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RETRO DRIVE: Mercedes-Benz Unimog 406

11 October 2016

In the world of legendary 4x4s, the Mercedes-Benz Unimog ranks right near the top. We drove a 406, which hails from the 60s, in Pretoria.

Mercedes-Benz’s Unimog was born in the ᾽40s with farming in mind. Designed as a multipurpose vehicle that could be used both in the fields to plough and to transport the farmer on the road, the first model was powered by a 19kW diesel engine. Fast-forward about 20 years to the ᾽60s – that’s when the Unimog 406 range was introduced. This model, also the focus of this writing, became a true 4×4 legend. We found this red fire-fighting unit at a company called Gigantic SA in Pretoria.

This company’s yard is like nirvana for any petrolhead. It usually deals with large earth-moving equipment, but there are a few formerly loved off-roaders standing around and Gigantic SA was more than happy to allow us to snoop around in the hope of finding something special. What we found was a treasure trove of precious metal. In addition to this particular Unimog, we found several earth movers, vehicles with tank tracks, armoured cars and a Samil. Almost all of them had belonged to the government at some point, as revealed by their exterior paint and badging.

The Unimog 406 fire truck has no papers, so we had no idea when and where it had been produced. There was a name and number for the company that converted it into a fire truck, but it had gone bust since.  Judging from the grass growing around the tyres and the accumulated dust on the seats, it has been standing there for at least a few months. The owner of Gigantic SA, Henk Vryenhoek, organised a crew with a battery pack and some diesel to see if we could get it started, but, to be honest, the Unimog looked a bit tired and a drive seemed out of the question. It turned out to be tired only in appearance. After transferring a few volts, the old girl kicked into life and spat out a cloud of exhaust gas large enough to suffocate an entire Greenpeace convention.

After a minute or so of revving, the 5.7-litre six-cylinder naturally aspirated diesel engine settled down and idled as beautifully as the day it was manufactured. It was time to get behind the wheel for a drive. Driving this old Unimog was like practising weight lifting for the Olympics. Nothing comes easy and every single action requires concentration and muscle. It’s to be expected, of course, seeing as how this engine was lifted from a truck rather than a passenger car. Mercedes wanted something that delivered huge dollops of torque at low revs and this engine provides that in spades. The claimed stats when it was new were anywhere between 70kW to 90kW, coupled to around 350Nm of torque.

The gear levers can be daunting at first, but it’s a fairly simple system. There’s obviously a main gear lever with four forward speeds and a lever to swap from high to low range. The third lever is for activating reverse, which is a daunting exercise, especially if you’re used to a modern car. Reversing the Unimog five metres took us the better part of 10 minutes… Once we got the hang of it, it felt unstoppable. First gear is strictly only necessary to get it going, or for severe off-roading. In second, it accelerates nicely and by the time you hit third it feels as if you’re doing a million miles an hour. For such a huge chunk of metal, it’s surprisingly easy to drive. The steering isn’t assisted by any means, but the lack of an overhang makes it quite easy to place.

We could have spent an entire day in this car, but there was a problem: the engine cover in the cabin was missing which meant all sorts of gases quickly consumed the cabin. This Unimog can unfortunately not be used legally on South African roads, as it’s left-hand-drive, but if you’re a farmer who needs to visit hard to reach places… We often talk of proper off-roaders and this has to be one of the best we’ve ever driven. The low-down grunt from that engine and the massive ground clearance means it can go pretty much wherever it wants. When you think about it, this is the kind of off-roader you use when there are no roads. No wonder the military, police and fire departments loved the Mog so much. It’s currently on sale at Gigantic SA for a fairly reasonable R195 000. Not bad for such an epic piece of history with only 123 000km on the clock.