There’s nothing quite as eye-catching as when you’re passed by a beautiful Mercedes-Benz G-Class Gelandewagen, better known as the G Wagon.
What many aren’t aware of is the history of the G-Wagon and the fact that it was inspired for military use.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
The Start of the G-Class
In 1973, one of Mercedes’s largest shareholders, the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, suggested that Mercedes make an off-road military vehicle that civilians could also use. It would resemble something similar to the British Land Rover and the Japanese Toyota Land Cruiser.
For the boxy vehicle to meet military demands, it needed to have:
- A narrow track
- Locking differentials
- Foldable windshield on convertibles
Even though these demands were initially scrapped, Mercedes wanted to work with a trusted manufacturer and ended up working with Steyr-Daimler-Puch of Austria. The crossover into the military appeared as the Austrian manufacturer was famous for their Mannlicher-Schonauer Sporting Rifle.
The thought process in the engineering and design of the Mannlicher sporting rifle was what made the item so popular. And to no surprise, the G-Wagen was well-received immediately for the same elements of function and design.
The Gelandewagen Partnership
To start making this beautiful four-wheel-drive vehicle, a joint company was set up in the name of Galandefahrzeug-Gesselschaft, splitting the shares 50-50 between Mercedes-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch.
From here, the original models were made of wood. There would be six years of manufacturing before the first G-Wagen was introduced to the European market. This included testing the G Wagon in the harshest environments, including the Sahara Desert. Climbing sand dunes in the scorching heat put the new all-terrain G Wagon to the limits.
Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, the full G-class name, translates to off-road.
In 1979, the first large order went out to the Shah of Iran for military applications. Still, he never could take the cross-country vehicle out as he was deposed shortly after during the Islamic Revolution. Many of the orders went out to Austria, Switzerland, and other bordering European countries. It wasn’t until a decade later that the car entered the U.S. market (though few black market vehicles made their way over).
So what did this beautiful original model look like? And more importantly, how did it function?
The 1979 first-generation model was in three different body styles: the convertible, the two-door, and the four-door options.
- 4×4 live axle platform fitted with disc brakes
- Triple engine option: 2.3-liter gas four-cylinder. 2.4-liter diesel four-cylinder, and a diesel five-cylinder.
At this time, you could order the G-Wagen first models in short and long-wheelbase and closed station wagon versions. The short wheelbase was available in open-vehicle style with the folding windscreen allowing for easy transport. And as mentioned, in both wheelbases, was a G Model convertible option.
Important Functional G Wagon Figures:
- Climbing ability of up to 80%
- Tilt angle up to 54%
- Ground clearance 8.3”/21cm
- Approach angle of 36 degrees
- Departure angle of 27 degrees.
- Vehicle load capacity of 1,444 lbs/655 kgs to 4.319 lbs/920 kgs
- Roof carry capacity of 440 lbs/200 kgs
- Extra options include power steering and a lockable glove box
A few years later, the first upgrades were introduced to the G Wagon, including air conditioning, an automatic transmission, an auxiliary fuel tank, and a cable winch.
There was also a special agreement for all G Wagons sold in Austria, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Croatia, and several other Eastern European countries to sell the vehicle as the Puch G. This was for branding concerns between Daimler-Benz AG and Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Puch already had a reputation for off-road vehicles, the Pinzgauer and Haflinger.
The Vatican Popemobile G Wagon
In 1980, Mercedes-Benz upgraded the 460 to make a specific model for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Germany. The 230G was introduced and featured a plastic encasing so the Pope could stand upright and wave to people. The Popemobile, or Papa G, later became bulletproof after an attempted assassination.
Another notable G Wagon event from the 80s was when retired Lufthansa executive Gunther Holtorf traveled 560,000 miles around the world in his 1988 Mercedes Benz G-Wagen. Holtorf visited 215 countries over 26 years in his legendary G Wagon. The vehicle now takes permanent residence in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
A Prominent Upgrade in 1990
While the G-Wagen saw various model upgrades throughout the years, the most notable facelift took part in the late 1989 and early 1990s. As demand grew for luxury calls, Mercedes felt they were falling behind in the race. The 460 was phased out, and the Series Range 461 was introduced as a civilian’s line only.
For those professionals looking to take a sporty luxury vehicle on fishing trips, weekend expeditions, or just to the office itself, this model was it. With technology, design, and functional upgrades, the new all-wheel-drive was an international icon.
G Wagon Tech Updates
While the four-wheel drive was not a constant, there was the option to put the car in AWD. You could also finally take your foot off the pedal during long trips to the summer house by activating cruise control. The G Wagon also included anti-lock brakes for the first time, along with traction control, brake assist, and stability control.
G Wagon Design Upgrades
Beautiful wood trim and leather seats were the luxuries still a popular premium style in today’s market. Running boards were also added to the vehicle, making getting in and out a whole lot more convenient.
They also moved the extra wheel from the outside to the inside of the vehicle. The thought process was to avoid theft and any damage from all-terrain vehicle driving.
Oddly enough, one of the fan favorites from this model was the “grass-fire protection.” You may be turning your head to the side – but it makes a lot of sense. This reassured that off-roading in dry conditions would not light any fires due to an overheated exhaust. While those beachfront living didn’t care for this as much, those in parts of Africa and Australia encountered this problem often.
What about the 463 G Wagon?
Technically speaking, the 463 was designed and introduced in the 1987 model year with even more appeal to the luxury niche market. It was the perfect model for those who wanted to look and feel cool and have rugged durability with 4WD.
This was when the G-Wagen name transitioned to the famous G-Class. While it was initially just an upgrade from the 230GE (primarily a safety upgrade), it later became a more customizable luxury choice. With seat colors and leather upholstery options, the G-Class became a dominant luxury choice competing head to head with the Land Rover.
With the 463, you had four buying options in terms of models.
- 230GE with 126hp gasoline engine
- 300GE with 177hp gasoline engine
- 250GF with 94hp and a diesel engine.
- 300GD with 113hp and a diesel engine.
Both diesel engines were replaced in 1992 with a 136hp 350GD Turbo Diesel. This fitted four-speed automatic transmission included a stainless spare wheel cover, running boards, and cruise control.
G Wagon Enters the USA
It took five years for Europa, a Santa Fe-based company, to get official permission to bring the G-Class to the American market. Europa was the go-to for parts on the G-Class, but the car instantly became exclusivity due to the costs for a non-manufacturer to produce it.
We’re talking 6-figure exclusivity in the 1990s.
Regardless of the high price tag, starting in 1993, a civilian version new G-Class was being imported into America to be sold legally for the first time.
G Wagon and the V8 Engine
1993 was a big year not just because the cars started to come to America but also because the engine saw a significant upgrade. The 464 Series model 500GE saw a 241hp and featured a beautiful V8 engine.
But that wasn’t the only beautiful feature it saw.
It also got a luxurious sunroof and automatic transmission. There were two-tone color options for the upholstery and upgraded running boards featuring a stainless steel look.
What we know as today’s branding, such as the C-300, A-220, and so on, came from the 1993 rebrand. The 300 GE because the G-Class 300 or otherwise known as G-300. All other models within classes would follow.
Time To Celebrate
After Europa had dominant success manufacturing on Mercedez-Benz’s behalf, the 20th anniversary of the G-Wagon approached and sparked a movement. Mercedez-Benz officially entered the U.S. market in 2001 to capitalize on the profitable market equal in size to Europe.
Upon importing the V8 engines into America, sales skyrocketed, inspiring Mercedes to make even more high-end upgrades. Think powerhouse.
25th Anniversary Upgrade
One of these significant upgrades came in late 2004. Say hello to the G55 AMG Kompressor that blew away past models with a 476hp V8 engine. No less than two years later, it was upgraded to 500hp with 526 lb/ft torque.
After 25 years of production and continuously adding features, Mercedes saw sales rise to 185,000. And while orders kept cruising, so did their upgrades.
Mercedez-Benz introduced a few more upgrades to the G-320 CDI, including child restraints and scratch-resistant paint.
2007 Mercedes Unveils G Wagon Third Row Luxury
Recognizing that luxury doesn’t mean family, Mercedes introduces the GL-Class. This is representative of the three-row luxury SUVs Mercedes has on its floor today. However, these models were supposed to replace military vehicles, but consumers wouldn’t have them.
So instead, Mercedes made room for two.
2008 Brings More Serious Upgrades to the G Wagon
At this point, it seems like the upgrades to the G-Wagon keep coming. While 2008 may have been one of the last years where we see serious upgrades until recently, the G-class continued to improve each year.
Specifically, in 2008 we saw the G 500 get a major engine lift with a 5.5-liter V8 engine bringing the horsepower to 388 and the toque to 391 lb/ft. This is also a pivotal moment for electronics being added more regularly as an entertainment system. And finally, we saw 18” alloy wheels enter the scene.
The AMG G 55 was equipped with a stability system to counter piling reviews that the car was almost too much fun. In other words, the power was rocking customers out of their seats.
Introducing the 30th Anniversary Models
2009 brought two unique models to the market for the G-Class. The family welcomes the G-Class Edition 30 and Edition 30 PUR. These two models were notably different.
30 PUR: Resembling the G 380 CDI with the intention that it would honor the G-Wagens original design and brawny looks. The new model was meant to bring you back to the absolute beginning as the reliable military vehicle that would not fail no matter where you went.
Edition 30: This was the civilians model based on the G 500. It was meant to showcase all the previous upgrades regarding the facelift you could see rather than feel. In other words, this was an aesthetically pleasing model compared to the utility model in the 30 PUR.
Exclusive 2013 Model
Interestingly enough, in 2013, a 6×6 was introduced. It was not sold in the United States, but the G 63 AMG 6×6 resembles a military truck. This makes sense considering only about 100 of were sold around the world, predominantly in the Middle East.
This leads us to one of the most iconic features on the G Wagon. The three differential locks. For on-road driving, the average vehicle would use open differentials, allowing the wheels on either side of the vehicle to spin at different speeds. But for an actual cross country vehicle like the G Wagon, the Mercedes engineers decided to create three locking “diffs.” There’s one for the center, which ensures 50/50 power is split between the two axles. Then one for the front and one for the rear axle.
G Wagon Upgrades Again in 2016
The G-Wagon, while top-notch luxury, always found itself needing an upgrade. With frills and thrills came the never-ending dissatisfaction from customers wanting more. That’s why 2016 brought a twin-turbocharged 5.0 liter V12 charged engine.
That was a mouthful. Let’s break that down a bit further.
It brought 621hp to the G65 and a 0 to 60mph speed in a whopping 5.2 seconds. While hitting your foot to the ground, you can also expect to see the gas go from full to empty in a few good races.
As one of their most expensive lines on the market, the 2016 model sold for a whopping $217,000 with no extra features; if you were looking to add the entertainment package with studio feature systems, you could easily tack on $20,000 more.
Bringing Us Up to Speed on the G Wagon
Just three years later, we saw one of the final significant upgrades before the present-day G-Wagon. With customers still feeling that the power was overriding the handling of the car, Mercedes emphasized safety. 2019 was also the 40th celebration of the G-Class.
The front suspension was changed to be completely independent. A long-awaited improvement desired by G Wagon fantacis. And since we just mentioned that gas mileage has never been a strong suit of the G-Class, 2019 finally pushed 20 miles to the gallon on fuel efficiency.
More than four decades later, the 2021 G-Wagon is one of its best models yet. There is a focus on technology, and in some ways, it feels like you’re in a swanky club in New York City. The Digitial Entertainment Cluster spans 12.3 inches across the center, offering an interactive experience.
Offering wireless charging on the go eliminates the need for any dangling cords. And the Night Package Magno is the interior mood lighting that gets you ready for wherever you need to go. More important, there are 34 different exterior colors to choose from and a whopping 54 interior upholstery colors.
Customization is kept in mind with its most luxurious vehicle yet. But they didn’t forget performance as it features a 4.0-liter V8 engine that produces 416hp and 450 pounds per foot toque.
The G Wagon 550 4×4 Squared
In recent years, Mercedes unleashed a beast of a G Wagon on the world. The G Class 550 4×4 Squared. This monster truck, off-road vehicle mutation, has all the luxuries of a typical G Wagon, but larger tires and big-time ground clearance.
How did Mercedes manage to pull off this transformation? It was primarily due to the portal axles. Typically, shafts run between the wheels in a direct path, allowing the wheels to roll and turn. With a portal axle, the shaft is raised above the wheel hub.
Where the wheels connect to the shaft, there’s a complex system translating the turning of the wheels. This system allows for greater ground clearance and increased torque.
How Many G Wagons Produced
Recently, Mercedes-Benz celebrated the 400,000th model of the G Wagon produced in Graz, Austria, along with production partner Magna Steyr. Since 1979, the G Wagon has rolled off the assembly line with continued innovation, improvements, and significant changes.
While the G Wagon only has an annual production of 5,000 to 10,000 vehicles, the Mercedes G-Class continues to be a status symbol year after year.
A Beautiful Timeline
The Mercedes Benz Gelandewagen is the car that won’t quit. From the Sahara Desert to the Arctic Circle and everywhere in between, The G-Wagon has no fear. It’s seen more world history events than most of us and has been loved by different cultures and generations all over the world. What started as a military vehicle quickly became the upper-class go-to ride for expeditions and weekends away to the summer house.
But Mercedes kept capitalizing, including luxury family-style seating and safety measurements, so no one gets left behind. At the same time, the G-Wagon may have become too much fun raising the horsepower and forgetting some of the handling requirements. This was quickly corrected in some of their later models and finally brought the horsepower down in today’s latest model.
The G-Class remains unbelievably expensive and a top-notch luxury vehicle surpassing some of their original competitors like the Range Rover and the Japanese Toyota Land Cruiser. Now it’s the preferred ride by famous athletes, celebs, and business moguls, making it even more popular than ever.
While we hope to admire it up close from the driver’s seat one day, we can just continue to appreciate its incredible history for now.