In the United States, Mercedes-Benz Unimogs are rare enough to qualify as mild curiosities, but these tough, fear-no-road trucks are also inching up on the cool meter, especially with military-vehicle buffs.
You’ll see them scattered around the countryside — often in the mountain areas of the western United States — but few know their long, fascinating history.
For example, Unimogs were originally designed as farm vehicles. Let’s jump into the Wayback Machine for a little Unimog history.
Out of the rubble
After World War II, when the new West Germany was rebuilding from the rubble, one major need was working vehicles. West Germany especially needed tractors to work the fields and trucks to move the harvest to market.
Although the Allied forces had not yet allowed German industry to build vehicles, engineers associated with Mercedes-Benz designed a vehicle that could be a truck and a tractor. Some of the design concepts actually pre-dated World War II but were set aside as the Nazi high command preferred larger off-road equipment — especially six-wheelers.
The new post-war vehicle was designed with a drop-side cargo box for hauling light loads. The design also included full-time four-wheel drive, good ground clearance, power take-offs, and an implement hitch when it was used as a tractor.
In its intended role in agriculture, form followed function and it was designed with a track of 1.75 meters (5.74 feet) center to center — the standard width of two rows of potatoes. A prototype was ready by late 1946. However, as Daimler-Benz was not yet allowed to build four-wheel-drive vehicles, initial Unimog production was at Boehringer in early 1947 as the model 70200. By 1951, Daimler-Benz took over production, and the Unimog became the model 401.
Under Daimler-Benz, the basic design changed very little. First off, the original logo on the grille of a stylized set of ox horns forming a U became the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star in a circle. Next, a longer-wheelbase version was introduced as the model 402. All Unimogs were open-cab vehicles, with a rudimentary soft top available, until 1953, when a full cab was introduced.
As the German economic miracle took root in the early 1950s, farmers were able to buy dedicated farm tractors and trucks, so agricultural interest in the Unimog began to wane — although it’s still used on farms to some extent today.
At the same time, utility and governmental interest in the little trucks grew. Cities needed new emergency and work vehicles, and the Unimog fit the bill. A line of equipment was developed for municipal and utility work — including post-hole augers, snow plows and street sweepers.
A tough military transport
The West German military also needed trucks. By 1955, West Germany joined NATO and was now able to re-arm and re-equip. Mercedes-Benz introduced the Unimog 404S, which was more of a highway truck with 4x4 capabilities than a tractor with a cargo box.
It fit the bill to a tee for the Bundeswehr — the new West German Army — and thousands were built not just for the West German military, but also for NATO allies and the global military market.
Specialty models for military sales were developed. While the refined Model 406 has supplanted the 404S, the Model 406.145 was equipped with a crew cab (or double cab). Since most uses of Unimogs rarely required carrying anybody more than the operator, double cabs were rarely built. However, as some Unimogs were built as aircraft tugs, the need to carry the crew chief, mechanics and technicians required more seating.
A tough go in the United States
The Unimog was a runaway success in Europe, but they never fared well in the United States as new vehicles.
Case (then part of corporate conglomerate Tenneco) imported them from 1975 to 1980 as the MB4/94 to augment their tractors and farm equipment line, but they sold poorly.
In 2002, DaimlerChrysler tried marketing Unimogs through their U.S.-based Freightliner division, but the effort failed. Reportedly, only 184 were sold over five years
The early attempts at marketing the post-war Jeep CJ as an agricultural truck and tractor show why Unimogs failed in the U.S. When American farmers want a tractor, they buy dedicated tractors. If they want a truck, they buy a dedicated truck.
Typical farms in North America have larger tillable acreage and are farther outside of towns — many times a long drive away. It just made sense to have a tractor working in the field and a truck for trips to town.
By the time of the prosperous post-war era in the United States, well-refined tractors and light-duty trucks — including factory-built four-wheel-drive versions — were so ingrained in the American mindset that combining a truck and a tractor was, well, completely foreign.
The Unimog market
Today, most Unimogs in the U.S. are former military units imported after they were decommissioned. The majority of those are from Austria and Switzerland. As such, most Unimog enthusiasts fall into one of two camps: hardcore off-roaders or military vehicle collectors.
Let’s take a look at a recent sale: A 1977 Mercedes-Benz Unimog sold for 54,050 euros ($58,667) at Bonhams’ Mercedes-Benz Sale in Stuttgart, Germany, on March 28, 2015.
This truck is a rare Model 406.145 double-cab originally built for the German Luftwaffe. If it were it to cross the Atlantic, it would likely go over better with the military vehicle collectors, due to its armed forces provenance. Its show-quality condition all but guarantees that it won’t rock hop on a mountain trail.
A Unimog is an interesting addition to any military vehicle collection, and it would get lots of attention at Mercedes-Benz car club events, but it would probably be more of a curiosity.
All of this also means that Unimogs haven’t seen outlandish pricing in the United States.
As most of the Unimogs the U.S. are retired military, they are relatively affordable. They generally start not far below $10k for a decent runner, and they enjoy a devoted following, which helps keep parts plentiful.
All this said, if Land Rovers, Broncos, Scouts and Jeep CJs continue to increase in value, it’s likely that Unimogs will follow suit.
Our subject Unimog, while not an over-the-top restoration, has had top-notch work, including the color-change repaint. I don’t see that affecting the value a whole lot — it certainly didn’t hurt at this venue. However, repainting and re-marking the vehicle back into military colors and insignia — as far as it is legally possible — would bring more money if it were sold again.
The new owner had to step up a bit to get a rather unique piece, so this Unimog wasn’t silly money. Time will tell if the vintage off-roader market will continue to escalate, but, for now, I’m calling this market-correct for a Mercedes that stands taller than most. ♦