By BRENDAN MCALEER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, January 19, 2018
RICHMOND, B.C. -- Before unveiling the new G-class at the Detroit auto show this week, Mercedes-Benz created a strange work of art: Preserved in 44.4 tonnes of artificial amber, a pristine 1979 Geländewagen pays homage to Jurassic Park, and the idea of brand DNA.
The point Mercedes is making seems to be that, despite the advancement of smaller, more efficient automotive technologies, dinosaurs still drive among us.
Here's one now: a German-market 350 GD turbo diesel from the early 1990s. It looms out of the fog, half saurian throwback and half battle tank. The diesel sixcylinder belches agriculturally, but the interior is relatively luxurious.
It belongs to Minh Ha, who has been a original G-Wagen nut for more than a decade. "I was living in Japan at the time," he says, "and considering an SUV, maybe a Lexus. I decided I didn't want a Land Rover. Then a friend showed me one of these.
I said, 'It's so ugly - it's perfect.' "Don't call it ugly, call it tactical chic. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class has long been a sort of haute couture howdah, bulky, boxy, ungainly, yet adored by those with deep pockets. The AMG versions of the G nearly qualify as the official vehicle of Beverly Hills, a machine less for tackling offroad conditions than for showing off at the red carpet or the after party.
Such posing isn't sticking true to the G's proper ancestry, but with Ha's machine, we can see how the bridge was made. A civilian-spec model with the leather seats and wood trim you'd expect from a 90sera Mercedes, it's nonetheless equipped with big, chunky tires. Many G-Wagen owners never take their machines offroad, but Ha and his fellow members from Clubwagen.com are known for their Treffens - annual gatherings that delve deep into the back country for days on end.
Handling rough terrain is just what that original 1979 Gelaendewagen was originally intended to do, and where the heart of the G-wagen truly lies. Gelaendewagen literally means cross-country vehicle, and the name can trace its roots all the way back to 1926, and the Daimler-Benz G1, an early off-roader.
In the early 1970s, looking to compete with military vehicles such as the Volkswagen Iltis, Mercedes-Benz moved into a partnership with Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria. SDP built incredibly robust and unforgiving machines such as the Halflinger and Pinzgauer, but their new project needed to be more appealing to the civilian market.
At the time, the Shah of Iran was a major shareholder in Mercedes and he issued a colossal preorder for some 20,000 Gelaendewagens. With such a lucrative contract on file, Mercedes dived into development. By 1974, a driving prototype was being tested everywhere from the Sahara to the Arctic.
Because it was built to both military and civilian specifications, the Gelaendewagen's design featured a few unique specifications. For instance, its relatively narrow track results from the need to fit inside a cargo jet for quick delivery where needed. Its upright, boxy dimensions are simply a function of needing to cram as much men and materiel in as small a space as possible. And its legendary all-wheeldrive system, complete with three locking differentials, is intended to allow troops to cross where there are no roads, and hit the enemy where they don't expect to find you.
G-Wagen production began in 1979 - just in time for the Iranian Islamic revolution. The Shah's order was cancelled, along with his regime - and Mercedes scrambled to find alternate buyers. Happily, the Gelaendewagen proved attractive to buyers from the German border guards to the Argentine military.
The G was also a hit among civilians, most notably Pope John Paul II, who received a specially modified G 230 with an elevated, clear superstructure. Many of these early G-Wagens were analogous to the Land Rover Defender, popular for their rugged nature, without attempt to soften the edges.
Ha's 1992 463-chassis G-Wagen is an example of Mercedes's early attempts to broaden the G's appeal. Fitted with antilock-brakes and a V-8 offering by 1993, this more luxurious Gelaendewagen was quicker and featured better interior appointments. Still, Mercedes-Benz chose not to bring the G to market in North America.
For desperate G-Wagen fans on this side of the pond, to borrow a quote from Jeff Goldblum's Jurassic Park character, "Life, uh, finds a way." Grey-market importers brought Gelaendewagens from overseas, often charging six figures for the privilege.
Ha brought his previously imported 350 GD up from Texas in 2007, but has since fallen in love with his second, more elemental G.
Before we pull that particular machine from the fog, it's worth looking at two events that defined the G-Wagen's image in the North American market. First, the arrival of the G 500 in the United States in 2002 resulted in thousands of Gs being sold; next, the arrival of the 2005 AMG G 55 underlined the G-Wagen's appeal to conspicuous consumption.
I've had the chance to drive several Gelaendewagens over the years and the AMG versions are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Hard acceleration is akin to riding a war elephant that's just received a spear to the buttock: The stampeding is there in plenty, but not the control.
On an off-road course, the G makes a lot more sense. It's nearly unstoppable, despite a ponderous sense of weight. Fitting it with low-profile tires on huge AMG rims is like asking a rock-climber to don chunky running shoes.
In that regard, the pared-down simplicity of Ha's other G-Wagen is a revelation.
An ex-military long-wheelbase two-door model he imported from the Netherlands, it eschews the creature comforts for bare-bones honesty.
"This is simple car," Ha says affectionately.
With a battery on the way out, one G gives another a quick boost.
Popping the hood on the military-spec 461chassis G-Wagen reveals a surprise in the form of a mounted shovel.
There's no leather or wood inside, just vinyl and exposed metal. The dog-leg shifter has a first gear labelled low, and simple idiot lights to show differential engagement. Ha takes me though a tour of all the little touches he's added, filled with arcane details about NATO-spec fuel filler necks, ex-Canadian army tail-light lenses and the rare sliding rear windows.
Ha has bolted a pick-axe to the back door for off-road excursions and his G-Wagen is just a larger version of that simple tool.
The new G is fancier. It features independent suspension, a nine-speed automatic transmission and an interior that's an equal to the S-Class. It's also crammed with technology, including a clever voicecommand assistant.
But, at heart, people won't love this new G-wagen for what it can do, on-road or off. They'll love it for what it is: a boxy throwback, a utilitarian relic, a pet dinosaur.
The newest Mercedes-Benz G-Class is on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Sunday.
A Mercedes-Benz 350 GD from the nineties.
BRENDAN McALEER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL