I’ll never forget the complex mix of emotions in Britain that greeted the launch of Mercedes’ G-wagen, 30 years ago.
Mercedes wasn’t a full-line manufacturer; it made luxury cars. Even the small Mercedes four-door saloon, the 190, was still a figment of the designers’ imagination. What on earth was Stuttgart doing getting into the mud-runner business?
Second, British people were suddenly concerned for Land Rover. This was an era when the Solihull-based company had no money at all for model development.
Sure, it had built the rule-changing Range Rover, and that had garnered lots of accolades at the beginning of the ‘70s. But that was just one model. The Land Rover had remained much the same since 1948 (and would do until 1983) and hadn’t been introduced to niceties like power steering and coil springs, which the G-wagen would use to great effect.
The G was a well-judged product. It sat neatly between the Range Rover and Land Rover. It had the rugged looks of a farm-cum-military vehicle but you could specify it with Merc’s refined diesel and petrol engines and an automatic transmission from 1981 (if my memory serves).
Two things held the G-wagen back. One, it was expensive. You could buy one and a half Landies with the same money. Two, it was a shade too shiny, well-equipped and well-built. People couldn’t see themselves traversing mud-holes in a Merc. They didn’t fancy transporting haybales on the bonnet, or hosing its cabin out at the end of a muddy week.
For these reasons — and practical stuff like dealer availability — the Land Rover thrived. But it’s pretty clear M-B could have made things a fair bit hotter for our home-grown 4x4, if it had really tried.