How universal can a “motor device” be?

Mercedes-Benz pushing for more sales of versatile Unimog range

For far too long, the Unimog range has been treated by the Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle dealer network in the UK rather like one of those impressive-looking multi-function tools – like a Swiss army knife that ends up getting stashed away in the toolbox and hardly ever used to its full extent.

That would seem to be more or less the conclusion reached by top brass at Mercedes-Benz Trucks UK, shortly after Mike Belk was appointed managing director about two years ago.

The Unimog range’s last big technical update had come in early 2013 with the introduction of a new cab for smaller variants, described as “implement carriers”, and new Euro VI engines both for these and for their U4000 and U5000 bigger brothers, the ones with a bigger, fully-suspended cabs and the most extreme off-road capabilities of all.

In 2016, motivated in part perhaps by a startling 26% plunge in sales of six-tonnes-plus Mercedes trucks in the first three months, Belk and his colleagues at the company’s Milton Keynes head office began stepping up not only sales and marketing of more conventional Mercedes and Fuso trucks, but also of Unimogs. That drive included the appointment of Bernhard Dolinek as head of “special trucks”. The Unimog unquestionably fits that description.

A dealer change announcement made in May 2017 by Dolinek provided one of the first clear indications of exactly how Unimog sales and marketing in the UK was about to shift up a gear or two. Farol, a long-established agricultural machinery supplier based in Milton Common near Thame, Oxfordshire, joined the Unimog franchised dealer network in south-eastern England. The move was said to “represent the first, important step in a new strategy designed to raise the profile and boost sales of the legendary off-roader in Britain.”

Farol was founded in 1976 by agricultural engineer George Vellacott as a supplier and repairer of agricultural equipment, including new Fiat tractors. The Farol group today remains Vellacott family-owned but now has an annual turnover around £70 million and about 160 employees. Amman and Yanmar plant franchises were added in 2015 to the group’s John Deere and Manitou agricultural machinery franchises. A new £3.5 million head office was opened in 2015, and there are now Farol sites in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, West Sussex and Berkshire as well as Oxfordshire. The group also includes a tyre supplier and a transport division specialising in agricultural machinery haulage and truck-mounted cranes.

“We are very proud to be representing the iconic Mercedes-Benz Unimog and look forward to growing the brand alongside our other market-leading franchises,” said managing director Matthew Vellacott. “What potential customers don’t always appreciate is that the Unimog is an extremely cost-effective vehicle, not least because it commands such strong residual values. We will be making the most of these attributes, and our own expertise, by developing attractive package deals that make the product easier to understand and operate than ever before.”

Kevin Newman is the Farol director responsible for Unimog sales. “We were looking to expand our portfolio and the Unimog fits perfectly alongside the brands we already represent,” he says. “We are an aggressive, determined business and I’m in no doubt that this franchise marks the beginning of a very exciting new phase in our development.”

The Unimog defies any conventional commercial vehicle categorisation. It can accurately be described simply as a small, two-axle, all-wheel-drive truck range. But this hardly does the vehicle justice. Perhaps a more informative way is simply to revert to the German words from which the name is derived: Universelle Motorgerät, meaning “universal motor device”.

This device started life way back in the late 1940s in Germany, not as a Mercedes at all and not even as a truck of any kind but as an agricultural tractor (built by Boehringer, now a big pharmaceutical company) capable of higher speeds and promising greater versatility in general than any contemporary tractor. The Mercedes-Benz parent group (then Daimler-Benz, now just plain Daimler) started building Unimogs in 1951 and still does today in a small corner of the giant truck assembly plant, reckoned to be the world’s biggest, at Wörth.

It could be argued that the fundamental Unimog selling points nowadays are pretty much the same as they always have been: exceptional operational versatility, including the ability to venture further off road than would be sensible in any conventional small truck, combined with on-road performance that no conventional agricultural tractor can match.

So what exactly motivated Mercedes-Benz Trucks UK to assemble scores of Unimogs at the huge Millbrook proving ground in Bedfordshire and to invite hundreds of operators and potential buyers there to learn more at first hand about the vehicle’s capabilities? One reason is that agricultural tractor manufacturers, not least JCB with its aptly-named Fastrac, have been fighting back against their Mercedes rival. More significant still, a reorganised and revitalised Mercedes-Benz trucks sales and marketing operation in the UK has recognised that the size of the potential market here for Unimogs is probably greater than had been thought, and indeed that there is more in common between many truck operations and Unimog economics than might be immediately obvious.

Mercedes-Benz Unimog and JCB Fastrac head to head
Mercedes-Benz Unimog and JCB Fastrac head to head

In the first six months of 2017, the number of new Mercedes trucks of all kinds at 6.0 tonnes gvw and above registered in the UK was 3,484, according to figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). That is a whopping 37% on the total for the first six months of 2016 and restores Mercedes to the number two slot in the UK truck market sales league table, behind only DAF and ahead of Scania.

How many new Unimogs, spanning the 10.0 to 16.5 tonnes gvw weight range, have been registered here so far this year? That is revealed neither by the SMMT figures nor by Bernhard Dolinek. But Dolinek makes no secret of his ambition to see Unimog annual sales in the UK approaching the 200 mark within a year or so. Most of the fresh orders are expected to come from the agricultural sector, he accepts, mainly from farmers currently employing fast tractors. But what could be described as more mainstream truck operational roles for the Unimog are not hard to find. Several good examples were on show at Millbrook.

Northern Powergrid, an electrical distribution company based in Newcastle upon Tyne, needed a vehicle to carry its “hot glove” teams to remote areas to maintain and repair overhead power lines without having to disconnect the power. Exceptional off-road capability was high on the must-have list. So too were good environmental credentials. The vehicle that ticked all the boxes and is now in service with Northern Powergrid is a U530 Unimog with a gvw of 13.5 tonnes and powered by the 220kW (399hp) version of the highly-regarded and fuel efficient, 6.37-litre, six-cylinder OM936 engine, unveiled a couple of years ago primarily as an all-new Euro VI power unit mainly for light- and medium-weight trucks and buses.

When this OM936-powered Unimog is used on the road fuel efficiency can be maximised by switching from four-wheel-drive to rear-wheel-drive only. A central tyre inflation system (cti) can be operated by the driver from the cab, while the vehicle is on the move. This is a boon for Northern Powergrid because it is keen to minimise any damage to farm fields caused by its vehicles en route to inaccessible pylons. The cti system allows tyre contact surface area in effect to be doubled, not only increasing traction on soft ground but also enabling the vehicle to roll over growing crops without digging ruts.

Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service is no stranger to the Unimog. It first started using one about 30 years ago to rescue horses and other large animals and to fight fires on remote heaths and scrubland. But in last year’s capital expenditure budget for vehicles the authority was looking to improve return on investment still further, perhaps by extending versatility even more. Again Unimog had the answer. Three U423s were bought, based in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft. This 13.8-tonnes-gvw model is powered by the four-cylinder, 4.25-litre OM934 engine, with a maximum nominal power rating of 170kW (231hp).

The Suffolk Fire and Rescue specification includes a dropside body from John Dennis Coachbuilders of Guildford, Surrey; a Palfinger PK 9001-EH crane; and a six-tonne Bushey Hall winch. The crane is used mainly to rescue horses and similarly large animals when they get trapped in water. Strops, harnesses and skid-boards are carried in a special locker. But the crane is also used to lift mission-specific demountable pods on and off the vehicle. One “rescue pod” contains the equipment used by water rescue teams. A rigid inflatable boat is towed behind the Unimog. Another pod houses a 1,500-litre water tank, pump and hose-reel. Nobody pretends that all this comes cheap. But evidently the return on investment and total operating cost sums can and do add up.

A Unimog truck shows its axle range for off-roading capabilties
A Unimog truck shows its enormous axle range for extreme off-roading capabilty.

“The Unimog is not a cheap chassis but it is actually a highly cost-effective piece of equipment,” says Suffolk Fire and Rescue fleet and equipment manager Neil Elmy. “An unrivalled combination of all-terrain performance, agility and adaptability makes it the perfect platform for a variety of applications and means that in our case it does the job of several different vehicles rolled into one.”

The specific requirements of emergency service operators like Suffolk Fire and Rescue are familiar territory to Mercedes-Benz Trucks UK’s Dolinek. He joined the company early in 2016 from Binz, a German bodybuilder specialising in ambulances and other emergency vehicles, where he was international sales director. Before that Dolinek worked in Kazakhstan as general manager of a Ford dealer. His extensive previous international experience includes nine years working on Daimler business development in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Before moving back to the UK last year, Dolinek’s boss, Mike Belk, was president and chief executive of Daimler’s Middle East and Levant division, based in Dubai. But it is not only experience of working in the Middle East that Belk shares with Dolinek. He is similarly determined to use the strength of the Mercedes-Benz truck dealer network in the UK to win over potential new Unimog customers.

“We’ve really changed our outlook on the Unimog business,” says Belk. “Lots of hauliers get their trucks serviced at night. It could be the same for Unimogs.”

Perhaps the most outlandish of all the Unimogs on show at Millbrook recently was a pair which look as if they have been fitted with the wrong wheels and tyres on the Wörth assembly line. So narrow is the front and rear track of these vehicles that the hubs stick out as if fitted with oversize brake drums. And what’s this? Separate steel wheels sticking out at the front look just like railway wagon wheels. That’s because they are. This vehicle not only goes on- and off-road but on- and off-railway tracks.

The explanation comes from Danny McCulloch, director at Ayrshire-based McCulloch Rail, a long-established company specialising in the repair and replacement of damaged rails and sleepers. The latest Unimog in the McCulloch fleet is a U427 with a Euro 6, 272hp OM936 engine driving through an eight-speed synchromesh manual gearbox. As well its conventional, albeit incronguously narrow road wheels, this vehicle is fitted with rail wheels made by Zagro of Germany. These wheels are lowered to allow the truck to drive along railway tracks, then raised again when they are no longer required.

“No other machine does what the Unimog can do,” says McCulloch. “It can be driven on road at 56mph yet is also capable of handling the roughest cross-country terrain. It can haul a heavy trailer with specialist plant or machinery, and ours can even run on the railway line. It does everything.”

Universal motor device indeed, it seems.

Unimog configured for road and rail work
Unimog configured for road and rail work
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.