We celebrate the 35th anniversary of the iconic Mercedes-Benz G-Class by looking back at its design history.

There are only a handful of truly iconic sport-utility vehicles in the world. The Land Rover Series certainly qualifies, as do the World War II American Jeep (and its derivative, the Jeep Wrangler) and the Toyota Land Cruiser. And from this small group there is an even smaller number of SUVs that have successfully made the jump from military-grade to civilian uber-luxury. That one vehicle is the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen (German for cross-country vehicle) or G-wagen/G-class (the name changed in 1998) for short.

Mercedes began development in the early 1970s at the Shah of Iran’s (who held a fairly large share of the company at the time) request. Royalty has that sort of pull, you know. Steyr-Daimler-Puch were immediately contracted to work on the project, alongside Benz, due to their military vehicle expertise. Unlike virtually every other iconic SUV, the G-class was designed from the outset to serve as a military and civilian vehicle, rather than one or the other.

The first versions began testing in 1974, romping all over Germany’s coalfields, the Sahara Desert and north of the Arctic Circle. They proved that the concept was worthwhile and new production facilities were built over the next four years in Graz, Austria where Steyr-Daimler-Puch would hand-build each one for its 1979 debut.

Initially two wheelbases were offered: a short-wheelbase and long-wheelbase (2400mm or 2850mm respectively); and a variety of body styles were available depending on which wheelbase you chose (two-door "convertible," two-door wagon and the long wheelbase as a four door wagon only, additionally you could specify a sort of panel van, rear window-delete called the Kastenwagen). Looking much like the box it came in, the G-class was a successful recipe based on a German powertrain and Austrian military drivetrain components. Its frame, typical for such hearty, go-anywhere trucks is a ladder-frame onto which the body is bolted.

The G-wagen initially had two designations: the 460 and 461. The 460 designation is limited to civilian models and rather than being called the MB Geländewagen, it was sold as the Puch G in Austria, Switzerland, and throughout Eastern Europe. But initially it didn’t sell very well as it had been conceived as a workman’s vehicle with according accouterments (such as a rather functional [read: drab] interior) but with a price tag that most laborers couldn’t afford.

Certainly, the engineering behind the G-class warranted the price, but to attract the right customers, Mercedes-Benz wound up outfitting it with interior bits from more upscale sedans in their range. Two years after its debut, the 460 started its journey towards the sybaritic off-roader it is today, featuring air conditioning, an auxiliary fuel tank, protective headlamp grilles, and an automatic transmission. A year later the G-class was fitted with fuel injection, wider tires, more comfortable and supportive front seats, and an auxiliary heater.

While sales of the 460 were a bit slow at first, due to the perceived cost-to-value imbalance, the 461 did well immediately and has subsequently been employed by more than sixty armed forces worldwide. The 461 nomenclature is not limited to military models, rather it is used to designate G-classes that aren’t pure civilian models. Ambulances, fire corps vehicles, and yes, military G-classes use the 461 badging. Even the later specially built, commercially available Worker models were 461s.

And just as the 460s have had their drivetrains upgraded over the years from smaller displacement four-cylinders to today’s monstrous twelve-cylinders (!) so too have the 461s (although not to such an absurd degree). But why is the G-class so iconic? And why do those who depend on it (such as soldiers) love it so much?

Consider the example of Mr. Gunther Holtorf and his late wife, Christine. In 1990 they set out to travel over and across the African continent in their Mercedes-Benz 300GD. They conquered rugged mountains, deep muddy valleys, seemingly endless deserts, and when the trip finally came to end—they decided to simply continue.

And continue they did. The G-class even outlived poor Christine, who passed away four years ago. In fact, Gunther and the 300GD kept going until earlier this year, having covered over 550,000 miles (nearly 900,000 km) through 177 countries in twenty-six years! In fact he hadn’t even met Christine when he purchased the Benz, later dubbed ‘Otto’ by Christine, herself.

It all began in 1988 with a trial run through Africa with Gunther’s then-third wife Beate. The trip had two consequences. As a reconnoiter, Gunther succeeded in figuring out what worked on the G-class and what didn’t—he wound up removing the rear seats and installing a mattress, under which there was ample storage. Secondly, he and Beate split up.

But it takes a positive man to endure half-a-million miles over hundreds of countries and Gunther responded to the split in stride, by putting a personal ad in the local newspaper looking for a new companion. Christine replied and it quickly became obvious that she and Gunther made a great pair. Not too long thereafter, he asked her if she wanted to do a bit of traveling. They organized their affairs and set for Africa, planning to stay in villages and towns as infrequently as possible with the bulk of their time spent out in the wild.

As you can imagine, there were a few encounters with wildlife including one hyena that could have very easily gone awry. Gunther was sleeping in a hammock stretched between Otto and a tree when he awoke to a pair of eyes less than a meter away from his own. In recounting the story Gunther says he doesn’t know who was more startled—the hyena or him. Fortunately, the hyena sped off into the night.

There was also a run-in with armed men in northern Ethiopia close to the Somali and Djibouti border. Convinced he was spared due to his age (close to sixty-years-old at the time), Gunther was dismissed after a couple of hours with a handshake.

As previously mentioned, when they completed their epic journey, having gotten malaria, bacterial infections, and other bodily injuries (not to mention encounters with wildlife and potentially dangerous, armed men), they simply decided to keep travelling. They continued through Europe, then South America, followed by Central and then North America. And while they didn’t travel continuously for the next twenty-four years, they did spend an amazing amount of time on the road and trail eventually visiting every continent except Antarctica and nearly every country on Earth.

Otto was so resilient that, sadly, he outlasted Christine who died of cancer in 2010. They both knew it was coming as she had been diagnosed and ill for some time, and had discussed what Gunther would do afterwards. Christine didn’t want him to stop travelling and so he honored her wishes; mourning wouldn’t have affected the outcome after all.

In 2012, he got a new companion, Elke, and after rolling the G-class (and subsequently fitting a new body) and visiting a few missed countries, Gunther called it quits earlier this year.

Gunther’s G-class is a 460 and its new home is in Mercedes-Benz’s museum. But just as Gunther and Christine set out for their adventure Mercedes updated the 4x4, releasing the 463. Updates include a revised chassis, anti-lock brakes, full-time four-wheel drive, and three electric locking differentials. The interior went even more upmarket and featured wooden accents and optional leather upholstery. Additionally, V8s became optional (later standard in some markets) and eventually, a V12 would be added to the lineup.

The 463 remains the current G-class although it has been upgraded continuously since its 1990 debut. There have also been countless special editions (especially over the last fifteen years) and the latest is the G-class Edition 35, which celebrates the model’s thirty-fifth year in production.

To distinguish it from other G-classes the Edition 35 will receive special eighteen-inch rims painted Obsidian Black Metallic, while the body cladding is painted to match. Mercedes will also allow buyers to black out the entire exterior, and included standard are the Sport and Chrome packages that add shiny bits to the car’s appearance. The interior is available in two-tone black-and-white or blacked out, both of which include red stitching and a leather-covered dashboard and an AMG steering wheel.

Currently offered in Europe, the engine options are a 3.0L turbodiesel V6 or a gasoline-powered 5.5L V8. This may however be one of the last 463-model special editions made as there are rumors that a new G-class is being developed.

Regardless, there are few SUVs that can claim the ruggedness and reliability that the G-class can. That it is thirty-five-years-old, still in production, and still in wide armed forces service is a testament to its design and manufacturing process. It is no wonder that it is such an off-roading icon. Most telling is that it is largely unchanged since it went on sale back in 1979. Mercedes-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch got it right on their first try.

Text by Joe Chen for Highsnobiety.com

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