Dodge / Ram
On February 21, 2001, Reuters reported that: Freightliner, a DCX company, was planning to build a civilian (ordinary-people) vehicle based on the Unimog German military transport. They said civilian production would be 250 per year with the rest going to fire departments and businesses. The next day, Freightliner published a correction, seen at the end of this page.
This article is copyrighted © 2001 by Bill Cawthon. All rights reserved. Permission for reproduction has only been granted to allpar.com.
"Unschlagbar im Gelaende, vielseitig und wirtschaftlich im Arbeitseinsatz."
Invincible on terrain, versatile and economical in the workplace. (Unimog
The Mercedes-Benz Unimog is one of the few European-built trucks to
successfully penetrate the American market. For decades, U.S. companies and
government agencies have bought this ungainly-looking vehicle for specialized
jobs. North American railroads and mass transit agencies have added them to
their rosters. Even the U.S. Army has a few Unimogs. Despite what some fans
claim, the Army didn't buy them to rescue broken-down Hummers. In the
military, the Unimog serves as a unique combination of high-mobility
bulldozer and excavator. They have also been used to service remote military
Technically, the Unimog is not a truck. The Germans refer to it as a "road tractor," a description that fits it quite well. Even though a modern Unimog can reach highway speeds and carry up to seven in its double cab configuration, the Unimog is really designed to perform many of the functions of a tractor. It can mount powered attachments at multiple points on its frame, pull a plow or push a snowblower, pull stumps or boxcars and carry loads up to 15,000 pounds. However, unlike most conventional tractors, a Unimog can cross terrain that would leave most offroad vehicles stranded, ford water up to 31" deep, and operate anywhere from the Artic Circle to the Sahara.
Despite statements in the media, the Unimog was not designed as a military
vehicle. And it was not designed for the German Army, since there was no
German Army when the Unimog was developed. The inspiration for the Unimog
actually came from an American. Henry Morgenthau was Secretary of the
Treasury under Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1944, when the defeat of Nazi
Germany had become almost a certainty, Morgenthau proposed a postwar program
whereby the Allies would dismantle Germany's industrial capability and turn
the country into an agrarian state, incapable of ever again creating a
military machine. After the War, the elements of the Morgenthau Plan were put
into place. Many of Germany's plants were dismantled and their tools and
equipment were shipped to other countries. Much of what remained was put to
work repairing Allied vehicles and equipment or building agricultural
In December, 1945, Albert Friedrich, former chief engineer of Daimler-Benz's
aircraft engine research division, began work on a special vehicle for
farmers. It was intended to be a universal vehicle combining the functions of
a farm tractor and a truck. Friedrich's design included large wheels,
four-wheel drive, power takeoffs at front and rear, self-locking
differentials and a very high ground clearance. It would be able to plow the
fields, pull the stumps and carry the produce to market, albeit not very
quickly. The original Unimog had a top speed of about 30 miles per hour and a
ride that was, for lack of a better term, "agrarian."
In summer of 1946, Friedrich's group completed the first prototype. It had a
4-cylinder, 103 CID gasoline engine. A diesel would have been preferable but
a suitable powerplant was not available. Friedrich had never given a name to
his concept, but one of his engineers, Hans Zabel, developed a name from the
German words Friedrich had originally used to describe the vehicle. "Unimog"
comes from UNIversal-MOtorGeraet, or universal power unit.
The prototype came through a year of testing with flying colors. In 1948,
after the Allies permitted the resumption of civilian vehicle production, the
25hp diesel used in the Mercedes-Benz 170V passenger car replaced the
gasoline engine. That fall, the Unimog made its public debut at an
agricultural exhibit in Frankfurt. The public liked the Unimog and plans were
made to put it into production. After searching for production facilities,
Friedrich's team selected the Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Boehringer factory.
Over the next two years, the Boehringer plant produced 600 Unimog U25s. The
U25 was slow but powerful. In its lowest gear, its top speed was 3/10 of a
mile per hour, but whatever it was pulling was going to move. It had a top
speed of 32 and a payload capacity of over 3,000 pounds. Not only was it a
hit with the farmers, the French occupation forces were so impressed that
they purchased two of every three built in 1950-51, becoming the Unimog's
first military customers.
Although the Unimog had been developed by a Daimler-Benz engineer and used a
Benz engine, the early Unimogs were not Mercedes-Benz products. In 1951,
Daimler-Benz took over production of the Unimog and moved assembly to the
Gaggenau factory, but it wasn't until 1955 that the three-pointed star
replaced the original ox head logo on the Unimog's hood.
After "adopting" the Unimog, Mercedes changed the model name from U25 to the
U401 or U402, depending on whether the customer wanted a short or long
wheelbase. Over 16,000 of the 25hp Unimogs were produced by the time the
model's run ended in 1956. The 401/402 was replaced by the 411, which had a
more powerful (30hp) diesel and a longer wheel base. Otherwise, the 411
looked pretty much like a 401. The 411 was the first Unimog purchased by the
U.S. government. During its 18-year production run, almost 39,000 U411s were
built, many of them for the new German Army and Bundesgrenschutz (Border
Guard). During its run, the engine size was increased twice; first to a 32hp
engine in 1959 and then to a 34hp unit in 1966.
The first Unimog designed as a military vehicle was the 1956 Unimog-S U404,
more commonly known as the S-404. The S-404 had a 6-cylinder engine, a longer
wheelbase and the NATO standard 24-volt electrical system. Its 15-inch ground
clearance was significantly higher than the M37 Dodge in widespread use at
that time. The S-404 also had a higher top speed (59 mph) than the civilian
version. In cross-country conditions, the S-404 was superior to any other
military 1 1/2-ton truck. It was almost impossible to roll, had a 46-degree
angle of departure and would climb a 100% grade. The only drawbacks were poor
engine and transmission accessibility due to the small hood and a tremendous
appetite for fuel. Depending on conditions, Unimogs sometimes got less than 4
miles per gallon.
Once again, the French Army was the first purchaser of the new military
truck, ordering more than a thousand, but the German Army was the big
customer. The Bundeswehr bought more than 36,000 S-404s in various
configurations, equipped for everything from troop transport to airport fire
truck. Some 404s even served as dummy tanks for training. The German Army was
short of tanks, so the Kässbohrer company used S-404 chassis and bodies to
build an armored personnel carrier. Equipped with a turret, the APC resembled
a Soviet T-54 Main Battle Tank. German soldiers called these "Neckermann"
Tanks, in reference to a popular German discount store.
One of the most popular Unimogs among buyers was the U1300 introduced in the
mid 1970s. The U1300 was a more powerful version with a 130hp engine and a
2-ton payload capacity. It also offered 8 forward and 8 reverse gears and a
standard steel cab (an enclosed cab was an option on the earlier Unimogs).
The U1300 was first offered as a civilian vehicle. A stretched version was
developed for the German Army. There are many variations on the U1300
platform including the 6-wheel-drive U2450.
Unimogs can be found in almost every country in the world. One of their most
common uses is for snow removal. During the winter, they can be found hard at
work everywhere from a Colorado airport to the mountainous areas of the
Middle East. It's estimated that one of every two pieces of snow removal
equipment in the world is a Unimog.
Up until this year, the most modern Unimogs were the U90/110/140 series which
went into production in 1992. One of the unique features of this series is
the asymmetric cab with its offset hood. This is designed to allow better
forward visibility. This series offered transmissions with up to 22 forward
and 11 reverse gears and was equipped with an automatic braking system. Like
their predecessors, the ultra-low gear drives the vehicle at a snail's pace
of less than a quarter-mile per hour while pulling an incredible load of up
to 176,000 pounds.
The newest Unimog was introduced in April of 2000. DaimlerChrysler's latest
model offers a variety of improvements including the new VarioPilot system
that allows the steering wheel to be quickly switched from driver's to
passenger's side. This new Unimog will be sold in the U.S. through
DaimlerChrysler's Freightliner subsidiary. A specially-equipped fire truck
version will carry the American LaFrance badge. Previously, Unimogs were
brought into North America by independent distributors like J.I. Case,
Ultimate All-Wheel Drive and Lehigh Concrete Technologies. Ultimate All-Wheel
and Lehigh continue to to be the source for Unimog models other than the
U400. They carry models up to the maximum duty U2450.
No matter what the channel, Unimogs have been brought into America for a
number of years. The U.S. government is one of the biggest American
customers. Aside from the Army, 'Mogs are used by the Agriculture Department,
Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and Forestry Service.
Many Unimogs are equipped to fight forest fires. Their unique ability to
drive to a fire site with hundreds of gallons of water or chemicals, bulldoze
a firebreak or clear heavy debris makes them invaluable. Some lucky civilian
fire services, especially in mountainous regions, use Unimogs in brush fire
or mountain rescue operations. Usually these are owned by a local enthusiast
who is also a volunteer firefighter.
Because of their towing capacity, Unimogs have found favor with railroads
around the world. A civilian version of the U411 was road-tested by Car &
Driver magazine in the mid-1960s. They demonstrated its towing capacity by
pulling a boxcar. In Europe, they are commonly used for MOW and shunting
operations. They are even used as switch engines in some Asian countries.
Both Union Pacific and Canadian National have used them in yard operations.
>From 1984-1991, the Bay Colony Railroad carried a Unimog on its locomotive
The versatile Unimog is also working for the operators of light rail commuter
projects. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and Maryland Transit
Authority, among others, use specially-built Unimogs as service and emergency
vehicles. Equipped with the specialized couplers used for light rail trains,
a Unimog is capable of clearing a line more quickly than any other piece of
equipment, even when the problem involves a stalled train or derailment. The
Unimog's ability to move at the same speed in either direction, makes it a
natural for railroad switching duties. Denver's RTD light rail system has an
interchange track with the Union Pacific. A hi-rail Unimog is used to shunt
freight cars from the UP yard to the light rail tracks. Among other benefits,
this makes delivery of new equipment and rolling stock to the light rail
system much easier.
Not all Unimogs are used for such serious tasks. A few years ago, Domino's
Pizza brought a pair of retired S-404 fire trucks with TLF pumper bodies into
the U.S. as part of a publicity campaign. They completely restored them,
right down to the European-style blue flashers, and painted the corporate
logo on the side.
There is also a small, but growing group of American fans who enjoy offroad
activities in their Unimogs and organize annual meets and competitions. The
S-404 is the most popular Unimog among civilian buyers in America. Most often
these are ex-military vehicles sold as surplus by the German or Swiss armies.
The reason for their popularity is the easy availability of parts and the
relatively low price. New Unimogs have prices starting at about $80,000.
Depending on the options ordered, the sticker can easily climb into the six
figures. An ex-Swiss S-404 in running condition can go for as little as
Unimogs are built to the customer's specifications and are often shipped to a
second company for additional modifications. I've listed a few web pages with
pictures of 'Mogs earning their keep.
Unlike most SUVs, which are really most often "Mall Utility Vehicles,"
Unimogs are at their best in the work and offroad environments for which they
were designed. Whether it's switching cars in the yard, standing ready to
battle forest fires or just helping some very determined fishermen reach that
remote spot where the big ones are biting, a rugged Unimog will be right at
Related Web Sites:
In response to today's interest in the Unimog,
Freightliner LLC would like to clarify its strategy for selling and
marketing the Unimog multi-purpose vocational truck in North America.
The Unimog is targeted at a variety of vocational markets, from
utilities and municipal services to fire and rescue services. Built by
Mercedes-Benz for more than fifty years, the Unimog is a highly
specialized vehicle suited for plowing snow, fighting fires,
agricultural applications or other tasks performed by commercial
The Unimog is not intended to compete in the mass sport-utility vehicle
markets. It is a Class 6 commercial truck intended for service
applications where terrain or weather require a high-mobility vehicle.
Unimog will meet all U.S. laws for emissions, size, weight and other
commercial vehicle requirements and is designed for safe performance and
Freightliner LLC will sell and market the Unimog under its Freightliner
Trucks (commercial trucks) and American LaFrance (fire trucks) brands.
Unimogs will be built in Gaggenau, Germany and imported to the U.S.
Production begins in early 2002.
Freightliner LLC expects to sell about 300 Unimogs in the U.S. in 2002.
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