The Mercedes-Benz Unimog – the Success of an Idea
May 23, 2011
1945 to 1951: The Unimog, a child with many parents
  • 1945: First plans and sketches for the Unimog
  • 1948: First public presentation, production start
  • 1950: Daimler-Benz takes over the Unimog business

The incredible story of the beginnings of the legendary Unimog goes back to a time which was just as exciting and heralding change as this unusual vehicle. Its inventor was Albert Friedrich, former head of Aero Engine Construction at Daimler-Benz AG at that time. During the second World War he had already toyed with idea of constructing a compact work machine. Immediately after the war was over in 1945, Friedrich started to develop the Unimog. Originally it was planned as an agricultural vehicle which was to be quite different from classical tractors. As one of his partners to help develop this new vehicle, he found one of his former co-workers Heinrich Rößler who had also worked at Daimler-Benz in the passenger car and engine development sector. This was the perfect decision as since the end of the war Rößler had been getting by as an agricultural labourer and was therefore able to make a great number of suggestions arising from his farming experience.
Originally a machine for agricultural work
Friedrich’s first drawings show an "engine-driven universal farming machine" - the name Unimog did not exist yet. Four- wheel drive and four same-size wheels characterised the simple vehicle that was designed with its 25 hp as a tractor vehicle for running agricultural machines, stationary machines and as a delivery vehicle for farming operators; in those postwar years nobody even thought of the multitude of applications it could be used for in future. Six gears up to 50 km/h were planned, a drive for implements at the front, towing equipment at the rear, space for loads in the middle. All together a simple but even so unusual and unique concept.
Friedrich got in touch with the American occupying power at that time and managed to obtain one of the rare "Production Orders" as early as October 1945, i.e. a permission to produce an article. As his partner for development and production he chose the company Erhard & Sons in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a gold and silverware factory.
A track as wide as two rows of potatoes
The construction engineers had practical ideas: the track width of 1270 mm (4.2 ft) corresponded to two rows of potatoes. Numerous other features made the vehicle unique, among others its comparatively high speed, portal axles with coil springs, four-wheel drive with differential locks at front and rear, a frame construction comparable to a truck or car, attaching points for implements at the front, in the middle, at the sides and rear as well a power take off drive (PTO) at the front, middle and rear.
First experimental vehicle as early as 1946
At the end of 1946, the first experimental vehicle looked very much like the later series production models with its slanting front, the cab with a convertible-type top and the loading area behind. It was at this time that Hans Zabel also came up with its name: the idea of the "Universal-Motor-Gerät (tool)" was simply turned into Unimog. But a suitable diesel engine was still lacking. From 1947 on this was provided by Daimler-Benz with its OM 636, best known already from the type 170 passenger car. Soon there was virtually nothing to get in the way of production – one simply needed the right partner. Despite its great commitment during the development stages, Erhard and Sons simply had to be ruled out as it lacked what was needed, both technically and financially, for going into mass production. Various car manufacturers turned it down, but then, in 1947, machine tool manufacturer Boehringer Bros. in Göppingen, also an outsider to the industry, decided to get in on the act. They also took the decision because their factory was due to be dismantled because of its previous armaments production and they were desperately looking for a civilian product.
Materials were procured for the mass production – not an easy task in those times. Also the Unimog developers had to look around for suitable tyres as well as the absolutely necessary matching implements which could be attached to their vehicle. None of this could be taken for granted – after all there were already tractors, so why should everything also be customised to suit the Unimog with its completely different concept? But despite everything, some months later in 1948 the Unimog caught the attention of the general public at the first postwar show of the German Agricultural Society (DLG) in Frankfurt.
Series production started in 1948
By August, 1948 things had progressed: Boehringer started the series production of the Unimog. That meant that a new sales and marketing network had to be improvised in no time at all. And it was not only agricultural customers who were interested in the innovative vehicle. Local authorities also showed great interest and wanted suitable implements – and this resulted in a extremely productive and close cooperation with the implement industry which is still as strong today.
Change from Boehringer to Daimler-Benz
By the summer of 1950 Boehringer had produced about 600 Unimog vehicles carrying on their bonnets a stylised ox-head as trade-mark, its horns in the form of a "U". However, for greater numbers considerable investments were necessary and Boehringer was not in a position to fund them. And so – considering the background of the development crew – what happened next was on the cards: in autumn 1950 Daimler-Benz took over the entire Unimog business including the patents, the developers and the newly set-up sales and marketing division. The Unimog moved into the truck plant of that time in Gaggenau, Badenia.
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