive. As before, the vehicle had a fully locking inter-axle differential. In addition, systems such as the anti-lock braking system (ABS) were available as optional extras.

The extensively revised G-model of the 463 model series was launched in March 1990. Besides the 230 GE and 250 GD models, the product range also included the versions 300 GE and 300 GD with new, efficient and powerful six-cylinder engines from the passenger car division. The interior was now modelled after the standard of the upper mid-size class from Mercedes-Benz and could be made even more exclusive with optional extras. For example, fine-wood applications and the instrument panel from the model series 124 were part of the standard specification, and leather upholstery and other features were optionally available.

The 350 GD Turbodiesel with six-cylinder engine (100 kW/136 hp) had its world première at the IAA in September 1991. Its market launch followed in 1992. The new top-of-the-range diesel model of the 463 series came with a four-speed automatic transmission as standard.

After the launch of the more powerful and comfortable models of the 463 series in 1990, the model series family of the G-model was reorganised. Mercedes-Benz continued the base models of the original 460 model series with its clear focus on professional applications as a commercial vehicle from then on as the 461 model series. They differed from the models of the 463 series, for example, by the retention of the two-wheel drive with on-demand locked four-wheel drive on the fly. Available models included the 290 GD and 230 GE as a station wagon (short and long), panel van, pick-up (long wheelbase), and chassis. The 250 GD of the previous military 461 model series continued to be available for this group of customers. The 100,000th G-model was produced in June 1992. Furthermore, CKD assembly started in Greece that year. Also in 1992, new optional extras such as burr walnut elements in the interior, cruise control, and stainless-steel spare wheel cover became available for the vehicles of the 463 model series.

This is the power of the G: in March 1993, the 500 GE V8 special model celebrated its première at the Geneva Motor Show. It was powered by an M 117 five-litre V8 engine (177 kW/241 hp) and cost nearly twice as much as a 300 GE. Some 446 examples of this vehicle were built and it represented another milestone on the road to the powerful G-Class models of the years to come. The off-road vehicle’s name also changed in September 1993: after having been in production for 14 years, the model designation of the G-models was changed to bring it in line with the passenger car series. From this point on, the G came before the number indicating the displacement and model, and the family of vehicles was now called the G-Class.

The standard specification of the 463 model series was further expanded in March 1994. Driver’s airbag, immobiliser and locking system with infrared remote, three-channel ABS, and the switches for the differential locks integrated into one unit were now included. An electronic anti-theft alarm system (EDW) was available from now on. In May 1994, the G 300 was replaced with the G 320, available exclusively with four-speed automatic transmission and powered by a 3.2-litre six-cylinder four-valve M 104 engine (155 kW/210 hp).

The G 300 Turbodiesel of the 463 model series (130 kW/177 hp) was launched in July 1996 and replaced the 350 GD. It was powered by a three-litre pre-chamber engine with four valves, two overhead camshafts, and intercooler, and came exclusively with the new five-speed automatic transmission.

In April 1997, the Cabriolet of the G-Class debuted in a new variant with electro-hydraulic soft-top at the Off-Road Show in Munich. The open vehicle was available from June and optimally fulfilled the requests of customers with a focus on lifestyle. In November 1997, the G 320 started to be equipped with the M 112 V6 engine rated at 158 kW (215 hp). It also was now exclusively available with the new five-speed automatic transmission. Finally, in December 1997, the 290 GD Turbodiesel of the 461 model series with the 2.9-litre five-cylinder OM 602 LA engine (88 kW/120 hp) replaced the 290 GD.

The G 500 of the 463 model series (218 kW/296 hp) with its M 113 five-litre V8 engine became the new top-of-the-range model of the G-Class in May 1998. With it, engines at the top-most end of the performance range definitively and permanently made their way into the G-Class. That same year, Canadian corporation Magna International Inc. acquired Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG. Three years later, this would result in the establishment of today’s Magna Steyr AG & Co. KG. Nothing changed with regard to the good cooperation between the client Mercedes-Benz and the Austrian specialist for the development and production of vehicles.

It was a summit with consequences: in July 1999, the G 55 AMG of the 463 model series had its première on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the G-Class. Consequently, the performance brand AMG for the first time provided the new top-of-the-range model of the off-road vehicle. The G 55 AMG was powered by a 5.5-litre V8 engine with an output of 260 kW (354 hp). This vehicles was thus the founder of the decidedly successful tradition of the exclusive variants of the G-Class with plenty of displacement and power from Mercedes-AMG.

The G-Class of the 463 model series was further enhanced and strengthened for the future with a major facelift at the beginning of December 2000. Among other things, there was a redesigned multifunction steering wheel, an instrument panel with semi-circular speedometer and a central display installed in the middle, revised front seats, and as optional extras the COMAND display and control system (standard on the V8 models G 500 and G 400 CDI), and the automatic emergency call system TELE AID, optionally with Linguatronic voice control. The exterior of the facelift model was identifiable by the clear indicator lenses, bi-colour tail lamps, and decorative stripes on the side protective strips. With the major facelift, splitting the sales and marketing of the G-Class between the Mercedes-Benz and Puch brands also came to an end. From that point on, the off-road vehicle also sported the Mercedes star on the radiator grille in Austria, Switzerland as well as in various countries of Eastern Europe and Africa.

The G 400 CDI already announced in 2000 became available from January 2001. With the four-litre OM 626 DE LA V8 engine (184 kW/250 hp, 560 Newton metres between 1700 and 2600 rpm) known from the S-Class, it was the G-Class with the highest torque so far. Car magazine “Off Road” promptly awarded it the distinction “Crown of All-Wheel-Drive Vehicle Construction”. From autumn 2001, the all-wheel drive of the G-Class was further perfected with the electronically controlled traction system 4ETS. The driving dynamics system improves the grip when starting off and accelerating on slippery ground such as in the wet or on ice. The system uses the wheel sensors of the standard anti-lock braking system (ABS). In concert with the Electronic Stability Program ESP® and BAS Brake Assist, the 463 model series from autumn 2001 on offered a worldwide unique combination of the most capable driving dynamics and all-wheel-drive systems. The 270 CDI with 2.7-litre five-cylinder engine (115 kW/156 hp) completed the range of the G-Class at the lower end in 2001. That same year, the 463 model series was introduced for the first time in the US market. This turned out to be a wise decision: already by 2008, the US market would account for around 20 percent of all G-Class sales and be the second most important market after Germany.

The G 55 AMG presented in 1999 on the occasion of the anniversary of the G-Class was now listed in the official sales programme of Mercedes-Benz as a station wagon with long wheelbase.

The G 55 AMG Kompressor replaced the previous G 55 AMG in 2004 and surprised the fan community with its M 113 supercharged 5.4-litre V8 engine (350 kW/476 hp and 700 Newton metres of torque). In 2007, the output of this impressive top-of-the-range model of the G-Class now increased again to 364 kW (500 hp).

After having been in production for what was after all already 26 years and with more than 185,000 vehicles built, that year the decision was made to keep the G-Class in the product range in the future as well. The sprightly classic was to be fortified for the future as before through intensive, continuous development. As part of this process, the engineers addressed questions from pedestrian protection to emissions legislation and others.

The G-Class started to come equipped as standard with bi-xenon headlamps with cornering light, and the G 320 CDI replaced the previous diesel models G 270 CDI and G 400 CDI.

The G 500 became equipped with the modern 5.5-litre four-valve M 273 engine delivering 285 kW (388 hp) and 530 Newton metres of torque, which replaced the M 113 three-valve engine rated at 218 kW (296 hp) and 456 Newton metres of torque, and had a radiator grille with three louvres. A new telematics generation also premièred in the G-Class in 2008.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the G-Class in 2009, the special models EDITION30 based on the G 500 of the 463 model series and EDITION30.PUR based on the G 280 CDI of the model series 461 were launched. The EDITION30 with designo platinum black paint finish and specially designed light-alloy wheels made clear what possibilities the G-Class offered in terms of comfort and prestige. In contrast, the EDITION30.PUR paid homage to the first generation of the G-model presented in 1979. Optimised especially for the highest loads far off paved roads, the vehicle was the future dream car of globetrotters, expedition leaders, and customers looking for an automotive rarity with unconditional reliability and absolute persistence.

No less than two new high-performance models from AMG headed to the top of the G-Class model range in April 2012: the G 63 AMG with 5.5-litre V8 engine M 157 (400 kW/544 hp) replaced the G 55 AMG Kompressor. The new top-of-the-range model was the G 65 AMG. Its M 275 six-litre V12 engine (450 kW/612 hp), in use in the S-Class Coupés since 2003 and the Saloons since 2004, as well as in the SL, produced 1000 Newton metres of torque – the highest torque of a Mercedes-Benz passenger car ever at the time.

The G 63 AMG 6x6 premièred in March 2013 as a near-production pick-up show car. It was equipped with five differential locks, an off-road reduction gear, portal axles, and a tyre pressure control system. It was based on a 6x6 version of the G-Class, which Mercedes-Benz had developed for the Australian military and had started to deliver in 2009. The vehicle was built in a small-series production run from 2014 equipped with the M 157 engine, a 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 rated at 400 kW (544 hp).

35 years after the première as the G-model, the G-Class was as fresh as on the first day. That year saw the 230,000th off-road vehicle of the model series family roll off the production line in Graz.

Mercedes-Benz presented an unusual interpretation of the G in summer 2015. The G 500 4x4² adopted the portal axles of the G 63 AMG 6x6, which alone gave it about 90 millimetres more ground clearance than the standard-spec G-Class. In addition, it was fitted with 22-inch rims with tyres of size 325/55 R 22, and with adjustable shock absorbers. As a result, the overall ground clearance increased to 450 millimetres and the fording depth to about one metre. The G 500 4x4² was powered by the M 176 engine, a four-litre V8 with an output of 310 kW (422 hp).

The G-Class was in higher demand than ever: in 2016, some 20,000 vehicles of the 463 model series were produced in Graz – the highest annual output altogether until that time and twice as many as the maximum annual capacity presumed in 1979. Furthermore, in 2016 the G 500 became equipped with the new M 176 four-valve V8 engine (310 kW/422 hp and 610 Newton metres of torque).

Mercedes-Benz presented what was to date the ultimate G experience in terms of style and exclusivity paired with performance and off-road capabilities in February 2017: the Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet was built in a small-series production run limited to 99 vehicles. With a wheelbase stretched by 578 millimetres and portal axles from the G 500 4x4², the vehicle offers lavish spaciousness in the rear compartment spanned by a folding soft-top and fitted with fully reclining seats. At the same time, the Landaulet had everything it needed to master any path. Its power source was the M 275 six-litre V12 engine delivering 450 kW (612 hp) and 1000 Newton metres of torque, and thus the most powerful engine from the passenger car range of Mercedes-Benz. The 300,000th G-Class came off the assembly in Graz in summer 2017.The design of the G 500 illustrated how modern the off-road classic is: on social networks, the fan community of the 463 model series decided on a designo mauritius-blue paint finish and on an interior with black leather seats and white contrasting topstitching. November 2017 saw the launch of the attractive “Limited Edition” models of the G 350 d Professional and G 500. They were the last highlights before the major facelift of the 463 series.

The new G-Class premièred at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit in January 2018 (fuel consumption, combined: 13.1-11.5 l/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 299-263 g/km*). The classic remains true to itself and its roots. This was also illustrated by the spectacular production “Stronger Than Time”, which shows a G from 1979 preserved as if ensconced in amber. This work of art underscores the great extent to which the DNA of the first G-model is reflected in the G-Class to this very day. Because the genetic material of living things embedded in fossil tree resin also is preserved for a long time. In terms of technology, the G-Class continues to drive into the future even after being in production for nearly four decades. Ola Källenius, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, responsible for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, said in this regard: “The new G-Class raises the bar a little higher still in all relevant areas – with regard to performance on and off the road as well as in terms of comfort and telematics. Our ‘longest serving’ model series is thus superbly prepared to continue to perpetuate its success story. To put it in a nutshell: the new ‘G’ remains a ‘G’, only better”. At first glance, the vehicle body seems virtually unchanged, although the off-road vehicle adds 53 millimetres in length and 121 millimetres in width. The chassis developed jointly by Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes-AMG retains the classic rigid rear axle, while a double-wishbone front axle with independent suspension now does duty at the front. Its components are mounted directly to the ladder-type frame of the vehicle. The off-road capabilities of the new G-Class have been yet further improved over the previous version: a ground clearance of 270 millimetres under the front-axle gear, a climbing ability of up 100 percent, up to 70 centimetres fording depth, stable handling on slope angles of 35 degrees, an approach angle of 30 degrees and a departure angle of 31 degrees, as well as a breakover angle of 26 degrees illustrate the special status of the 463 model series off and on the road in future as well. The glamorous première in Detroit was followed by the next highlight in the history of the G in February 2018: the Mercedes-AMG G 63 was presented as the new top-of-the-range model of the 463 series (fuel consumption, combined: 13.1 l/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 299 g/km*).