IF you thought the advent of the 4×4, with its rugged build and formidable off-road capability, was a recent innovation, think again.
Long before the Land Rover and the countless other luxuriously appointed four-wheel-drives were even a glint in their designer’s eyes, those devilishly clever Germans were driving about in them.
In fact, this year marks the 105th anniversary of the very first commercially available four-wheel-drive vehicle – created in 1907 by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, the forerunner of the Mercedes-Benz.
The company’s gargantuan Dernburg-Wagen featured not only four-wheel-drive but was also equipped with four-wheel steering to aid manoeuvrability.
With ground clearance of well over a foot and powered by a monstrous 6.8-litre engine, capable of developing a modest 35hp and 800rpm, it could carry five passengers in what was undoubtedly considerable discomfort. Solid steel wheels wrapped in pneumatic tyres helped protect the drum brakes from debris.
In the century since this great automotive dinosaur roamed the streets and presumably fields of Germany, four-wheel-drive has come a very long way. In 1947 the Unimog, or Universal Motor Vehicle, was unveiled, fitted with front and rear differential locks and axles optimised for off-road use.
The basic formula was set and, while the engines and four-wheel drive systems are now far more advanced, the original virtues of immense durability, strength and go-anywhere ability remain. The interiors nowadays have moved on beyond the imagination of the system’s pioneers.
In 1972 development of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class began with production starting in 1979. Contrary to popular belief, it was not designed for military purposes – it was intended as a robust commercial vehicle with incredible off-road ability. With a climbing ability of up to 80 per cent, a tilt angle of up to 54 per cent and 21-centimetre ground clearance, the G-Class lived up to its design objectives.
The G-Class remains faithful to its original formula 33 years on. Today it’s fitted with permanent all-wheel drive, fully engageable differential locks, four-wheel electronic traction system and a low-range gear reduction. Shame it’s such an ugly great beast but you can’t have everything.
Mercedes-Benz has retained a leading role in the development and production of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Today the firm produces four road car variants including the recently launched GL-Class, two van lines as well as the Canter and Zetros and the mighty Unimog, all equipped with sophisticated four-wheel drive systems.
The 4×4 sector is becoming quite overcrowded, which is odd when you consider that roads are generally better than they have ever been and that very few of us ever deliberately venture more than an inch or two off the tarmac. Fashion has had its impact.
But it’s clear that there has been a shift towards the smaller SUVs, often with two-wheel drive to aid economy but with the sturdy build quality that appeals to so many drivers on our busy roads. They have come a long way since the Dernburg-Wagen.