There have been quite a number of automotive legends over the years, sadly a lot of them have been covered by the dust of time and very few are still going strong today.
One of the aforementioned few is the formidable Unimog, which I’m fairly confident the majority of people reading this will have heard of. If you haven’t, and have recently arrived from the planet Zog, let me give you a brief history lesson.
Unimog history 101:
Launched during the hard times immediately after the end of World War II, the first Unimog ambitiously sought to redefine the term 'utility' for four-wheeled vehicles. The result was an entirely distinctive kind of working vehicle that had the ability to conquer the most treacherous of terrain, was capable of high speeds for on-road transport and had plenty of implement mounting areas.
The result was a working vehicle that had more flexibility than any other vehicle. That was more than 70 years ago, and today this basic concept hasn't changed, there's even still a family resemblance.
As they say, if it isn't broken...
You will find today's Unimog hard at work fulfilling agricultural and municipal duties: cleaning tunnels, towing trains, cutting hedgerows and...... well, the list is endless, and for fun they'll be participating in Dakar Rally raids, and stealing the screen in Hollywood blockbusters, like the 'Hound' in Transformers: The Last Knight.
Anyhow, returning to the point of my ramblings, Mercedes-Benz had decided to organise a Unimog Live event down at Millbrook; the 'secret' testing facility near Milton Keynes, not far from Marston Moretain and just off the A421. I was invited along on the press day, and the itinerary was quite simple: arrive at 11.45am, chat, have lunch, listen to a speech about running costs, and why Unimogs are better than tractors, then go out and experience them for ourselves.
For most of the time, us writing types don’t want to sit around and listen to long speeches, we want to be out driving instead, but on this occasion it was quite interesting.
Did you know that specially equipped U427 can drive on railway lines and tow up to 1,000 tonnes? 1,ooo tonnes, let that sink in for a moment.
Also on the options list is Vario Pilot, which lets you move the whole steering assembly to the other side of the cabin in just a few minutes, meaning that your left hand drive Unimog is now right hand drive, which is especially handy if you’re trimming verges. Once you’ve finished, you simply move it all back to left hand drive and carry with your journey.
On the subject of journeys, did you know that you can program your Unimog to travel a certain distance in a specified time period? Of course you didn’t.
The range of gubbins you can fix to your ‘mog is, quite frankly, mind boggling, and this is where the expense comes in. If you think adding floor mats from your car’s option list is expensive, paying £250,000 isn’t unheard of when it comes to the end result of an options ticking frenzy. Thankfully Mercedes-Benz have a 0% finance deal going on.
After being chauffeured up to the off-road area, I opted for the closest Unimog, the U530. With 177hp and an incredible 553lb ft, nothing was going to get in our way.
On entering the cab I was introduced to a huge array of buttons, knobs and switches. The important ones like gear selector and engine brake were on the stalk mounted off the steering wheel, which I promptly forgot as I soon as we drove off.
With a sway here and a sudden lurch there, the spring-mounted seat was a practical addition, but as I drove over the smallest of pot holes it didn’t stop the U530 from trying to throw me from one side of the cab to the other. When I think about it, it makes perfect sense, with the U530 being a SWB model, it was like being sat on the spike of the pendulum, whereas a normal 4x4 you’re at the base, if that makes sense.
My instructor drives both Unimogs and heavy plant machinery everyday, so he’s used to the rocking and rolling of these specialised machines, I on the other hand was reminded of my first ever driving lesson when I hadn’t a clue what was going on!
After a while I was getting used to my navigator's commands, like, “switch to manual gearbox and 3rd gear, engage just the rear diff lock and set the engine braking to one…” All were executed in swift movements, I was feeling proud of myself.
With the exception of the pond and cross axle steps, I’ve driven a Volvo V70 Cross Country everywhere I took the Unimog, so the course selected wasn't particularly troubling for it. The much larger U5203 coped far better with the rutted terrain due to its longer wheelbase, and like its shorter sibling, it was far too capable for anything we threw at it. I was itching to take them all off-piste just to see what they are really capable of.
Overall, Mercedes-Benz are quite pleased with their product, after fulfilling whatever job is asked of it, it will cruise along at 56mph, and fully loaded can achieve 7.4mpg, which I believe is very good, considering.
I’m confident that it’s been said previously, but think of the Unimog as an automotive Swiss Army Knife, there isn’t another road-going vehicle quite like it that can be adapted in so many ways for so many different roles.