Everyone knows the origins of the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen (cross-country car) as a military vehicle developed in the early 1970’s, and they are becoming more common as a recent phenomenon for the rich and famous. The earlier civilian models are a pretty rare sight though, and I have seen two recently!
After civilian production started in 1979 (above) and RHD exports commenced in 1981, the G-wagen was first introduced in Australia in 1983, with 100 300GD 4-speed automatic 5-door wagons imported, priced at $39,500 which was well above the Range Rover at the time. Reportedly the head of Mercedes-Benz Australia drove one of the first to land, coming back to say something along the lines of “you better fix this one, there is something very wrong with it”, only to be horrified when he was told it was fine and they were all like that! It took several years to sell the vehicles. Despite having standard diff locks, it was quite low-geared, with at top speed of just 120 km/h (75 mph) from the 65 kW/88 hp 5-cylinder diesel.
Mercedes-Benz had submitted a tender for the Australian Army’s Project Perentie with a long-wheelbase soft top version (ultimately Jaguar Rover Australia was awarded the contract, also over the Jeep J10), but this project in addition to the emerging recreational off-road market may have been the reason for bringing the G-wagen to Australia.
In 1985 the range was expanded with a 230GE variant, manual transmission, SWB 3-door wagon and convertible bodies (the latter only available as a 230) added in 1986. The short wheelbase was 2400 mm (94.5”) compared with the 5-door’s 2850 mm (112.2”) which is on the long side for serious off-roading. I’m not sure whether either of these rigs are 230 or 300’s, as I don’t think there are any indications other than the model badges that I didn’t see in either case.
Still sales were not great, apparently just 56 more were sold by the time the range was dropped in 1988. The floating of the Australian dollar at the end of 1983 contributed to the price rising to over $80,000 by the end, which was obviously not going to fly in a post-stockmarket crash world. Note this was still $20k cheaper than a 300E sedan! It was actually the 463-series revisions in 1990 that put the nail in the coffin for the G-wagen in Australia. While there was now leather and wood trim, it was the new exhaust that exited at the side of the vehicle ahead of the rear wheels that did not comply with Australian Design Rules. There was an attempt to resolve this, but I suspect it was just too hard for the number of sales that could be anticipated.
Although there have been some privately imported over the years, it wasn’t until 2010 that the G-wagen would return to Australia in G350 Bluetec diesel and G55 (and subsequent G63) forms, starting at $161k. Meanwhile the USA finally received the G-wagen in 2002.
Of course this did not go completely smoothly, with a promotional trip up the extremely rugged (to say the least!) Canning Stock Route in Western Australia seeing a posse of G-wagens suffering from blown shock absorbers due to the endless corrugations half-way through the 1100-mile trip. As seen in the photo above, they are not supposed to be in two pieces! There are really only two ways to deal with corrugations; either go fast and skip across the top of them with your tyres only touching the road maybe 10% of the time (and your shock absorbers seeing a huge heat load that will eventually destroy them), or go slowly.
With new shock absorbers flown in, the convoy made it to its destination, although there was other damage along the way like spare tyre and AdBlue tank brackets breaking off due to the relentless pounding.
There are worse things that could happen though… this photo was taken on that Mercedes-Benz press trip of a Jeep Grand Cherokee (I think!).
And almost 30 years later the Australian Army finally got the G-wagen, to replace the ageing Land Rover fleet. The vehicles are upfitted with required equipment in Newcastle NSW before being delivered to the Army, and their trailers are built in Brisbane.
Australia has made one contribution to the G-wagen however, with the 6×6 variant being developed for the Australian Army for heavier duty use, to replace the legendary Perentie Land Rovers.
And the G-wagen is still available as a “proper” off-roader in the civilian world too, with the G Professional that shares a lot with the military version including a detuned 3.0 V6 turbodiesel and a 5-speed automatic gearbox instead of the ‘normal’ 7-speed, as well as strengthened everything and proper all-terrain tyres. The Victorian government recently purchased some to use as light fire fighters in national parks.
As with the military model, it is the off-road prowess that is the reason why people have more than a faddish interest in the G-wagen; long may it continue!