All Unimogs might look alike but each one is individual and, as CM found out, one Unimog can do the work of two vehicles.
The Mercedes-Benz Unimog is a unique concept. Designed in the 1940s and aimed at Germany’s struggling post-war agricultural sector, the original Universal MotorGerät was a truck and tractor hybrid aimed at enabling farmers to work more efficiently on and off-road. Today’s Unimog comes in two variants, the original UGE implement carrier and transport vehicle, and the more extreme UHE designed for disaster relief work and other activities where the ability to reach otherwise inaccessible areas is vital.
It’s the UGE CM is interested in, but any thoughts that we’ll be dealing with a single model are soon shattered when we arrive at Rygor Mercedes-Benz’s Westbury dealership. For a start, the man we’re meeting isn’t a used or new sales manager, he’s a specialist Unimog sales manager. Brought into the business last July, there’s nothing Matt Cleave can’t tell you about a vehicle he obviously adores, including that we need to forget everything we think we know about the buying and selling of used examples.
Finding the perfect vehicle
This is the thing with Unimogs. Put any two side by side and, to the untrained eye, they look pretty similar. In reality, each will have been very carefully specced to do a particular job, and the options list is bewildering. You can have front and rear engine PTOs, hydraulic systems and transmission PTOs. You can pump, you can mow, you can carry and deploy platform or boom lifts. You can grit and plough snow in winter, then switch implements and use the same truck to mow verges and clear drains in summer.
Crucially, though, you have to get the right kit fitted in the first place, because retro-fitting this stuff is not cost effective. Because of this, Cleave doesn’t look to sell used Unimogs, he looks for the right people instead. By the same token, he advises customers not to come looking for a new or used vehicle at all, but rather for the right vehicle.
However, if you can find the perfect fit, going used is still a sensible option. Our test vehicle is a 2017-plate ex-demonstrator, priced at £129,950. “From a dealer’s point of view it would have cost £160,000 to £170,000 new, so there is a saving, but they also hold their money well,” says Cleave.
The other thing to bear in mind is that Unimogs don’t just go on for years, they keep working for decades. “The oldest one for me recently was 2008,” says Cleave, “but there are plenty of independents out there selling older vehicles.”
He agrees that it’s by no means unusual or unreasonable for operators to buy trucks that are 20-plus years old with complete confidence, and it is still possible to buy genuine parts for them straight off the shelf.
Many of the used Unimogs Cleave does sell are trucks originally bought through Rygor, and they often find new homes with companies in the same line of business. This is especially true in sectors such as construction which work to tender, and where vehicles are brought in to fulfil a specific role for a specific amount of time or contract – the dealer knows when to expect them back, and can plan in advance where they might potentially be resold.
It’s a point of principle, however, that Cleave won’t sell on a vehicle that is almost right, it has to truly fit the bill. “I was trying to sell one just the other day but it just wasn’t quite right for the customer,” he says. “It got very close, but just didn’t tick that final box for him, so we pointed him to one with another used dealer instead.”
This illustrates the integrity fostered across Rygor as a whole: Unimog is not a numbers game for it.
Rygor’s new UGE demonstrator will arrive in March, so our test vehicle, a 2017 Unimog U530, is on the market now and shouldn’t hang around for long; three or four potential customers have already expressed an interest.
Boasting a 7.7-litre Euro-6 engine, giving us 299hp, and a fully-synchronised automatic gearbox with 8 forward and 6 reverse gears, this truck has a GVW of 12,700kg and a train weight of up to 16,500kg depending on what kind of trailer coupling is in use, though some Unimogs can go up to a full 40 tonnes.
Before we set off, Cleave gives us a quick guided tour of some of the truck’s toys. As well as those PTOs, optional equipment includes front- and rear-view camera systems, the latter mounted magnetically so it can easily be moved to the optimum position for the work being done, two-line trailer brakes with ABS, a load-sensing hydraulic system and a Central Tyre Inflation System which changes the pressures to suit the terrain via the dashboard computer.
It is also fitted with VarioPilot, which lets the operator switch from right – to left-hand drive and back again, ideal for roles such as motorway verge work, giving improved visibility for the task in hand regardless of which side of the truck it is carried out.
This Unimog is fitted with Michelin XM47 agricultural tyres which, combined with the coil spring suspension, means our first few miles are an interesting ride. Chuck in all-wheel-drive and the illusion of instability means we’re distinctly nervous to begin with, but Cleave assures us this thing is a lot more sure-footed than it feels. The engine is mid-mounted and the centre of gravity low down, after all, it’s only the lightweight fibre-composite cab that is perched up high.
By the time we’ve crossed Westbury and hit the A36 Warminster bypass we’ve discovered that the secret to feeling comfortable in a Unimog is to treat it roughly. This thing goes best when you boot it, and it is surprisingly nippy, right up until the moment it tries to launch us through the windscreen because we’ve hit the other pedal. “Yeah, the brakes are a bit snatchy,” says Cleave. After that we take his advice and use the three-stage engine brake, something else that is far more effective than we expect.
Off road test
Having finally calmed down, we chat about who is using these vehicles from a haulage perspective, and why.
It has long been a bone of contention among rural hauliers that farmers have been allowed to run down the road in fast tractors, undercutting the usual rates, all with no O-licence and no need to put their vehicles through any kind of roadworthiness testing. This changed early last year and now only vehicles that don’t travel more than 15 miles from their farm base can continue to operate under those terms. Sadly it’s not as comprehensive a solution as it sounds. “You’ll find the big farm companies have a farm in one place, then another 15 miles down the road and another 15 miles on again,” says Cleave, “so they can cover a huge area and still be in range from base.”
Where Unimog comes into its own is for produce like maize digestate, grain, potatoes and sugar beet haulage.
The real key is that one Unimog can do the work of two other vehicles, purely because it can go on- and off-road. “It can go into the field, load up, turn around in the mud where a conventional truck would just get stuck, then go back out on the road and do 56mph again.” No need for a tractor, no time wasted switching the load or trailer between vehicles, fewer man hours used and less capital outlay in the first place. It’s a compelling picture, and one that could give those rural hauliers a real foot in the door to fighting back, by enabling them to cover that crucial first element of the journey directly.
By this time we’re well on our way across Salisbury Plain, one of the biggest army training areas in the country, and surely the best place to take our Unimog off-road. We have a two-part mission in mind, the first on a muckaway back-fill site near the village of Chideock. Having been advised by the resident bulldozer driver which bits he doesn’t want us to plough up, we set out across what is best described as a large field of lightly raked mud, fully expecting to have to deploy both diff-locks, and possibly the cross-locks, within a very short space of time. We’re disappointed because we don’t need them, our UGE behaves for all the world like we’re romping about in a supermarket car park.
We try faster, we try slower, we try driving onto the really soft bits, stopping, slinging the steering round to full lock then flooring it, and the only reaction we get is one of Cleave’s best smug grins.
Finally, and with more than a little encouragement from our photographer, we drive up the side of a bank next to the entrance track and point the thing windscreen-first at the floor on the other side. Suffice to say we bottle it before the Unimog does, Cleave simply talks us calmly through what now seems like a truly dangerous idea, crooning “go on, it’ll be fine” as we shout various terrified expletives and wonder how the hell we haven’t put it on its side by now.
The second half of our route is supposed to take us across the training area itself using various public green lanes and byways. However, a raft of red flags, warns that live firing by the army is in progress, so access is denied.
Not to be beaten we continue round the edge of the Plain until we finally find a track that appears to be open. The first clue that perhaps we aren’t supposed to be here is when an armoured personnel carrier roars past. The second is when it’s closely followed by a full-scale tank, complete with machine gun. Pointed at us.
Then the smoke bombs start going off, more tanks come rumbling into view and an entire platoon of fully camouflaged squaddies appears out of the bushes, at which point we decide to abandon this part of the test and head back to Rygor HQ for coffee. As we do so, we note that the Unimog handled so well we didn’t have to stop and think about how to drive it while traversing an unexpected war zone.
Without doubt, Unimog is great fun, but it’s also a very serious tool. As for buying used, be prepared to have an open mind and research what kind of vehicle you need very carefully indeed, because you might still be working it in 20 or more years time. Alternatively, talk to Cleave at Rygor, let him show you just what this thing can do.
Mercedes-Benz offers three finance options on all Unimogs sold through its dealerships, used and new.
Rygor Commercials started life as a small family business in 1960, joining Mercedes-Benz as an agent in 1986. It now has 11 sites spread from Chilcompton in Somerset in the west to Heathrow in the east, and claims to be the UK’s largest commercial dealer group. Matt Cleave, Rygor’s Unimog sales manager, is based from home in Basingstoke, and mainly works between the Westbury and Heathrow sites, though he tries to visit all 11 on a regular basis. Unimog demonstrations and sales can be arranged anywhere across the southern region and as far north as Kidderminster and Nuneaton.