What turns a car into an icon, actually? Dieter Zetsche | 15th Januar 2018

No one ever forgets about their very first car, right? My first car was a Volkswagen Beetle. I loved it. It was my personal declaration of independence. We immediately made strong bonds and spent quite some time together. I even replaced the engine once and did all I could do at the time to make our relationship last.

I think most of us have similar strong feelings for their first car. Yet there are cars that manage to recreate exactly that kind of strong emotion - even as their drivers grow older. The Beetle definitely is one of these cars almost everybody connects with in an instant. And beyond the Beetle, there aren’t all too many “automotive icons” out there. Personally, I’d only add a few: the Porsche 911, the Mustang, the Wrangler. Looking at my own backyard, there’s the Mercedes 300 SL of course – and there’s the G-Class: a car that’s been around for almost 40 years now and just received its latest massive update last night in Detroit.

So, why is that? What actually makes a car stand the test of time – while most others fade away? What’s the difference between a car safely taking you from A to B – and an automotive icon lots of people connect with? What do they all have in common? Three characteristics come to mind.

Three iconic traits

First of all, they stand for something – with no excuses or compromises – be it design, simplicity, performance or utility. Every kid recognizes a Beetle-shaped car, still today. Looking at the G-Class it’s all about its unparalleled off-road capability. A G-Wagon masters all things off-road. Everybody knows that.

Second, automotive icons have a timeless appeal. They are stronger than any fashion. They defined a look – and stick to it. The boxy G-Wagon is like a Coke bottle or an Eames chair: instantly recognized.

When the G-Class team in Graz in Austria where the G is manufactured, wanted to test drive the new G in public, they actually considered going without the usual test car camouflage. They figured only experts would recognize this as the secret new “G.” It could literally hide in plain sight. Because there are simply some things you cannot camouflage …

And third, they’ve built a legend as cars. They tell a story. The G-Wagon has countless stories to tell. In fact, my personal story at Mercedes was also fueled by the G-Wagon: It was the very first vehicle project I was responsible for at Mercedes R&D in the early ‘80s. This picture …

… hanging in a hallway in Graz proves: Between the G and myself, only one still looks like we did back then. Yet we both sport a very enduring style.

One of the most inspiring customer stories is about a G named “Otto” and his driver Gunter Holtdorf. Together, they embarked on a truly epic road trip over 26 years, through 215 countries and spanning nearly 900,000 kilometers – at least one third of which off-road.

And consider this: The rule of thumb is that one kilometer off-road puts roughly as much strain on a car as eight kilometers on-road. By that measure, Otto logged at least something around 2.5 million kilometers! Given stories like this, it’s even more impressive that about 80 percent of all G-Wagons ever built are still on – and off – the road!

That’s a percentage you’d expect for collectible coupes or convertibles. But those cars often spend most of their time as garage queens – not climbing rocks or blazing through deserts.

Preserving means improving

So I guess these three indicators help to turn a car into an icon. However, you cannot keep a this icon thriving over decades just by telling stories of past glory and keeping it away from rust. We’ve learned over time that preserving heritage also means constantly improving it. You need to invest both bucks and brains to add new chapters – while staying true to the overall script.

That’s exactly what tried to achieve with the new G-Class, again. For example: We could integrate the door hinges. But we didn’t. We could streamline the turn indicators. But we won’t. We could remove the grab bar. But if you’ve ever driven the hardcore Schöckl off-road track, you know: we shouldn’t.

Because above all there is one thing that matters most: unparalleled off-road capability. That’s the core of the G-Wagon’s DNA. Because off-road is the G’s natural habitat. For that reason, we didn’t even think about replacing the G-Wagon’s holy off-road trinity: The ladder type frame. The 100% differential locks. And the low-range gear.

The G-Class kept evolving over four decades now. Latest proof point: There are only three G-Class parts we carried over from the current to the new model without any improvement.

And we took improvement really serious: We fundamentally refurbished the interior.

We created an entirely new on-road experience. And we took the G’s legendary off-road competence even further.

Altogether, it’s instantly recognizable – yet better in every dimension. That’s what keeps an automotive icon alive. Or as Gunnar Güthenke, our head of our G-Class branch, puts it:

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