by Philipp Deppe | 3.August 2009
The development of the Mercedes-Benz G-Model commenced in 1972, when a cooperation agreement was signed between Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria.
The decision to start series production of the G-Class was taken in 1975. At the same time it was decided to construct a new plant in Graz, where the vehicle has been built mainly by hand throughout its time in production.
There were four model series in the G-Class. The 460 (from 1979 onwards), 461 (1991) and 463 (1989) series were produced in Graz, while the 462 series was assembled from CKD kits in Thessalonica, Greece from 1991; these vehicles were exclusively intended for the military and police. A small number were also assembled from CKD kits at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Aksaray, Turkey.
Contrary to the popular view, the G-Class was neither conceived as a military vehicle, nor as a passenger car: the designers initially had their eyes on the civilian commercial vehicle market. There was a change of direction during the concept phase, however, and the vehicle was designed for operation in extremely difficult terrain. The vehicle’s backbone was a box frame with enclosed side members and cross-members, ensuring exceptional flexural and torsional strength. The frame carried robust, rigid axles with large coil springs and a long spring travel – an advantage in off-road operations. With a climbing ability of up to 80 percent, a tilt angle of up to 54 percent, a 21-centimetre ground clearance and angles of approach and departure of 36 and 27 degrees respectively, the G-Class impeccably mastered even the most difficult
off-road stretches. At the same time the chassis ensured safe and comfortable handling characteristics on the road.
In terms of body design, the designers and engineers opted in favour of large surfaces, because these were cheaper to produce – particularly in view of the fact that production was also planned for countries of the Third World. At the time, however, the design came in for severe criticism for its simplicity. This is seen differently today: precisely because the appearance of the G-Class is characterized by its great practicality accompanied by a timeless design, it has secured its place in the car market as a straight-talking, uncompromising classic.
Foundation of a separate company
A separate sales and production company – Geländefahrzeuggesellschaft mbH – was jointly set up in which Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch each held a 50 percent share. The vast majority of vehicles produced were to bear the Mercedes-Benz star on their radiator grille. In countries such as Austria, Switzerland and in Eastern Europe they were marketed under the Puch brand – a well-established name for off-road vehicles in Alpine countries. This only accounted for around 10 percent of total production, however.
The chief designer of the G-Model was Erich Ledwinka, who had already gained a good reputation with the extremely robust, four-wheel-drive Haflinger all-terrain vehicle from Austria. Accordingly the new project was initially named H2, which stood for “Haflinger 2″. Since this name was too closely associated with Steyr-Daimler-Puch, the partners subsequently changed it to the simple but memorable “G” for “Geländewagen”
(= off-road vehicle). At the time nobody could have predicted that this was an almost clairvoyant decision with respect to the current system of Mercedes-Benz model designations using just one letter (E-Class, S-Class etc).
The first model, which was built of wood, was presented to management in 1973. The first prototype of metal construction, powered by a 2.3-litre petrol engine, was ready in September 1974. One year later this was followed by two further prototypes with short and long wheelbases. In 1978 a first prototype designed specifically for the military, with a fabric roof, a folding windscreen and removable doors was presented. At the time it was assumed that most of the vehicles would be equipped in this way; however the majority of customers opted for the closed version, the station wagon.
A very large order in the mid-1970s provided a great incentive to develop the vehicle to series production maturity: the Shah of Persia ordered 20,000 units for his imperial army. As an irony of history, the new rulers cancelled this major order when they proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 – in the very year that production of the G-Class commenced.
The German armed forces were also slow to become customers. While they had been involved in the concept phase of the project at an early stage, with corresponding high hopes of a large order on the part of the factory, they decided to opt for the Volkswagen Iltis as the successor to the DKW Munga in 1976. It was only years later, when the Iltis needed to be replaced, that the German armed forces ordered the Mercedes-Benz G.
Meanwhile other customers had also appeared during this early phase, including the Federal German Border Police, as well as the Argentinean and Norwegian armies. As was so often the case with all-wheel-drive vehicles, their capabilities were particularly appreciated by the military, who were initially the main buyers of the G-Class. Later on, civilian and military customers each accounted for around fifty percent of sales.
From the very first the vehicle could be ordered with special requests, as the Mercedes-Benz G had a very wide range of applications. The designers were therefore geared toward providing individualized equipment.
The French army also placed its trust in the capabilities of the G. Produced under license by Peugeot and named the P4, this vehicle had a number of its own features such as rectangular headlamps, different seats and a French engine. The front differential lock was also omitted.
World famous, too, were the vehicles built for Pope John Paul II, which came to represent the term “Popemobile” par excellence. The Mercedes-Benz 230 G painted in mother-of-pearl accompanied Pope John Paul II on numerous journeys all over the world. Mercedes-Benz first made this vehicle available to the Pope for his visit to Germany in the late autumn of 1980 – initially as a loan. An outwardly almost identical 230 GE followed in 1982. A powerful air conditioning system in the rear ensured a comfortable temperature in the Holy Father’s compartment when the sun was shining, while in rainy weather and high humidity the system prevented the windows from misting over. Various spotlights were also installed in the sides, floor and roof of the compartment, so that direct and indirect illumination made him more easily visible when darkness fell.
Perfect division of tasks
Production of the G-Class in Graz commenced on 1 February 1979. Daimler-Benz provided the entire drive train with its engine, transmission, axles and steering, as well as the larger pressed components. Stamped and smaller pressed parts, as well as the transfer case, were produced by Steyr-Daimler-Puch.
The range of G-models initially consisted of the 230 G (four-cylinder petrol engine,
90 hp/66 kW or 102 hp/75 kW), the 240 GD (four-cylinder diesel engine, 72 hp/53 kW) and the 300 GD (five-cylinder diesel engine, 80 hp/59 kW). In early 1980 these were followed by the 280 GE (six-cylinder petrol engine with fuel injection, 150 hp/110 kW) in the low-compression version. All versions featured a manual four-speed transmission and reduction gearing.
The all-wheel drive with an additional cross-country ratio was able to be engaged and disengaged on the move, as were the 100%-locking differential locks on both rigid axles. The sophisticated suspension with trailing arms and transverse links, coil springs and shock absorbers made for excellent handling both on and off the road. Power steering was only available for the 300 GD and 280 GE as standard.
Civilian customers were able to order the G as a station wagon with a short or long wheelbase, or as a convertible with a short wheelbase. There was a choice of just five paint finishes: cream white, wheat yellow, colorado beige, carmine red and agave green. For the military there was also a long-wheelbase convertible with two or four doors. In November 1980 the range was extended with a closed box body and either a short or long wheelbase.
The first press release about the G-Class said: “The concept of this universal model series sets new standards in the expanding market for light off-road vehicles. The following development parameters have been realized: widest possible range of applications, the creation of a rationalized modular system using well-proven components already produced by Daimler-Benz, and ease of repair and servicing.”
The payload was generous at around 655 to 920 kilograms with a kerb weight of 1730 to 1959 kilograms (depending on version). The roof load was an impressive 200 kilograms.
The original intention to design the G as a commercial vehicle was shown by the list of optional extras, which included a lockable glove compartment, power steering, halogen headlamps or a clock. The two-spoke steering wheel and numerous switches had been directly adopted from the Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle range. It was only the price of a well-equipped G-Model that almost clairvoyantly indicated the direction the G would one day take: it cost around as much as an S-Class.
A growing number of civilian buyers
The G-Model was not only popular with the military and as a commercial vehicle, as a growing number of private customers also came to appreciate this robust off-roader. They expected more comfort from such a car, however, and this was provided with the first model upgrade at the end of 1980. A hardtop became available for the short-wheelbase convertible, to make the vehicle more suitable in winter. The 280 GE and 300 GD were optionally available with a four-speed automatic transmission, while other extras included air conditioning, a Webasto booster heater and Recaro sports seats. And at last the range of available colours was expanded and now included metallic paint finishes.
Mercedes-Benz did not neglect professional off-road drivers during this model upgrade, however. They were now able to specify a cable winch, rifle racks, 30-litre auxiliary tanks in the rear wings, a tropical roof for hot climates, a wash-wipe system for the rear door, bench seats positioned lengthwise along the load area and protective headlamp grilles. It was also possible to order a power take-off to drive external equipment such as a generator or hydraulic pump.
There was also another change: from December 1981 all the closed variants were equipped with a single rear door, with twin doors available as an optional extra. The exact opposite had been the case hitherto, so the order intake clearly reflected the majority opinion and influenced the specification.
By 1 August 1981 Daimler-Benz AG was officially the manufacturer of the G-Model, though it continued to be commissioned from Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz.
In 1982 the 230 GE replaced the 230 G. The new model had a fuel-injected petrol engine (125 hp/92 kW), and for just a few markets the 230 G still remained available until 1986 before being replaced by the 230 GE. The 280 GE remained in the line-up, initially with a slightly increased engine output (155 hp/114 kW), which was subsequently reduced to 150 hp (110 kW) to cater for unleaded fuel. At the same time the vehicles were upgraded with new features, which included a smaller, four-spoke steering wheel, controls and seats adopted from the Mercedes-Benz saloons and wide-base tyres on light-alloy wheels, which were accommodated within widened wheel arches.
The image of this robust Mercedes-Benz off-roader was enhanced by sporting successes. In 1982, for instance, Jacky Ickx and Claude Brasseur achieved second place in the Paris – Dakar Rally in a 280 GE, while Jean-Pierre Jaussaud took third place in another 280 GE. One year later Ickx and Brasseur won the Rally, the body of their 280 GE having been optimized in the wind tunnel and made lighter than the series production version thanks to the use of a number of aluminium parts. The engine output had been increased to 220 hp (162 kW). In subsequent years the off-roader enjoyed a succession of further sporting accolades.
In 1983 the volume of military orders declined significantly, which meant that the civilian market gained in importance. The company responded to this trend with four more metallic paint finishes, a five-speed transmission for the 280 GE and 300 GD, a four-speed automatic transmission for the 230 GE, illuminated switches and improved seat adjustments. Safety was enhanced with an eight-inch brake servo unit. The next model upgrade came two years later. New features included a rev counter and differential locks on both axles. Central locking became available as an option, while the carpets, roof liner and dashboard were also improved. The short-wheelbase convertible was given a folding roof rather than a simple tarpaulin. At the same time, insufficient demand led to the demise of the van version with a short wheelbase.
In 1986 power-assisted steering finally became standard equipment for all models, and could even be retrofitted at the normal extra cost. The fourth model upgrade in 1987 further extended the range of standard equipment, while adding new optional extras such as an automatic aerial, a double, retractable luggage cover and power windows.
The G-Class 460/461 series
The 460 series was phased out in 1991, while the plant in Graz prepared to change production over to the more up-to-date 461 series launched in 1992. This was aimed at all those customers who attached importance to the technical attributes of the G-Class, and for whom the interior needed to be professional rather than overly domestic – the military, surveyors, foresters, landscape gardeners, adventurers, etc. The series comprised the 230 GE (122 hp/90 kW) and 290 GD models as naturally aspirated diesels (95 hp/70 kW). The 250 GD (94 hp/69 kW) continued in production in the 461 series, but only in the military version. In contrast to the 463 series with permanent four-wheel drive, the 461 featured selectable four-wheel drive with differential locks at the rear axle; these were available as an optional extra at the front. Other standard features were a five-speed manual transmission and a 96-litre fuel tank.
Comfort-enhancing features were initially omitted from the 461 series, e.g. power windows or delayed interior lighting, however these became available later. Instead the list of optional equipment continued to include items such as a power take-off and a manual throttle. And for expeditions there was a “rough terrain package for export overseas countries”, which included a spare wheel in the interior, a fuel filler pipe suitable for refuelling from a canister and a base plate for the vehicle jack. A “grass-fire protection feature” was also on offer for those who might need it.
The 461 series was available in three wheelbases and seven body variants. This offered an immense number of permutations, so vehicles could easily be configured for highly specific purposes. Customers simply ordered exactly what they needed.
In 1996 the 230 GE was phased out for the German market, leaving only the 290 GD.
A driver airbag was available at extra cost. In 1997 cruise control and power windows became optionally available. In 1998 the 290 GD Turbodiesel (120 hp/88 kW) replaced the 290 GD, featuring additionally air conditioning, seats from the 463 series and the four-speed automatic transmission. The 461 series was eventually discontinued in 2002.
The G-Class, 463 series
In early 1987 the godfathers of the G-model began to think about designing a model series with a higher specification, and this was named the 463 series. This move was necessary, as the now very important civilian market was demanding the anti-lock braking system (ABS) and airbags, which required an extensive redesign. Moreover, fewer and fewer civilian customers were smitten by the rustic charm of a simple hunting cabin on wheels – more comfort and luxury was needed. For now, in 1989, the tenth production anniversary was marked by a special edition of the 230 GE with particularly luxurious appointments. Around 75,000 G-models had been produced to date.
From 1989 the G-Class came under the aegis of the Mercedes-Benz Passenger Car Division. This was noticeable in the new 463 series, which celebrated its debut at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt/Main in September: it was designed along the lines of upper medium-class passenger cars, with appointments very similar to the Mercedes-Benz saloons. The dashboard design was adopted from the 124 series, while exotic wood trim and comfortable seats were standard equipment. There was a choice of upholsteries, including leather, and various interior colours for a coordinated look. There was no longer any painted metal to be seen in the interior, and seating comfort was also improved in the rear.
The 460 series remained in the range for customers who still preferred a rather plainer appeara
nce. The major characteristics of the 463 series were as follows: the front end featured a plastic radiator grille painted in the exterior colour, painted headlamp surrounds and a new bumper with integral fog lamps. The rear lights were larger, with a fog lamps and reversing lights integrated into the rear bumper. The exhaust pipe emerged on the left side, in front of the rear wheel, and the fuel filler pipe was also on the side rather than at the rear.
“The model upgrade and modification year have transformed this diamond into a priceless gem,” said Jürgen Hubbert, the DaimlerChrysler Board member responsible for the Mercedes-Benz Passenger Car Division at the time. “We have polished and refined it, but we have not changed the essential nature, the character of this car.”
The initially optional anti-lock braking system (ABS) made a permanent four-wheel-drive system necessary, with an inter-axle differential providing compensation between front and rear axles. Permanent four-wheel drive also had its advantages, as it improved safety on any surface, provided constant all-round traction when towing a trailer and subjected the drive train to less strain when pulling heavy loads. Three differential locks operated by three switches in the centre of the dashboard were also included. Activating the centre switch automatically switched off the ABS, which meant that the wheel-braking was not individually controlled. ABS could be deactivated manually anyway, as this could be beneficial on loose surfaces, where locked wheels tended to push up a wedge of material that shortened the braking distance. An electronic system was used to control the sequence in which the differentials were locked to gradually improve the off-road characteristics – first the centre, then the rear and finally the front differential. As a major side effect of the new drive configuration, there was a considerable reduction in road noise.
The 463 series was launched in April 1990, initially comprising the 230 GE (126 hp/93 kW), 300 GE (177 hp/130 kW), 250 GD (94 hp/69 kW) and 300 GD (113 hp/83 kW). In May 1992 the 350 GD Turbodiesel with 136 hp (100 kW) and a four-speed automatic transmission as standard (no manual transmission was available for this model) replaced the 300 GD and 250 GD. The first model upgrade showed where this series was heading: a luggage cover, cruise control, running boards and a stainless steel spare wheel cover reinforced the message. The 100,000th G-Class left the production line in June 1992.
One year later, the 500 GE featuring the V8-engine from the M 117 engine series celebrated its debut as a limited edition of 500 available only with a long wheelbase. The engine had an output of 241 hp (177 kW) and was adopted from the S-Class. Standard appointments included an automatic transmission, two-tone leather upholstery, walnut trim, stainless steel running boards, an electric steel sunroof, heated front seats, cruise control and a special amethyst blue paint finish.
All the model designations in the 463 series now followed the new Mercedes-Benz nomenclature, making the 300 GE the G 300 and the 350 GD Turbodiesel the G 350 Turbodiesel. The previous designations were only retained for the 461 series, which continued to be available. In 1994 the second model upgrade introduced the G 320 (210 hp/154 kW), including a driver airbag, which replaced the G 300, though this still remained available for the Anglo-Saxon market for the time being.
From 1995 the series was equipped with improved disc brakes, now with internally ventilated discs. More comfort was provided by a central locking system with infra-red remote control, including an integral immobilizer. The exterior mirrors were heated. The last examples of the G 500 limited edition left the production lines during the course of 1995, and by then it was no longer the most powerful G-model: this honour went to the G 36 AMG, which featured a larger displacement version of the engine in the G 320, generated 272 hp (200 kW) and was capable of 190 km/h.
In 1996 the G 300 Turbodiesel (177 hp/130 kW) replaced the G 350 Turbodiesel. The electronically controlled five-speed transmission was initially reserved for the new model, and Mercedes-Benz also presented the convertible variant with an electro-pneumatic roof. New features of the third model upgrade for the 463 series included a headlamp cleaning system and an aspherical mirror on the front passenger side. The diesel version was given cruise control, and the dashboard now featured a bulb failure warning lamp for the vehicle lights.
In 1997 the new V6-engine replaced the venerable in-line six-cylinder in the G 320, and the automatic transmission previously reserved for the G 350 Turbodiesel also became available for this variant. The following year saw the G 500 as the new flagship model, and part of a regular production series. With an output of 296 hp (218 kW) this was the first G-model to exceed the 200 km/h mark. All three engine versions were available as a short or long wheelbase station wagon, and as a convertible. The G 500 was also particularly well appointed, with electrically adjustable front seats, white indicator lenses, improved, internally ventilated front disc brakes, leather upholstery and burr walnut trim. Options included a parking aid, a navigation system, fixed telephone installation and heated rear seats.
In March 1999 the 20th anniversary of the G-Class was celebrated in Graz. This birthday was marked with a limited edition of 500, the G 500 Classic. Its luxurious appointments included special almandine black metallic paintwork, a two-tone nappa leather interior, exclusive wood trim, bumpers painted in the exterior colour and “Classic” lettering on the side mouldings. In summer 1999 the other models in the 463 series also received the multifunction steering wheel of the other Mercedes saloons.
Since its production launch in 1979, the G-Class has also been available with special protection in the models 280 GE, 300 GE and 500 GE. Since 1991 only the G 500 has been available as a GUARD version with special protection.
In 2000 the G 300 Turbodiesel was replaced by the G 400 CDI with its eight-cylinder diesel engine (250 hp/184 kW). The already extensive appointments were upgraded further, e.g. with the COMAND display system including navigation, radio, CD-player and telephone, a rain sensor, headlamp assist and automatic climate control. One year later the G 270 CDI was added (156 hp/115 kW). Since 2001 the G-Class has also been equipped with the Electronic Stability Program ESP®, 4ETS and Brake Assist, offering a unique combination of highly effective traction and handling safety systems, thereby improving both road safety and off-road capability even further.
From November 2001 the G-Class also became officially available in the USA – and encountered an unexpectedly welcoming market for this off-road classic, which served to increase the production volume of the G-Class significantly. In 2003 the decision was also taken to launch the G 55 AMG as the flagship model. Its eight-cylinder power unit had an output of 354 hp (260 kW), and the top speed was electronically limited to 210 km/h. Based on figures for 2008, the largest market for the G-Class was Germany, with a share of 30 percent, followed by USA, with around 20 percent. The diesel share amounted to approximately 40 percent. In the USA only the long station wagon G 500 and G 55 AMG were offered initially, later also the G 55 AMG Kompressor. Since the market launch of the G-Class a total of 200,000 vehicles have been delivered to customers worldwide.
The 25th anniversary of this classic Mercedes-Benz off-roader was celebrated in 2004. It was marked by a special “Limited Edition” for Germany, and by the identically engineered “Classic 25″ for the world market. The G 55 AMG Kompressor (476 hp/350 kW) was also presented, and all long-wheelbase models were given window bags. The V8 petrol engines now complied with the Euro 4 standard, the suspension setup of the more powerful models was revised and the steering gear was improved. There were other, safety-related changes, including a three-point seat belt for the rear centre seat of the long station wagon. The short station wagon and convertible were now offered as four-seaters, i.e. without a centre seat belt for the rear seat unit.
An important decision was taken in 2005, after no less than 26 years in production, namely to keep the G-Class in the Mercedes-Benz model range. This was preceded by careful thought on whether and how this unique vehicle could be retained in the light of changing registration requirements, e.g. on issues of pedestrian protection and exhaust emission standards. The decision was greatly aided by the fact that the
G-Class continued to enjoy great popularity worldwide. More than 185,000 units had been produced in Graz since 1979.
In 2006, its 27th production year, the G-Class was once again upgraded for the future. That year saw the launch of the G 320 CDI, with an ultra-modern diesel engine (224 hp/165 kW) and a diesel particulate filter as standard, which likewise met the stringent EU4 exhaust emission limits. The engine was combined with the 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission. The G 320 CDI replaced the G 270 CDI and the G 400 CDI. Other standard appointments included bi-xenon headlamps and fog lamps with the cornering light function. The four-door station wagon featured ISOFIX child seat attachments in the second seat row. Another new feature was the scratch-resistant external paintwork in calcite white, periclase green metallic and teallite blue. The attractive and highly resistant “ARTICO” interior package was available on request. The seats and door panels were lined in a particularly hardwearing, breathable and comfortable man-made leather material, while the floor covering was of robust, easily cleaned plastic.
In July 2006 the output of the high-performance engine in the G 55 AMG was increased to 500 hp (368 kW); with a maximum torque of 700 Newton metres. This made for exceptional performance: the off-roader accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h in just 5.5 seconds, and the maximum speed is electronically limited to 210 km/h.
In spring 2007 the G-Class underwent a model refinement. New accents in the interior were provided by a new instrument cluster featuring four analogue dials surrounded by chrome rings. The four-spoke multifunction steering wheel also had a new look: leather-clad as standard in the G 320 CDI, and in a wood/leather design in the G 500 and G 55 AMG. All three models had a modified centre console with new controls and switches for the air conditioning system and comfort functions. This not only improved the appearance of the cockpit, the new layout also improved operational safety. The COMAND APS control and display system came as standard in the G 500 and G 55 AMG models and as a special equipment option in the G 320 CDI. New special equipment features were also introduced as part of the model refinement package, including for example a reversing camera and tyre pressure monitor. From the outside the facelifted G-Class generation was immediately recognisable thanks to LED rear light clusters.
Once again a special G-Class vehicle was delivered to the Vatican. In December 2007 the company handed over a new Popemobile based on the G 500. The head of the Catholic church had requested an open presentation vehicle for use in clement weather. It was equipped with a folding front windscreen and handrails, and like its predecessors it was painted in Vatican mystic white. The Holy Father entered the
white-trim interior of the cabriolet via a set of red-trim steps in the rear and conducted his audience tours standing up so as to be easily visible to the faithful.
In May 2008 Mercedes-Benz announced another update for the G-Class. A new engine was now available for the G 500, the M 273 V8 engine now generating 388 hp (285 kW) from 5.5 litres of displacement and developing torque of 530 Newtonmeters. The latest model generation also caught up with and incorporated the latest telematics technology, with a Bluetooth hands-free system for mobile telephone as standard. A media interface was available as optional equipment, which allowed an external music storage device to be linked up with the off-roader’s onboard electronics and control system. From the outside, the G-Class could now be identified by its restyled three-fin radiator grille, with the G 500 sporting new-look 18-inch light-alloy wheels as an additional distinguishing feature. The facelifted G 55 AMG, which followed in June 2008, also had the modified radiator grille, although of course this model boasted new 19-inch AMG-styled light-alloy wheels. Its high-performance engine now developed 507 hp (373 kW). Another new feature in the G 55 AMG was the ESP®control system, which recognised dynamic acceleration more precisely than in previous models, thus optimising vehicle stability. In addition, the powerful G-Class was also available immediately equipped with Hill Start Assist.
Alongside the civilian variants of the G-Class there were the usual special equipment versions. In 2009, for example, the Australian army began taking delivery of a 6×6 version (all-wheel drive with three axles), an new concept designed to cope with special payload requirements. Like all G-Class models, this variant was also built in Graz.
Source: Daimler AG
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