75 years ago: Delivery of the first series-produced Unimog

In News14 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineMarch 22, 2024

The first-ever Unimog from series production at Boehringer in Göppingen was handed over to the first customer 75 years ago this month.

Keep reading to learn about the interesting history of the Unimog.

The vehicle left the plant gates at mechanical engineering company Gebrüder Boehringer in Göppingen, in the southwest of Germany. The vehicle was delivered on March 19, 1949 by Unimog general distributor Kloz in Fellbach, just a few months after production began.

This was the start of the 75-year international success story of the Universal Motor Gerät, as it is known in German: the Unimog.

The first series-production Unimog from the 70200 model series with vehicle identification number 003, bearing the stylised Boehringer oxhead logo on the hood, went to a customer in Hößlinswart. The two Unimogs with vehicle identification numbers 001 and 002 were built as test vehicles for internal purposes only and were not sold. For the first time, the vehicle combined the advantages of tractors, implement carriers, and trucks, differing significantly from all conventional tractors available on the market at the time, not only visually, but also in terms of its versatility.

Within a very short time, demand for the versatile Unimog in largely devastated, post-war Germany was so great that Boehringer’s production capacity quickly reached its limits. The victory of the Unimog continued from autumn 1950 under the direction of the then Daimler-Benz AG. Production of the all-wheel drive vehicle began in June 1951 at the Gaggenau plant and in August 2002, it was relocated to the Wörth plant.

Stations of the traditional Unimog brand: Story of a legend and its origin

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, Albert Friedrich, technical director at the noble metal goods factory of Erhard & Söhne in Schwäbisch Gmünd and previously head of aircraft engine design at Daimler-Benz, began developing a compact all-wheel-drive workhorse with four equally sized wheels and an engine output of 25 hp. It was primarily intended for agricultural use, and also for use as a stationary power unit and delivery vehicle for the agricultural industry with a speed of up to 50 km/h. These early considerations had to meet the stringent criteria of the Morgenthau plan in the American occupation zone, the goal of which was to transform Germany into a purely agricultural state.

In the autumn of 1945, Friedrich’s first drawings for such a versatile agricultural all-rounder with a track width of 1270mm were produced, a dimension corresponding to exactly to two rows of potatoes. Other characteristic features included the folding roof, the folding windshield, a drive for agricultural implements at the front, a towing implement at the rear, and an auxiliary platform on the platform behind the driver’s seat. To implement this concept, Friedrich gathered a dedicated team of developers around him, including his former employee Heinrich Rößler, who had previously also worked in passenger car and engine development at Daimler-Benz. It fitted like a glove: Since the end of the war, Rößler had been working as a laborer in agriculture, drawing on the wealth of experiences from this and becoming the head designer of the first prototype.

400 Reichsmark was the standard salary of the engineers who were employed at the time. Leather goods manufacturer Franz Catta provided financial support for the development work. In “Geschichten rund um den Unimog”, published by Michael Wessel, the long-standing chairman of Unimog Club Gaggenau, Hans Zabel from the development team recalled the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Unimog: “However, in order to be able to get started right away, we took immediate action and raised 25,000 Reichsmark from our own funds. We were all separated from home during the week and lived in humble private quarters. For this reason, there were also no set working hours. We worked at least 12 hours a day, sometimes up to 18 hours – and all that without any additional payment.”

As early as late autumn in 1945, approval was granted by the American occupying forces, the rare and sought after “Production Order”, for Friedrich’s “motor-driven universal machine for use in agriculture”. After Heinrich Rößler had extensively revised the new vehicle concept, the production order then had to be renewed six months later before production could start. Friedrich won Erhard & Söhne as a partner for the prototype production, while Daimler-Benz supplied the OM 636 engine. The first prototype was already completed in Schwäbisch Gmünd in 1946, and the first test drive with the U 1 took place on October 9 of the same year. An intensive testing phase began.

Even before the first public presentation, Hans Zabel abbreviated the bulky description “Universal-Motor-Gerät” to the acronym “Unimog”. Under this popular name, the vehicle was presented to the public for the first time on August 29, 1948 at the exhibition of the German Agricultural Society (DLG) in Frankfurt am Main, where it received 150 pre-orders from that occasion.

1949: Industrial production begins at Gebrüder Boehringer in Göppingen

Series production of the Unimog began in 1949 at Gebrüder Boehringer in the “Staufertown” Göppingen on the outskirts of the Swabian Alps, after machine manufacturer Rolf Boehringer from Erhard & Söhne had taken over the production of the universal motorized unit. In the absence of a production line and largely by hand, the approximately 90 employees built up to 50 vehicles a month. A total of 600 Unimog units of the U 70200 model series were manufactured by Boehringer, including 44 units for the Swiss Army. This confirmed the suitability of the Unimog, which had previously been exclusively used for agricultural purposes, for other areas where there was growing interest in this extraordinary vehicle concept. Two of these original Unimogs from Boehringer production are on display at the Unimog Museum in Gaggenau: The prototype U 6, the second oldest Unimog still in existence today, and a Unimog from the first series with model type 70200.

1950: Daimler-Benz AG takes over production of the Unimog

As the requested quantities required high investments, Daimler-Benz AG acquired the Unimog business in autumn 1950 including all patents and production facilities – including the development team and the newly established sales team. On a two-page document, the takeover was contractually documented in five points and a purchase price of 600,000 deutschmarks was agreed. Looking back, this was a bargain and a piece of paper that lawyers would shake their heads at today. The two progenitors of the vehicle concept also switched their allegiances to Daimler-Benz: Albert Friedrich was responsible for the Unimog as technical director until 1958, and Heinrich Rößler, head designer of the Unimog at Boehringer, remained in this position at Mercedes-Benz in Gaggenau until 1976.

In mid-1951, production of the Unimog began at the Gaggenau plant with the 2010 model series – a reference to cost center 2010 at the agricultural department of Erhard & Söhne, where the first prototypes were produced. In 1953, numerous further developments were implemented with the 401 and 402 model series: For the first time, a closed, impact-resistant, all-steel cab complemented the previous “convertible” cab with its folding roof. It made drivers’ work significantly safer at the wheel and provided improved protection, for example when working on construction sites. From May 1953 the Unimog then bore the Mercedes star in addition to the oxhead logo used up to this point, which was not finally removed until September 1955. Since then, the Unimog has continuously evolved and improved, and has always been adapted to the most up-to-date of requirements profiles.

Many features have changed, but the basic design has remained the same

For more than seven decades, the Unimog has proven itself as a versatile workhorse. Since the first vehicle was delivered in 1949, more than 375,000 Unimogs have rolled off the production line to this day. And that’s no surprise, because: The Unimog masters extreme terrain, pulls entire freight trains on rails as a two-way vehicle, and has attachment and body space for operating a wide range of implements.

Its basic concept has remained unchanged: Four wheels of the same size, the frame design of a truck, high off-road capability thanks to portal axles with helical springs, all-wheel drive with front and rear differential locks, compact dimensions with four attachment and body installation spaces and the option of driving attachments and bodies at the front, center, side and rear as well as the operation of a front, center and rear power takeoff shaft. Added to this was the comparatively high speed of 50km/h at the time and up to 89km/h today, which also enables the vehicle to be used on highways to cover longer distances.

Always up to date: Latest Unimog model series

Unimog implement carriers U 219 to U 535 are characterized on the road, in narrow urban and construction-site haulage, and off-road, by extremely compact dimensions, many interfaces, state-of-the-art operating systems, year-round use, economical operation, high levels of ergonomics and safety, as well as compatibility with numerous qualified implement manufacturers and bodybuilders. With its fuel-saving manual transmission, hydrostat drive, and hydro spring for lowering and stabilizing the frame, the implement carrier’s focus lies in the municipal sector and wherever reliable implement operation and, above all, the combination of several implements installed on one vehicle is required.

As part of the “WaVe” project, the first Unimog implement carrier prototype with a hydrogen combustion engine (WaVe) has been in intensive testing since 2023. Developers have already refueled the vehicle at public refueling stations, successfully completed climbing and accelerated journeys, and tested its performance in mowing operations. They have also discussed whether and to which extent the hydrogen combustion engine can serve as a useful supplement to battery-electric and fuel cell-based drive variants.

If extreme off-road capability is a top priority for customers, the highly off-road-capable Unimog model series with its all-steel cab will enter into the equation. Whether it’s for construction, the fire department, disaster relief, or on an expedition: Thanks to its all-wheel drive and extreme torsional flexibility, the highly off-road-capable Unimog model series U 4023 and U 5023 bring crew, equipment, material and heavy implements safely and quickly to even the most remote locations in rough terrain.

With these two model series, the Unimog covers a wide range of applications. This is a basic prerequisite for watering planted areas in the coming decades, shunting locomotives on tracks, fighting forest fires, and saving lives in floods.