8th October 2019

Unimog, The Automotive Swiss Army Knife

Launched in 1948 and still made today, the Unimog is possibly the ultimate multi-purpose, do anything, drive anywhere vehicle. Its name says it all: an acronym of Universal-Motor-Gerät, the latter being the German word for ‘gadget’.

Daimler-Benz took on production in 1951 and updated the original to make the design more suitable for mass production. It did such a good job that the basic premise remains the best part of 70 years later. Despite common misconceptions and its widespread use as such, the Unimog was never intended to be a military vehicle. Rather a highly modular agricultural vehicle suitable for a wide range of jobs in all manner of terrain around the world.

Designed to be two-wheel drive only, the original vehicles could run in either front- or rear-wheel drive depending on what conditions called for. The idea was that the Unimog could work almost as hard as a tractor in the field, without the drawback of tractor performance on the road. Of course, due to the diverse range of applications and unprecedented production run, all manner of transmission set-ups have been covered, including four-wheel drive, high- and low-range gearboxes.

The Unimog’s versatility means you can never be sure where you’ll next spot one, or which job it will be carrying out. In deserts, jungles, mountains or fields, the Unimog is still used as a military vehicle, by emergency services, farmers or overlanding campers. It’s been found performing snowplough duties, carrying forestry equipment and even as a winner on the Paris-Dakar.

As you’d expect of a vehicle that’s been in production for over 70 years, the Unimog range has evolved, grown and focused over the years, but the basic design has remained true. The flexible ladder frame chassis is hugely modular and features twin coil-sprung live axles for maximum simplicity, robustness and articulation. A vast array of diesel engines have come and gone alongside a lone petrol unit for France. The cab is high, providing a perfect driver’s eye view and the most recent models can be converted between left- and right-hand drive in the field to ensure precise vehicle placement.

Although an agricultural vehicle primarily, it was in another kind of field that the Unimog rose to prominence. The first force to adopt the Unimog was the Swiss army, who identified it as being perfect to provide support in the field. The French followed, at which point it became such a popular option that a military-only version was developed, known as Unimog 404. Over 64,000 have been produced, with just under 37,000 destined for German forces. Other countries to adopt the Unimog for military uses are Argentina, where it was produced under licence, Peru, Chile and Bolivia.

The reality is, you’re arguably more like to see a Unimog being used to provide sun-struck tourists with guided tours of a remote piece of jungle than supporting any military activity. However, it serves to demonstrate the Unimog’s hugely capable nature and the incredibly diverse range of tasks they were built to tackle and continue to do so, successfully, seven decades later.

Built for any occasion, can you think of a single image where a Unimog looks out of place? Or do you believe that the Land Rover actually deserves the title of the most versatile vehicle ever produced? Let us know in the comments below.