Extremely resistant to change, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is about to wrap up its 38th year on the market. It won’t live long enough to celebrate its 39th birthday.
There’s a next-generation G coming early next year and, while it will look a lot like the current model, it will be brand-new under the skin. Join us as we look back at the off-roader’s illustrious production run.
Mercedes begins the G project (1972)
In 1972, Mercedes parent company Daimler-Benz joined forces with Steyr-Daimler-Puch to develop a Land Rover-like off-roader capable of taming the Alps. The design brief asked for a four-wheel drive model that brought Mercedes’ build quality and reliability to a new sector of the market and would look current for at least a decade.
It needed to serve both as a work horse and a recreational vehicle yet provide a comfortable ride on the pavement. And, above all, it needed to be simple to build and repair.
The G makes its debut… (1979)
The G broke cover in 1979, much to the bewilderment of those who forgot about the Unimog and only thought Mercedes capable of building sedans and sports cars. Officially, it was called Geländewagen, a German word which literally translates to “cross-country vehicle.” That would have required slapping a remarkably long emblem on the back so it became the G.
Steyr built the G, largely by hand, in Graz, Austria. At launch, the line-up included a two-door convertible and a station wagon offered with either two or four doors. The engine palette ranged from 72 to 156hp. At the time, no one envisioned an AMG-built V12 under the hood. The G’s target audience included farmers, countryside-dwelling motorists and adventurers.
…and promptly joins the army (1979)
Though he owned a sizable chunk of Daimler, the Shah of Iran did not, as many claim, commission or instigate the G. He vaguely pre-ordered 20,000 examples for his army but the deal fell through when he famously fell from power in 1979. Germany’s armed forces didn’t want the G, either, selecting instead the Volkswagen Iltis.
The German border police bought the G, however, as did Argentina’s army. Later on, it was also enlisted in the Australian, Canadian, Croatian, British, Serbian, Russian, Mongolian, Iraqi, Mexican and even American armies. All told, he G has served in over 63 nations’ armed forces since making its debut and it’s still widely used today.
AMG steps in (1979)
Though it wasn’t part of Mercedes in the late 1970s, AMG wasted no time in modifying the G. The tuner introduced a model named 280 GE 5.6 Sport. It wore headlights from the W116, a gold-tinted grille from the W123 and a custom front bumper with a winch. It also stood proud as the very first G equipped with leather upholstery. Rosewood trim and a Becker sound system completed the truck’s metamorphosis into a world-class luxury car.
The example pictured here used a 5.6-liter V8 that provided 295hp. In 1979, AMG also unveiled a less extreme variant with a 5.0-liter, 241hp version of Mercedes’ M117 V8. Both engines later powered the coupe and sedan variants of the W126.
The G’s Swiss twin (1979)
The agreement between Daimler and Steyr-Puch gave Mercedes the exclusive right to distribute the G across Europe and really anywhere else it saw fit. However, buyers in Austria, Switzerland and select Eastern European nations also had access to a Puch-badged model identical to its Mercedes-branded sibling save for the emblems on both ends.
The Vatican’s G (1980)
Mercedes gave the Vatican a purpose-built 230 G to transport Pope John Paul II during his visit to Germany in 1980. Workers replaced the metal roof with Plexiglas panels in order to let the Pope interact with the crowd without facing rain or wind. The panels were not designed to protect the Pope from an attack of any kind.
The safety standards set by Vatican officials became stricter after Mehmet Ali Ağca shot the Pope as he strolled through Saint Peter’s Square in a topless Fiat Campagnola, in May 1981. Mercedes’ archives department indicates the brand bulletproofed the holy 230 G following the assassination attempt.
Land Rover fires back (1981)
When Autocar first tested the G in 1979, we concluded it fell about halfway between the Range Rover and the Land Rover. We said it was “compact, appreciably smaller even than the Land Rover” and “well-trimmed and equipped.” We added it offered “a good standard of creature comforts.”
Its military career didn’t take off as Daimler expected, but the G dropped into the booming 4x4 segment at precisely the right time, taking Land Rover by surprise. The company fired back by finally introducing a four-door variant of the Range Rover in 1981, inciting a rivalry that continues to this day.
The G gets a French passport (1982)
In the late 1970s, the French army faced the Herculean task of replacing about 10,000 of its aging Hotchkiss-badged Jeeps. Then government-owned Renault purchased a sizable stake in Jeep parent company American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1979 so it could have easily provided CJ-7s but, in an odd twist of reasoning, the job fell to Peugeot.
Instead of developing an off-roader from scratch, which it was ill-equipped to do, Peugeot struck a licensing deal with Mercedes to sell its own version of the G named P4. The steel shell was built in Austria alongside the G’s but assembly took place in France, where the truck received a gasoline- or diesel-powered four-cylinder engine borrowed from the Peugeot parts bin. French fire brigades bought the P4, too, but the short-lived civilian model flopped.
Paris-Dakar victory (1983)
The Paris-Dakar was once the ultimate proving ground for off-roading men and machines. The G made its first appearance on the starting grid in 1980, a year after both the nameplate and the race made their debut. Mostly stock, the 71hp 240 GD wheezed across the desert to a lackluster 23rd-place finish. At least it reached the finish line, which was easier said than done.
25 teams entered one of the many G variants in the race in 1981, 31 the following year and 33 in 1983 – plus one Puch-badged model. Intrepid Belgian pilot Jacky Ickx soldiered through blinding sandstorms in the Ténéré desert and drove his 280 GE to first place that year. Second place went to a Lada Niva while a V8-powered Range Rover finished third.
V8 power, from Porsche (1985)
Porsche shoehorned a V8 engine from the 928 between the G’s fenders in 1985. The idea wasn’t to beat AMG at its own game or build a four-wheel drive predecessor to the 500E.
The 320hp G (which, theoretically, should have been a 470 GE) came to life because Porsche needed a support vehicle capable of completing the punishing Paris-Dakar while keeping up with the 959s. The mechanics driving the G finished second in the 1986 edition of the race, right behind the winning 959. Their staggering result didn’t count because the car wasn’t officially entered in the race.
The G moves upmarket (1989)
Mercedes looked on curiously as its no-nonsense, go-anywhere off-roader became increasingly common in the world’s most expensive postcodes, leagues away from anything that resembled mud. The company witnessed this trend even in the US, where the G wasn’t officially sold to begin with.
The brand tapped into this growing market with a posher model named W463 internally. It looked a lot like the previous W460, and the two shared many mechanical components, but the newer version came with niceties such as leather upholstery, wood trim and permanent all-wheel drive.
The G becomes the G-Class (1993)
The G fell in line with Mercedes’ previous naming system during its first 14 years on the market. The 280 GE nameplate denoted a G with a 2.8-liter fuel-injected engine; the 240 GD used a 2.4-liter diesel shared with the W123 240 D; the 230 G offered a 2.3-liter carbureted engine, and so on.
It officially became the G-Class when Mercedes rolled out a new naming structure in 1993. The E-Class, S-Class and C-Class nameplates appeared at the same time, appearing as a prefix.
Putting the G in AMG (1999)
Mercedes marked the G’s 25th anniversary by sending it to AMG, which the firm controlled by that point. It emerged from the tuner’s workshop with a 5.4-liter V8 tweaked to send 354hp to all four wheels. The cavalry overpowered the G55’s considerable mass to propel it from 0-60mph in 7.4 seconds.
Setting sail for America (2002)
The G-Class arrived in America through dubious gray market channels during the 1980s. Concerned about losing sales, Mercedes persuaded the American government to complicate the process of importing a late-model car to the point of near-impossibility, thereby dealing a crippling blow to the lucrative gray market.
New Mexico-based Europa went through the painstakingly tedious process of federalizing the G during the 1990s and flipped it in exchange for correspondingly large sums of money. It sold, and it sold well. Mercedes again caught on and finally decided to add the G-Class to its U.S. line-up in 2002. It would go on to become a hit with American celebrities including Britney Spears, Floyd Mayweather, and various members of the Kardashian clan.
From Peugeot to Panhard (2006)
As a car manufacturer, Panhard resignedly shut its doors in 1967 after dwindling sales forced it deep into Citroën’s intestines. Its defense arm remained in business and it provided the French army with a heavily modified G-Class named VPS in 2006. The acronym stood for Véhicule Patrouille Spéciale, a term which means ‘special patrol vehicle’ in French.
Panhard designed the VPS specifically for perilous desert warfare. Highly modular, it could be configured as a mobile communications center, a troop carrier used on reconnaissance missions or a rolling platform for a 12.7mm machine gun. All variants used Mercedes’ 2.7-liter turbodiesel five-cylinder, an engine also found in the ML, the E-Class, the Euro-spec second-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee (built in Graz, like the G) and the Chrysler 300C.
The end that never came (2007)
In 2007, the press reported the G had inevitably reached the end of its career. Rumors claimed we’d see a brand-new model tentatively named GL before the end of the year and it would be better than its intended predecessor in every way. Spy shots revealed a bigger and bolder SUV that looked more high-tech and sounded more powerful.
In hindsight, the reports were about half accurate. Mercedes did introduce the GL but it wasn’t the next-generation G. It was a different species within the same genus. G sales remained strong and the rumors of its demise sank from sight.
Mercedes recently told Autocar there were one or two internal discussions about retiring the G to make space for the GL. Everyone involved quickly concluded the two models would co-exist so the G was never in any real danger.
Back to basics (2010)
Mercedes stopped offering the civilian version of the W461-series G-Class in 1990. At the time, the move made perfect sense: the high-toned W463 outsold it by a wide margin. The stripped-down model remained available to the armed forces and rescue services during the 1990s. It returned to the civilian market in 2010 as the G300 CDI Professional. It was a pure, practical version of the truck aimed at hardcore off-roaders with a fat wallet.
Production of the civilian W461 ended for the second time in 2013. Mercedes defended its decision by pointing out the model’s turbodiesel V6 wouldn’t have complied with the emissions regulations set to come into effect across Europe the following year.
Vision Ener-G-Force (2012)
Mercedes introduced a concept car named Vision Ener-G-Force during the 2012 edition of the Los Angeles Auto Show. It put the G’s basic styling on a more futuristic path by adopting an updated front end that ditched the archetypal round headlights, scalloped sides and pronounced haunches which flowed into a tailgate accented by a gas can-like insert in lieu of the spare wheel. This was fighting talk for brand purists who considered the G the truest yardstick of off-road capacity.
On a secondary but more lasting level, the Ener-G-Force sowed the suspicion that Mercedes would end G production shortly. It’s indeed getting drummed out of the company’s line-up but we know its intended successor won’t look anything like the 2012 concept.
The convertible bows out (2013)
Citing falling demand, Mercedes axed the two-door convertible from the G-Class line-up in 2013 after building a run of 200 Final Edition models. They all came with a 5.5-liter V8 which provided 388hp. Every Final Edition model received metallic black paint, a tan soft top and a model-specific emblem at the base of the B-pillar. Enthusiasts claimed the entire production run almost immediately.
Portal axles; six of them, please (2013)
Product planners began stretching the G’s limits in 2013 with the G63 6x6. It started life as a standard four-door G63 but it mutated into an ostentatious German monster truck with three axles, an extended wheelbase, a pickup bed and a 544hp twin-turbocharged V8. Portal axles normally found on the Unimog provided 18in of ground clearance.
Pricing started in the general vicinity of US$500,000 (£300,000 or so). That didn’t stop Mercedes from selling over 100 examples of the berserk six-wheeler over a two-year production run.
The G squared (2016)
With the embers of the G63’s success still glowing, Mercedes followed up by brewing a slightly tamer truck based on the regular four-door G-Class. Previewed by a close-to-production concept at the 2015 Geneva Auto Show, the G550 4x42 turned the monster truck dial down a notch and settled for just four wheels. AMG wasn’t involved in this build but the 416hp squared was deceptively brisk, if not exactly agile around a bend.
The convertible returns – briefly (2017)
Maybach’s first-ever SUV wasn’t, as rumors persistently claimed, based on the GLS. It was a stretched, quasi-convertible variant of the G-Class whose US$500,000 price tag comfortably embedded it in supercar territory. Mercedes built just 99 examples of the monstrous G650 Landaulet, which received the same portal axles as the G63 6x6 and the G550 4x42.
The 300,000th G (2017)
It took Steyr a whopping 38 years to build 300,000 examples of the G-Class - around 8000-per-year overall. In comparison, Ford sold over twice as many units of the F-Series truck last year on the American market alone. But, that’s comparing apples to oranges. The G has always been a low-volume niche model so reaching that threshold is no small feat.
Mercedes asked G-Class fans on Facebook to configure the milestone car. In the end, it took the form of a European-spec G500 finished in dark blue with contrasting black alloy wheels. It received black leather seats with white stitching and the optional off-road package.
The next G (2018)
Mercedes will introduce the next-generation G-Class at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show. Outside, the model will look just like its predecessor; the brand knows better than to mess with an icon. Eagle-eyed car spotters will notice the new model is wider and a little bit longer than its predecessor.
In-car technology and electronic driving aids gleaned from the S-Class will make it a considerably more modern vehicle. We’re told the bigger dimensions will clear up more space for passengers and cargo, too. Sales will begin shortly after the truck makes its debut at the Detroit auto show in January 2018.
The G gets a smaller sibling (2019)
None of this is official yet, but industry rumors indicate Mercedes will introduce a small SUV named GLB whose design will be heavily inspired by the G. The similarities will be skin-deep only. As Autocar previously reported, the model will share its front-wheel drive platform with other members of Mercedes’ growing compact car line-up, like the A-Class and the GLA. It’s tentatively scheduled to arrive in showrooms by the end of 2019, and this is our idea of how it might look.