Old Car Reviews: 1988 Mercedes-Benz Unimog

It’s been a hell of a long time since we’ve done a proper Old Car Review, and for that we apologize. But really, it’s not our fault! It turns out that there are not all that many people who are willing to let us get our grubby mitts on their beautiful classic car to try it out and give it a proper review for your consumption. But every so often you encounter people who are just a little more trusting, or who know our particular obsessions well enough to understand just how much we love those old cars, and how much care we’ll actually show to them when they are entrusted to us.

And then, on the other hand, sometimes you encounter someone who knows there’s absolutely nothing we could do to his vehicle that would hurt it in the least.

This whole experience started as a result of Instagram, believe it or not. I was stopped at a stoplight, and a gorgeous Feuerwehr-issue Unimog turned into my lane from the cross street. I watched as it lumbered its way along the thoroughfare – doing a surprisingly good clip, considering its massive size – gradually merging its way across the six lanes of traffic. As it did so, an older BMW 3-series attempted to dive in front and cut it off. I’m not sure the driver of the Unimog even noticed, but believe me, the BMW driver did. Even from several blocks away, I could see the reaction as the BMW dove for a lane, then realized the vehicle that was already there ran the risk of running its front differential through his rear window. He dove back into his own lane with an urgency that made me laugh. Nobody cuts off a Unimog. Particularly not one in fire-engine red, with all the lights and sirens still working. And trust me, the air-horn siren could blow your ear-drums.

Thanks to a series of lights, I was able to catch up to him fairly easily. Eventually I found myself a few lanes away, and tried to snap a photo. Unfortunately there were vehicles in the way – horrible, ugly, boring, bland, uninteresting boxes of commuter-vehicle mediocrity filled with bleached-blonde cellphone-gabbing traffic clogs. As the lanes between us filled up with uninspired sport-utility vehicles driven by people who had absolutely no reason for driving a vehicle so excessive, my blood began to boil. I set my cameraphone to take a pair of photos every second, aimed it out my window as the light changed, and hoped to hell I’d find a clearing between the vehicular tofu to snag a photo of that well-seasoned red meat.

This was the best I managed:

It wasn’t much of a photo, but, like a grainy photo of the Loch Ness Monster, it was enough to prove that I had seen it, and I posted the photo on Instagram, and thereby on the Twitter-box.

A couple days later, I received a message on that Twitter thing:

I told him I was impressed with his beast, and asked if he’d be willing to let me take a closer look, snap a few photos, and do a writeup for our friends on Hooniverse. Without a moment’s hesitation, he readily agreed.

And so it was that I found myself on a cool Sunday morning, in a Safeway parking lot, staring up at a Unimog. Even there, it’s an impressive sight. As it turned out, I had actually met Trevor previously, driving his previous Unimog. That’s right, he’s had several of them. His previous ‘Mog was much smaller, and we had briefly chatted about it on the street a few years ago. In fact, he currently owns two; this, and the smaller “Mini-Mog” version, which we’ll have to see if we can pester him into showing us sometime. This vehicle, though… this thing is huge; but we knew that simply wasn’t the right locale to properly show off such a majestic beast, so we took it for a little drive to allow it to be showcased in its natural environment:

The country club.

Well, it is a Mercedes-Benz, after all.

Once we arrived, we claimed a significant portion of the parking lot, and Trevor, the owner, began to give me a tour of the ins-and-outs of his fabulous vehicle. If you think these trucks are impressive, it’s only because you haven’t spent enough time around one. They are so far beyond impressive as to render the term moot. These trucks are over-engineered, over-built, and over-designed to the point that you can’t help but wonder what possible scenario the creators thought the truck would encounter. This makes your average pickup truck look like a child’s toy. No, let me correct that, it does not make it look that way; by comparison, your run-of-the-mill pickup truck IS a child’s toy.

At first glance, it might not seem like much; this particular vehicle has the upgraded UM366A 6.0L inline-6 diesel engine, producing 139hp and around 420 lb ft of torque. In this day and age, when a mild tune can get those sorts of numbers out of a TDI Golf, the numbers don’t seem all that impressive. But they only tell part of the story; this is on a whole other level.

Don’t believe me? This Unimog has a built-in winch. Sure, I hear you say, many trucks have built in winches! No, not like this.

Now, Trevor is in the midst of upgrading the cable, so we couldn’t actually see its operation, but the principle is easy enough to follow. The winch comes out of the front of the truck, but is mounted in the back. The cable runs the entire length of the truck, and is mounted as low as it can get, with more reinforcement than most trucks use to hold their frame together. By mounting it this way, it uses the entire weight of the truck – and its length – as a lever to increase the winch’s capabilities. It is driven by a power take-off setup from the transmission itself, not by hydraulics like virtually every other winch on the planet. (But don’t worry, a “light-duty” hydraulic winch is available as well. That light-duty winch is roughly equivalent to the ones you would find on your average heavy-duty tow truck.)

The winch package also includes an assortment of wheel chocks designed to hold the ‘Mog in place. The largest of these are so massive you could only carry them one-at-a-time, and even then, you couldn’t move them far. With those in place, even a ‘Mog isn’t going anywhere. I asked Trevor, with those chocks in place, and the winch at full power, what he thought his truck’s towing capabilities might be. Without a moment’s pause, he laughed and said, “A fully loaded Kenworth 18-wheeler with a tanker trailer stuck in a muddy pit in the middle of February? You know. Hypothetically.” He paused, and thought about it for a moment. “Or a building. Probably a building.”

But we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of this truck’s capabilities. The more he toured me around the truck, the more I started to understand the quiet confidence you always see from Unimog owners. While others are showing off the capabilities of their Hummer H1’s, the Unimog owner is quietly standing back, smiling, nodding, and feigning interest. “That’s cute”, he thinks. Other vehicles quote statistics like approach and departure angles. The Unimog doesn’t bother; the answer is probably just “yes”. If you can’t do it, try it from a slight angle.

This is a very purpose-built vehicle. Nobody bothered to slap a half-assed pickup bed on the back; in this version, it has a cargo management solution on the back. The sides of the “pickup bed” portion fold down and extend, becoming a platform for you to stand on. The drawers extend and angle downwards to grant easy access to even the highest shelves. There are ladders at multiple points around the vehicle to grant easy access to all storage compartments.

The drawers and racks are surprisingly heavy, but counterbalanced so you can open or close them with one hand, even with hundreds of pounds of equipment in them. There are dozens of different sizes and shapes to accommodate any possible tool or device, specifically in the hopes of preventing anything from rolling or bouncing around if you put the truck through extreme manoeuvres. Was YOUR truck designed to keep your gas-powered cutting saw securely stowed in the eventuality that the truck went upside down? No. The Unimog was.

The 4×4 system, meanwhile, is probably the largest system I have ever seen on a passenger vehicle. It is difficult to get a perspective in the photographs; after all, they appear to be relatively in proportion to the vehicle; where the problem lies is in the fact that the Unimog could very nearly straddle your average pickup truck. This truck’s track width is roughly two inches narrower than the full width of a Nissan Titan; its overall width is almost two feet wider. So pieces that appear to be in proportion are actually quite massive. But, of course, size is not the truly remarkable thing. Like a tractor-trailer truck, the ‘Mog uses a 16-speed gearbox; eight gears, each with an overdrive. The Unimog also uses a unique, more robust setup for reverse. As far as I can tell from my research, it appears that the reverse gear is external to the transmission, meaning the ‘Mog can use all sixteen speeds in reverse as well. It can do the same speeds backwards as it can forwards. Why? Because you never know when you might need that ability.

These trucks are not designed for flash and bluster like a Hummer. They are not loud, brash and excessive. They are reserved, or as reserved as an 18,000-pound truck can be. And they are fantastically capable.

But so often “capable” and “beastly” seem to be synonymous. I have driven in many heavy-duty vehicles, from Hummer H1’s to Caterpillar yellow-stock, to armoured personnel carriers. They were not pleasant places to spend time. The Unimog is the antithesis to these vehicles. After virtually no pleading at all, Trevor agreed to take me for a spin. I imagine he would have allowed me to drive, but it has been far too long since I’ve driven something with a transmission quite as complex as his, and I didn’t feel like making a fool of myself. This turned out to be a good move. The first two gears, I learned, are extremely low-range, so you mostly start out in third, or occasionally third with overdrive, or even fourth. In the lowest of low-range modes, in first gear, with the throttle floored, it will barely achieve a walking pace. Really, though, it’s not much different than a conventional manual transmission in a big-rig. Or, say, a larger version of the three-speed manual with overdrive in a 1964 Rambler. You know, for example.

Once you’ve got it mastered, however, the most remarkable thing about it is how civilized it really is. The seats are a touch uncomfortable for myself as they are very upright, but the ride quality is second to none. For lack of a better description, it rides like the Mercedes it is. It’s a bit noisy, but no moreso than a normal pickup from the same era. It’s not bouncy, jarring or uncomfortable in the slightest. For a vehicle that is designed to drive up the side of a mountain, it behaves on the street like a very, very large luxury car. There is no significant body roll, no sway, no constant compensating. You drive it, it goes. Trevor and his wife inform me they have done extended road trips in it, and felt totally comfortable and secure, even though the top speed is limited to less than 120 km/h.

So, as with my previous Old Car Review, let’s look at some of the standard statistics. 0-60 time? Trevor laughed at that. He says that depends very heavily on how skilled you are. If you wanted to push it, and could work the transmission well enough, you might be able to skip a gear here and there and get the time down a bit, but realistically, doing everything properly, the 0-60 time would be over a minute. There are so many gears, and they’re so close together, the truck does not exactly leap off the line. Braking distance, on the other hand, is too dangerous to test. The brakes are massively over-equipped for the vehicle; they are enormous disc brakes with multiple pistons that are designed to be much more than the truck requires. Trevor informs me that stomping hard on the brakes will result in a stop so fast it will lift you off the seat if you’re not belted in tightly. The ‘Ring time would be slow, but you certainly wouldn’t have to bother with worrying about any other traffic on the course.

As with my previous experience in testing out a vehicle for an Old Car Review, watching it drive away was a bit of a painful experience. I was left with such a massive level of respect for this vehicle that I immediately went home and started pricing them out. The biggest problem I could come up with is the fact that it won’t fit in our new garage.

Trevor disagreed with me on that point, however. “With a few runs at it, you can make this truck fit anywhere you want it to. It just creates a Unimog-sized hole anywhere it needs to go.”

That wouldn’t be so bad. It would just add character!

A special thanks to Trevor Vickers and his wife Keri for taking some time out of their day to show me their amazing vehicle. I think I owe you a Hooniverse decal.

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