Mercedes Unimog: A real-life Tonka toy

In central London a Unimog is a sight to behold, a behemoth of a vehicle towering over the mundane collection of cars and vans. But when being used by a tree surgeon, for example, or in a quarry, you realise that its incredibly over-engineered status is a perfect fit. It has been active in agricultural and municipal duties since its inception in the early 1950s - used to cut and haul timber originally - and now used for everything from cleaning tunnels and hauling animal feed to towing trains, plowing snow and even Dakar Rally raids. It even had a cameo in a Hollywood blockbuster as 'Hound' the Autobot in Transformers: The Last Knight. But, even though it looks sinister in its camo wrap, fitted with a row of large spotlights under the windscreen, there is still a hint of Tonka toy about it. Which is no bad thing...

Hey, look, it's a film star!
Hey, look, it's a film star!
Our driving at Unimog Live starts with an example of the smaller Unimog range - all things being relative - the U218. With 177hp but an incredible 553lb ft, it has a top speed of 56mph as well as 347mm of ground clearance thanks to its portal axles. Oh, and apparently 7.4mpg is something to shout about in the truck industry.

Thoughts of it just being a larger G-Wagen were thrown out the window once seated in the spring-mounted seat, faced with a myriad of buttons, hydraulic controls, and the huge steering wheel. If the right options are ticked, it doesn't matter what side of the road it's driven on as the Vario Pilot lets you move the whole steering assembly to the other side of the cabin quickly and efficiently. Then there's the steering column mounted manual gear-selector and clutch pedal. Yes, where the automatic selector is on a normal Mercedes... The electro-pneumatic system allows the pre-selection of a higher or lower gear whilst on the move before dipping the clutch slowly till the gear is engaged. Tricky work when combined with the sheer size (even though this is the smallest of the range) of the vehicle. That's in addition to operating the multi-stage engine brake and diff locks, but that kept the drive entertaining. There is an option of having a regular automatic gearbox if you want less to do, however the manual proved quite a satisfying challenge.

"Is this all you've got?" etc etc
"Is this all you've got?" etc etc
The course selected wasn't one that particularly troubled the Unimog, as it breezed through the tasks it was assigned. Ascents and descents at angles that would feel unsafe in most off-roaders were a doddle. Mercedes says a Unimog is capable of tackling a 100 per cent gradient loaded with people and equipment. Even wading through deep pools did little to cause any issue. But take it through some seriously rutted terrain and, if driven slowly enough, the sound of the chassis flexing becomes apparent. And if the Unimog does get into a little trouble off-road, tyre pressures can be dropped and raised again without the need to get yourself bogged down in the mud. We did have a go in the much larger U5203 - smaller Unimogs have three-digit names, the big boys four digits - with the longer wheelbase and deeper fording ability of 1,200mm. It coped better with the rutted terrain due to the longer wheelbase but much like its smaller brother, it was far too capable for anything we threw at it.

All in all, the Unimog might look like a fish out of water on London streets, but don't forget Brabus tinkered with one a while back... It really is that versatile. If a vehicle with countless abilities and add-ons is what you need, there is little reason to look elsewhere.







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Comments (62) Join the discussion on the forum

  • soad 09 Oct 2017

    cool Would I need a HGV licence? Tyres must cost a fortune too.

  • Doshy 09 Oct 2017

    I know some of the older ones are classed as tractors, I'm not sure what the law is on driving tractors.

  • paulyv 09 Oct 2017


    Such fond memories of my Dad starting his own agricultural business in early 80's Lincolnshire by buying 2 ex-West German Unimog military ambulances. I can still smell them now. They were petrol models so god only knows how much they gulped on regular trips to farms in their new 'Omega Seed Enterprises' livery as pictured below.

    They both came from the surplus yard with ambulance backs, one of which became our garden shed, or my own personal den depending on who you asked. Living in the city I don't see them so often but would love to get one and run it off to Le Mans one year.

    Not sure if it is different now but he didn't have an HGV license. Perhaps you do need one but 'country rules' applied...

    I am confused however, where did the driving in this article take place? Is this a sales piece or is this somewhere we can all have a go? Oh, and surely a 100% gradient is 45degrees?!?

    Edited by paulyv on Monday 9th October 12:46

  • RepeatOffender 09 Oct 2017

    What sort of price do they start at?

  • Bonefish Blues 09 Oct 2017

    One would be in my ultimate garage.

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