A Texan Goes to Gaggenau
Report and pictures by Lee Fikes, Copyright ©1995
It's easy to get to Gaggenau. Take the Picadilly tube at about noon to Heathrow, then catch Lufthansa's flight 4021 to Frankfurt. Walk down an escalator to the train station and catch the IC 905 train that takes you to Heidelburg, where you have nine minutes to catch the IR 2573 to Rastatt and then another nine minute wait for the RE 8367 to Gaggenau. All in all, an easy eight hour journey. If you start from London.
On the first Tuesday in October I started from London, and this eight hour adventure began my long-awaited trip to see where it's all done, where Mercedes Benz Unimog trucks are designed, manufactured, and demonstrated to enthusiasts and potential customers like me.
Before leaving the U.S., I had planned and arranged a tour of Mercedes Benz's Unimog facility in Gaggenau, Germany. MB is a huge, scattered corporate conglomerate that makes all sorts of familiar and unfamiliar transportation related items, including the well known passenger cars and commercial trucks. But they also manufacture the Unimog, a family of unique off road vehicles that isn't often seen in the U.S. but that has a dedicated following throughout the rest of the world (even being bought by the good old boys we've come to love in Beijing -- nothing else could be depended on in the Gobi Desert). Wherever the terrain is unimaginably bad, and whenever the cost of not arriving at a destination would be counted in human lives or millions of dollars or crucial tasks not completed, Unimogs are there. They pay their way in mineral exploration, forestry, fire service, road maintenance in extreme conditions, trans-Sahara rallies, scientific research in out of the way locations, and, of course, the military service.
I knew a lot about Unimogs, but I had no concept of what Gaggenau would be like. It's delightful. It's a small town in the southwest of Germany, in the Murg River Valley, situated just a few kilometers east of Strasbourg, France, and just west of Stuttgart, in the foothills of the Black Forest. It's an industrial town from way back. In 1895, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last of the German emperors, its citizens began making automobiles. That's just 24 years after the country we now know as Germany came into being. Like most such towns, it was largely destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII, but fortunately the Germans rebuilt the town with many of the same styles and structures that had characterized the region for centuries. So I awoke Wednesday from a quiet, comfortable night at the Parkhotel Gaggenau (Room 402) to look out across the Murg River. It was a 60 degree, sunny day, and I saw gently rolling hills with small tufts of fog rising from their valleys, and houses, churches, and classically proportioned, small commercial buildings very much like I would have imagined if I could have forgotten the devastation of the war. But I also saw the postwar era in modern manufacturing buildings and lots of new Mercedes Benz cars, just as I heard it in the hotel's dining room in Stand by Your Man, Rhinestone Cowboy, Gentle on My Mind, and other ironically out-of-place reminders of a different world and time. Probably the only Texan in...uh...kilometers of this music, I had given up my cowboy boots years ago.
Just as scheduled, at nine a.m., my guide Hans Feil arrived at the hotel to fetch me in a company car, a Mercedes S320 (supposedly a turbo diesel, but from its 110+ mph. cruising speed and quiet cabin it just couldn't be a diesel). After a few words I became aware that I wasn't talking to a German adroit with his English, but to a Canadian of German parentage who had worked for Benz in Gaggenau for about a year. I couldn't have wanted a better guide, and one who was a native English speaker, too.
A five minute drive and there we were -- Produktbereich Unimog. What then should have been a quick walk to one of the company's meeting rooms took much longer. There were dozens of new Unimogs in the parking lot, and I could no more just stroll by them than a recently-landed sailor could just stroll by a topless bar. So there were many questions, good answers, and lots of pictures taken on the way to the first presentation, a video showing the whys, hows, and wows of the extensive Unimog line. Hans enumerated the company's historical essences: all wheels the same size, and just four of them, in contrast to farm tractors with small front wheels and six or eight wheeled highway vehicles; lots of gears to allow creeping through the crops in the morning and driving them to market in the afternoon; portal axles for greater ground clearance to avoid flattening those crops; frames with longitudinal torsional flexibility; plenty of PTO points; and other features that we've come to identify with Unimogs. The agricultural history of Unimogs shows here, although nowadays that's just a small part of the company's market.
And that market -- all of it -- isn't big. These days General Motors or Toyota must lose more vehicles than Unimog makes in a year. Hans said that their best year was in the late 80s when they hand-cranked out around 9,000 units. 1994 saw only about 3,000 units leave the assembly lines, which probably explains the company's attempt to open up new markets with their "Funmog." But more about that later.
Then the real, hands-on, sweaty-palms-rubbing-together tour began. We walked through more parking lots and buildings and examined more trucks. Blue, turquoise, orange, yellow, green, olive drab, and white trucks, their paint jobs (dipped, not sprayed) dispelling the notion that function obviates form. Especially noticeable were several matching, olive drab short wheelbase tractors that soon would be dragging around latter day Luftwaffe airplanes; huge doppelkabine (crew cab) trucks whose door windows began at about the top of my head (six-feet-two) and headed up to constitute a hazard to low flying aircraft; smaller Unimogs with the drivers' sides of their hoods whacked off asymmetrically, the better to see what you're about to roll roughshod over; tall cab models with auxiliary lights mounted in the cab roof and enough headroom for a tall Texan with boots and hat; powerful midship mounted Werner winches, riding sidesaddle between cab and bed, with cables running under the trucks to the rear bumpers; more winches with automatic spooling mechanisms to wrap their cables in neat, Germanic rows; dump trucks with beds that empty their cargo to the rear or to either side; exhaust stacks running up the sides of cabs but not quite connected to the muffler so as to allow the necessary frame-cab independent motion; dual plane pivoting mounts for the beds and other equipment (independent motion, again); and radiator grills that come plumb off with a twist of the distinctive Unimog hood wrench so as to allow easy access to the Benz innards.
"Don't take pictures of the workers," I was advised by Hans. Seems that some kind of agreement between labor and management, or perhaps the fine print in a union contract, assures that the workers can make it through the day without being molested by unofficial photographers like me. But I was in luck -- by the time we started the factory tour, the workers were on lunch break and I could photograph the machinery without limitation. That I did. First we saw large rolls of sheet steel heading for the huge body panel forming presses. Then the formed bodies were welded into units and painted (although not at this plant due to environmental concerns). At this point I began to understand why Unimogs are so expensive -- almost every one is built to the detailed specifications of its intended owner. Each unit passes through the assembly process with a long, computer generated list of accessories affixed to it. A few workers gather the needed parts on a large cart and follow the burgeoning cab along, affixing the items that make it special. Then that assembly is attached to the engine-drivetrain-frame unit that has been likewise fitted out. Hardly the way to keep costs down, but each customer gets just what he wants.
Of course, there were the expected lathes, mills, and the like that crank out lots of machined parts. But engines and a few other assemblies aren't made in Gaggenau. They come from other MB factories, just as the 200,000 transmissions built each year at the Gaggenau plant go to other locations for use in different MB trucks. So there were rows full of engines, neatly assembled elsewhere, awaiting their trucks. And thousands of tires in inventory. Unimog tires are a story unto themselves, a tire for every purpose, but I won't get started on that.
About the time the workers were coming back to work, we went to lunch, in the executive dining room no less (my apologies to several executives for having to sit near a sweaty, animated, camera toting tourist). Here Hans betrayed a significant understanding of economics and world affairs. I made him admit to his background: a BA in international relations from the University of Toronto, then a postgraduate certificate in international marketing (Asia/Pacific specialization). And he was about to leave the Benz family for more education, a master's degree in international relations at the University of Basil, just across the border in Switzerland. But how did this international affairs student come to speak such adroit Unimogese? It turns out that his father had been Toronto's Unimog importer for a couple of decades. So from childhood dinner table talk of torsional flexibility, equal size wheels, portal axles, and the miracles of endless numbers of gears, his grasp of the engineering principles of Unimogs was excellent.
After much fascinating and exuberant conversation and a couple of cups of fine German coffee, we were off to see how theory meshes with reality. Unimog has two demonstration/proving grounds, and we went to the one at Kiesgrube, just a little southwest of Gaggenau. Awaiting us were two demonstration drivers attired in bright blue coveralls, warming up a pumpkin orange with gray, cab-high canvas rear cover, turbo diesel U1450 (running on Green-approved rapeseed fuel -- no Eau de Greyhound here). I was told that under the cover were the necessary pounds (and maybe a couple of kilograms) to bring the truck to its maximum GVW of about 17,000 lbs. The demonstration course consisted of several obstacles (well, they would have been obstacles to most other off road trucks) designed to demonstrate the Unimog's strong points. There were concrete paved slopes almost two stories tall with grades ranging from 71% to 91%, a shorter slope of 100%, and a small, six foot slope of 110% that didn't seem so small when I drove off of it an hour later. There was even a 60% stairway to drive up and down. There was a series of rounded humps about two feet tall, set aside of each other and staggered so that a front corner tire and a rear opposite corner tire would be on top of two different humps at the same time, demonstrating both the frame's and the suspension's ability to flex. There were simple mounds, shorter than the truck's wheelbase, demonstrating midship ground clearance. There was a random assortment of scattered, broken concrete chunks about two feet high, looking like prime Bosnian real estate without the body parts, serving as a stand-in for real-world horrible ground. There was a concrete trench about 25 yards long and four yards wide, filled with water. I think the water was only about two feet deep, but it was hard to tell because of the bow waves coming over the truck's hood when we sped down the trench. There were several other obstacles that were basically variants of these, including a good ol' down home mud hole about 25 yards across. And then there was a serious laundromat-time obstacle, a concrete ramp about three feet tall, to be driven up and over -- with just one side of the truck. That translates to a 84% side slope. Need a quick lesson in holding on to the rear view mirror with your teeth? Impressive.
First the two drivers demonstrated the U1450 on these challenges. Then one got out and let me ride shotgun. Then the remaining driver talked me into trying the course. It took him the better part of a millisecond. I was allowed to do everything the factory's drivers did except the severest slopes -- I was limited to the 70% grade. That was fine, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing all the tricks that I'd seen the others do. My previous experience with other off road trucks and Unimogs served me well and I felt right at home. Gimme those blue coveralls. But I'd never driven a truck that was so effortless -- the two/four/four lock selector was a finger switch on the dash and the parking brake was engaged by a three inch floor mounted finger lever, both air actuated. The eight speed transmission had no low range area like the six speed Unimog transmissions I was used to, so each gear was instantly and easily selectable and obvious with a quick glance at the dash mounted gear indicator light and the gearshift knob. There was a separate two speed transfer case, giving 16 forward or reverse gears. And -- get this -- this particular truck had a torque converter, sort of invisible to the driver except that it smoothes out the ride and stretches the usable speed range of each gear because of its torque amplification (about 200%).
Having seen the 1450's bag of tricks, we headed back to the factory for the obligatory "Have we got a deal for you!" talk. And what a deal it was, in the form of a black U1400 short wheelbase "Funmog," just driven by a little old lady from Munich trying to sell the Funmog concept. This Funmog (there is also a smaller one, a U90) has a 136 Hp., 5.9 l. diesel, a 2,650 mm wheelbase, and a few non-standard accessories such as Recaro seats, custom cloth noise insulating panels, chrome driving lights, and a triple pipe chrome plated "roll" loop behind the cab. A very nice unit with only about 35,000 km. on its odometer, and the price was...uh...right, I guess. But, hey, how many Unimogs does a guy need to own? (Answer -- only one more, and what the hell does need have to do with it, anyway?)
Finally, we went for a brief tour of a small building in which were housed two c.1950 Unimogs, cute little things, one in a dark gray and one in a soft, misty green with snappy, bright red wheels. Both had seen a large share of potato plowing and cabbage harvesting in decades past when Germans were catching up on their calories after WWII. Perhaps a fitting way to end the day's tour, these beautiful oldsters reminding me of a simpler world when I was just a kid and barely could have dreamed that someday I'd see and drive trucks that could do so many unimaginable things in the dirt.
I was prepared to take the trains back to Frankfurt, but Hans was exceedingly kind to drive this tired adventurer back in the S320. That also gave us the opportunity to rest and talk more about all kinds of things. The conversation I thoroughly enjoyed, the rest I thoroughly needed.
It's good to see things like this, places where value isn't reckoned only in gross units sold or return on investment. It's good to feel the presence of a proud history of being the best in the world of your kind. It's good to meet bright, young people who easily step from world to world and have the courage to take those steps with confidence in their future. It's good to see a people who value their civic history and preserve it and share it with the world through their architecture and aesthetics. And it's good to see a large corporation graciously take time to relate to a single customer who may buy one truck sometime. Although my sojourn here was a brief part of a more extensive trip to Europe, my memory of the trip will always be brighter and happier because of the kindness shown me in Gaggenau. Many thanks to all concerned.
Report and pictures by Lee Fikes. Copyright ©1995. All Rights Reserved.