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Freightliner and the Unimog

by Bill Cawthon

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 Motto)

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 radar facilities.

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 implements.

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 roster.

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 $8,000.

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 home.

Related Web Sites:

  • Lehigh Concrete Technologies (http://www.lehightech.com) both sells and does custom conversions of Unimogs. Good picture of the conversion they built for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.
  • Ultimate All-Wheel Drive (http://www.unimogusa.com) was the U.S. distributor for the Unimog. There are several good pictures of Unimogs in action.
  • Unimog Net (http://www.unimog.net) is a great site with lots of links.

Press release from Freightliner clarifying the Unimog sales plan (2.22.01)

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 vehicles.

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 environmental compliance.

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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