By on May 18, 2016

Unimog U900 back U1500 front, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

The UNIversal-MOtor-Gerät, better known as the Unimog, is a portal-axle-equipped toy for the super-wealthy — or that’s what most people think, thanks to it often pictured as a luxury camper van in the depths of the wild. But all over the world, Unimogs spend their lives doing the kind of work they were designed to do in construction, railroad, utilities, fire departments, agriculture, and non-combat military. Overland expeditions, ironically, were the one function for which they were not originally conceived.

The truth is that anyone can buy a used Unimog for a reasonable amount of money. In fact, my friend and 24 Hours of Lemons teammate Mike owns two. That’s right; my teammate owns not one, but two Unimogs! That blew my mind, because, seriously, how often do you even see a Unimog anywhere, never mind know a man who owns two?

Unimog U1500 rear, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

The Unimog design can be thought of more as a tractor than a pickup truck. Over the years, Unimogs were available in many wheelbases and several cab and bed configurations. There are equipment attachment points in the front and in the back, hydraulic connections for control of those attachments, and power takeoff points, commonly known as PTOs. Depending on the use and application, many different attachments can be added, such as lifts, plows, snow blowers, cranes, brush mowers, and augers. When equipped with rail axles, the Unimog can improvise as a locomotive due to its low gearing and drawbar towing capacity.

All Unimogs have portal axles, which raise the axle center above the wheel center, resulting in a very high ground clearance and specific look. Unlike most 4WD vehicles, the transfer case is part of the main transmission, not a separate component. The power is permanently sent to all four wheels and both axles are equipped with air-powered axle differential locks. Short overhangs maximize approach and departure angles. Sealed powertrains and drivelines, snorkels, and exhaust stacks allow Unimogs to ford very deep waters.

The suspension system is also unlike any other vehicle. Until the UGN-series, which was released around 2000, all Unimogs utilized torque tubes. Torque tubes enclose the front and rear driveshafts and serve as part of the suspension. These torque tubes locate the axle fore and aft, and a panhard bar locates the axles from side to side. Coil springs are fitted to all four corners and no other links are used to position the axles. This system allows for maximum axle articulation, reduces unwanted axle movement, and protects the driveshafts.

Unimog U900 front, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

Mike’s two Unimogs were both produced in 1976. The yellow one is a J.I. Case MB4/94, or a rebadged Mercedes Unimog 406, known by its sales designation as U900. It has a naturally aspirated six-cylinder 5.7-liter OM352 engine, and was originally purchased from J.I. Case by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD!) with a front-end loader and a backhoe. It’s unknown if the backhoe had issues, but the mount for it at some point was partly torched off and a Mercedes-style three-point hitch was installed. The entire back deck that sits on the frame is a J.I. Case unit, and the backhoe and other attachments, including their own three-point hitches, sat on hooks that interfaced with the Mercedes-style three-point hitch.

The red Unimog is a Mercedes U1500 with a turbocharged six-cylinder 5.7-liter OM352 diesel engine. After falling in love with the U900, Mike just had to have the burlier-looking U1500 when he found it. After gaining his wife’s blessing, Mike made two cross-country trips and arranged shipping to bring the U1500 home. He bought it from an importer, who brought it to the U.S. from the Middle East. It’s equipped with a flatbed that tilts in all three directions, and a commercial domestic snow plow.

For the U900, Mike has a front loader, 5-foot rototiller, 7-foot flail mower, and front backfill blade. Everything except the loader would work behind the U1500 without too much effort. The only differences are adapters for the PTO shaft size and three-point hitch.

Unimog U1500 exterior details, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

The U900 has a 20-speed transmission, with a 6-speed main shifter. The U1500 has a 24-speed transmission, with an 8-speed main. Both vehicles have separate forward/reverse levers, which allow the same speeds going in reverse, a feature that’s handy on a railroad. Both also have selectable intermediate, crawler, and super-crawler gears. When in crawler and super-crawler, the top two gears are locked out.

The U900 is running Continental 14.5R20 E6s tires. The U1500 is running on oversized Michelin 16R20 XZLs, which may have come from a HEMTT. Each XZL tire is rated for 14,500 pounds, and the U1500 empty weighs about 13,000 pounds, so they are a slight overkill. Each of the XZL tires weighs about 380 pounds and each wheel weighs about 40 pounds, so each mounted wheel and tire is over 400 pounds.

Unimog U1500 cab details, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

Mike is an off-road enthusiast, but he does most of wheeling in his TJ Wrangler. His Unimogs still see a lot of use as he plows the long dead-end street he lives on and uses them for chores around his large property. His ‘Mogs are far from pretty, unlike the restored ones seen for sale at boutique dealers, but fully mechanically functional, which is what’s important to Mike. Despite having an impressive four-car garage, the Unimogs have to live outside due to clearance issues.

The red U1500 is rather imposing, mostly due to its height. The cab is about five feet off the ground and the bottom of the seat cushion is a good six feet up. Being tall has its benefits here, as the climb into the cab will make you feel as if you are a toddler climbing into a top bunk bed. The U900 is completely different, however, as it is much lower and front fenders take up a lot of leg room. Where the engine is in front of the cab on the U1500, the engine in the U900 protrudes into the cab due to its smaller size, resulting in decent size dog house inside. By comparison, the U900 cab feels very cramped.

Unimog U1500 exterior details gauges badge, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

All old vehicles have issues and these complex Unimogs certainly do too.

The U900 had a leaking transmission seal on the front axle output. Gear lube would flow past the seal, down the torque tube, into the differential, and finally slug out at the double-cardan joint at the knuckle, behind the portal box. To replace this seal, the entire front axle has to be disconnected and pulled, as the drive-shaft is inside the torque tube. Mike says that this was an “interesting job” that required special tools and lots of patience to master the German art of stuffing ten pounds of mechanical crap into a five pound space. The U900 also had miscellaneous electrical issues caused mostly by corrosion and the old style GBC fuses (the ceramic ones with a piece of metal running down the outside). He also had to replace several hydraulic lines. In order to keep costs reasonable and cut shipping time, the housings were custom-made by a local shop.

Rust is the biggest issue on the U1500. There was one incorrectly assembled locker motor, an air piston on the outside that engages the internal bits, on the front axle. Mike also had to rebuild the three-point hitch lift cylinders. Brakes had to be overhauled and required the rebuild of all four front calipers (two calipers per rotor, 4 pistons per caliper), a rebuild of the master cylinder, and replace the air cylinder at the master cylinder. Soon, Mike will be replacing the clutch, which sounds like a fun way to kill those long boring summer months.

Unimog U1500 front Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

Part availability is not as big of a problem as it may seem. Common parts are usually available from one of the three primary parts dealers in the U.S., as they have bought up surpluses of NOS part lots as they’ve become available over the years. When those dealers don’t have a part, they can usually get it directly from Mercedes-Benz in Germany. If the part is not available there, someone has generally figured out a work-around or retrofit for a later style. For example, the U1500 used to have a cable running from the brake pedal to an air valve on the frame rail. The frame rail valve was no longer available and the cable only complicated matters. A company in the UK developed a kit that replaced the brake pedal assembly, cable, and brake valve with a new pedal assembly and firewall-mounted valve.

Being essentially a tractor, Unimogs were not designed for speed. The U900 with loader and counterweight will top out at 45 mph, be it going down or uphill. Keeping that speed requires a lot of shifting, however, due to the engine’s narrow powerband. The U1500 can do steady 50-55 mph and may top around 60 mph. The more flexible turbo engine results in less dramatic hill climbs.

Unimog U900 front loader bucket wheel chain details, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

Unimogs are some of the most capable vehicles in the world. They were designed for a variety of specific tasks, when properly equipped and in the hands of properly trained people. While some rich or famous folks (Arnold had one) attempt to drive them daily when they’ve outgrown their Geländewagens, or vacation in them, they are best used as intended. Like any other specialty machine, they also require more service than a typical Camry. For most people, owning one makes as much sense as owning an Ariel Atom, but we should all appreciate these awesome machines.

Kamil Kaluski is the east coast editor for Hooniverse.com. His ramblings on eastern European cars, $500 racers, and other miscellaneous car stuff can be found there. 

Unimog U900 U1500 front Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

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37 Comments on “Two Unimogs Still Ready to Work After 40 Years of Service...”


  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I love how the main shift knob is the exact same knob as was in my 1977 240D, except with a few more gears embossed into the shift pattern.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I’ve seen one! It was olive green, and driving on the road. It had an enclosed rear “wagon” type bed IIRC. One of those times where you go “Huh?” and tilt your head like dogs do when they’re confused.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Nice piece, but isn’t owning a diesel vehicle a war crime now?

  • avatar
    06V66speed

    “I’m a Mog. Half man, half dog.” (Off topic, but I had to. Think a goofy 1980’s movie.)

    How can someone *not* love a Unimog?

    I remember seeing a very, very loaded up version not too terribly long ago. Even with a posh cabin (and a sticker price which would make you sh*t a brick), it still had that lovely agricultural quality about it.

  • avatar

    Yes, more tractor than a truck. The F-R shifter is also useful when plowing snow, much easier to shift the F-R than going from lets say 3rd to reverse on the main transmission.

    Unimogs are expensive new, and the various attachments, are also expensive. One reason that primarily municipalities that wanted a versatile vehicle with several attachments (apps) were the primary purchasers.

    Or wealthy indivuduals with acreage that want a toy.

  • avatar
    Goatshadow

    What’s more reasonably priced, a used Unimog or a used Toyota FJ40?

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    “That blew my mind, because, seriously, how often do you even see a Unimog anywhere, never mind know a man who owns two?”

    1) I know people who do Unimog (and Pinzgauer, etc.) collector meets, so more often than most people, at least counting the internet.

    2) Oddly, one of the BHPH lots I drive past to get lunch has one, or did recently, for a while (I haven’t noted it recently, but it’s a busy street so I often don’t).

    It was/is parked front and center as an attractor, which I guess it’d do pretty well, being bright blue and gigantic.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I have always wanted to own a Unimog. I see them around occasionally. I saw one being towed behind a 500k motorhome a few weeks ago. There are a few around that are camperized.
    I don’t think that you can get new one’s in Canada any more. There are importers of used ones though.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      “…saw one being towed behind a 500k motorhome…”

      How do you know it wasn’t *pushing* it??

      Either way you gotta blame the Chicken tax for it not severely hammering on Detroit’s Golden Eggs!

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        DenverMike – It was on a trailer.

        IIRC the GVW of these vehicles is above the chicken tax. The Chicken Tax applies to “light” trucks.

        They are expensive new and don’t have much of a dealer network in North America.

        These trucks do not target full sized pickups in any shape or form. You can get smaller ones that are close to a 1 ton truck’s cargo ratings but as far as I can tell, they don’t make anything smaller.

        But hey, BARFO might show up and go full ape sh!t with the mention of import poultry ;)

  • avatar

    A few years ago we did some ziplining near Ketchikan. A Unimog took us up to the top on a trail so impossible that I would not have believed a vehicle could negotiate it without having been along for the ride myself.

  • avatar
    Ashy Larry

    Someone who lives along my commute has two green Unimogs. One February this person even parked them both out front with a big Valentine’s heart sign saying “for sale, his and hers UNIMOGS”. LInked here on TCL: http://forums.vwvortex.com/showthread.php?5671363-Nothing-says-I-love-you-like-his-and-her-Unimogs&highlight=unimog

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    We have hundreds of Mogs at work.

    They appear to not have the unreliable tag attached to them.

    I wonder what went wrong? Or is it just some bullsh!t by commenters who don’t know what they are stating.

    If there are so few in the US, is there enough to gauge their reliability? Let alone anyone making that statement.

    • 0 avatar

      Damn I really need to go Oz. Maybe next summer.

      Anyway, who said they’re not reliable?

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        I don’t recall a single person using the word unreliable. Rare and costly yes. Unreliable no.

        BAFO just going off 1/2 cocked/azzed once again.

        Just don’t mention aluminum or Ford or ecoboost or chicken tax and he’ll move on.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        Sorry, Kamil,
        I thought I did read a comment regarding their reliability, must be the comments about the Ford transmissions and the input regarding FCA products;)

        If you do come Down Under, call on me, I’ll even try to arrange a weekend off road stint, along with camping, drinking lots of p!ss and having a good time.

        We also have sort of a “Mini Me” Mog. The Iveco Daily 4×4. Fantastic off roader, it will leave any stock HD behind in demanding off road conditions. From what I can gather straight out of the showroom they can manage extreme off road situations, not bad. They are quite affordable, pity the Chicken Tax don’t allow these into the US.

        I’ve seen a few around, but not many. I see many more full size US pickups only on the highway though. Gives you and idea and says something about off roading.

        At work we also have hundreds of 6×6 G Wagen trucks, 4×4 G Wagen Trucks. From what I’ve heard some operators don’t like them as much as the Land Rovers they replaced. But, a lot also like them.

        Iveco Daily; 4×4 Australia article,

        http://www.4x4australia.com.au/drive/1602/custom-4×4-eva-iveco-daily/

  • avatar
    CarnotCycle

    I don’t understand why Mogs are not in higher demand among the 4WD-as-Viagra set. They are tall by function instead of contrived form. They can tow small trains and stuff. All manner of macho appendages can be bolted to and powered by Mogs. They are semi-tractor sized rock-crawlers. Imagine the black puff-puff clouds one could get rolling coal in a Mog with all those short gears.

    Again, amazed nobody stateside even really knows what Mogs are.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      @CarnotCycle – Unimogs have relatively small engines. They make up for it with gearing. The “4WD-as-Viagra” set would never be able to brag about having 1,200 hp with an emissions delete and tuner kit. It would also be pretty hard to spin the tires and since Unimogs have multiple gears the typical “4WD-as-Viagra” set would NEVER know how to leave the driveway.

      • 0 avatar
        CarnotCycle

        @Lou_BC

        You are probably right on all counts, especially the gears part.

        But at the Skeeter’n’Cletus Cruise or wherever the lift-kids go, if one showed up with a Mog one would have some instant cachet I’d think. All the more so when one of the prettier Wrangler-wrapped girls asks WTF is a Unimog – with genuine interest.

  • avatar
    CV Neuves

    No doubt, Unimogs are great. They are getting there. For real automobilistic world domination I nevertheless would go for the Tatra:

    https://www.google.com.au/search?q=Tatra+Truck&ie=utf&tbm=vid

  • avatar
    Toad

    Civilians can buy military surplus units at Gov Planet auctions, usually for under $10k. They are listed under Freightliner FLU10344 or FLU419 and are available with relatively low hours and miles.

    Samples here: http://www.govplanet.com/jsp/s/auction.ips?msg=17134&sm=0&m=Freightliner&sort=p%20desc

    However, they really do drive like a tractor that has a truck cab. I was tempted to buy one but it really was no fun at all to drive. Now I’m thinking about a Stewart and Stevenson LMTV M1079; just a hyper capable military grade pickup.

    You have to admit this looks like fun: http://www.govplanet.com/for-sale/Trucks-LMTV-1994-Stewart-%26-Stevenson-M1078-LMTV-4×4-Cargo-Truck-North-Carolina/725989?h=5002%2Cm|Stewart+%2C+Stevenson%2Cmsg|17134%2Csm|0%2Csort|p+desc%2CisAuc|yes&rr=0.33333&hitprm=msg%3D17134,sm%3D0&pnLink=yes

  • avatar

    @Toad, what do these LMTVs sell for?

  • avatar
    Scout_Number_4

    *How can someone *not* love a Unimog?*

    Completely agree with this. There’s one for sale here in Portland at BHPH lot on 82nd Ave for at least 2-3 months. I keep thinking I should go ask for a test drive before it finally sells.

    http://www.atlasmotors.com/en_us/unitdetail.asp?used-1969-mercedes-unimog-portland-or-=573460

  • avatar
    Ermel

    Unimogs are tools. They are huge outside, cramped inside, noisy, hot in summer, cold in winter, and have a very harsh suspension. They are really rather slow in both accelleration and top speed, and guzzle Diesel like it was beer.

    As a return, they get you wherever you need to go, period. And actually going there, or otherwise using them to anywhere near their capabilities, is great fun. Driving them on the road (and anything where an SUV can make it counts as “road” in this sense), not so much.

    In other words, they might be the upgrade path for the guys that go offroading in their Wranglers and Defenders, but not for the type who brag about their Rams and F-150.


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