Off-road vehicles in action – from army to civil defence

Off-roaders in action

Today’s roads are dominated by so-called sport utility vehicles (SUVs). However, their forefathers were designed for off-road use by the military, aid organisations and forestry and agricultural operations. A look back at their actual purpose.

For years, the number of off-road vehicle registrations has been on the rise. At the same time, the off-roaders, some of which are rough and tumble, have been softened more and more in the direction of suitability for everyday use, since most users hardly ever drive off-road but appreciate the comfort and high seating position of SUVs. In the early days, however, it was not about comfortable entry and all-round visibility, but purely about getting ahead even in adverse off-road conditions.

off-roaders and their Use in the military

From the very beginning, a decisive driver of off-road vehicles was the military. In addition to armoured and armed vehicles, reconnaissance and civilian vehicles were always needed for troop transport.

Thus, at the beginning of the 1950s, the Bundeswehr launched a call for tenders for a light, all-wheel-drive off-road vehicle in the 0.25 tonne class. With the experience of the Horch Kübelwagen, Auto Union threw a new vehicle into the ring with the Munga. The name is not taken from the animal kingdom as in the case of the other more or less appropriate names for the military vehicles, it is simply the German abbreviation for multi-purpose all-terrain vehicle with four-wheel drive.

Off-roaders in action

Munga, Polecat and Wolf

Besides Auto Union, Borgward with the Goliath Jagdwagen Type 31 and Porsche with the Type 957 also competed for the contract. In 1956, eleven DKWs, twelve Goliaths and six Porsches were put through their paces in the final comparative tests by the Lehrregiment in Andernach. The Munga came out on top against the competition, who after the unsuccessful application did not pursue the projects after only a few were produced.

About 50,000 units of the DKW Munga were produced. In addition to the Bundeswehr as the largest customer, the police, the Federal Border Guard, the Federal Agency for Technical Relief and foreign armed forces also ordered Mungas. However, the development of automotive engineering quickly overtook the Munga; the DKW was too weak, too heavy and sometimes somewhat vulnerable.

From the end of the 1960s, a successor was therefore sought. This was developed and partly produced by Audi in Ingolstadt as the Type 183 for Volkswagen. From then on, it was to be used as a command and communications vehicle, for the general transport of people, as a carrier vehicle for anti-tank weapons and for transporting the wounded.

As a medical vehicle, the Iltis grew by about half a metre. The drive system with permanent rear and switchable front-wheel drive and a choice of a 1.7 litre petrol engine or a 1.6 litre diesel engine remained the same. A small number of civilian vehicles were also produced, but the response on the market remained correspondingly low due to the very expensive price.

However, the longest production period and the most customers in armies around the world can be attributed to a model that lost out to the VW Iltis in the tender at the time, the “Wolf”, the military version of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

The Shah of Persia pushed the development, which took place at Mercedes-Benz and Steyr-Buch. The planned order for the Iranian military was cancelled, but the 400 units ordered by the Federal Border Guard were only the beginning. Armies from Norway, Argentina to Indonesia relied on the solid Swabian before the Bundeswehr also bought in Stuttgart on a large scale.

The Wolf, series 461, was available in numerous superstructures and body styles, depending on the customer’s needs. The military versions were mostly equipped with the 2.4 litre four-cylinder diesel with 72 hp. Only a few were ordered as 300 GD with 88 hp. In 1987, the 240 GD was replaced by the more powerful five-cylinder diesel and it was then the 250 GD. that was introduced to the Bundeswehr as a troop vehicle in 1989.

Use of off-road vehicles in disaster control

However, it is not only the military that has a need for off-road vehicles. Aid organisations, forestry and agricultural operations as well as rescue services also have to find their way around. The Bavarian Mountain Rescue Service alone counted almost 10,000 missions in 2020, many of them in terrain that is difficult to access.

Off-roaders in action

Unimog – The all-rounder off-road vehicle

Depending on the purpose, different vehicles found their way into the fleets of the respective institutions, from small all-terrain vehicles (ATV) to heavy trucks. For use in particularly challenging terrain, people have been relying on the climbing skills of the Mercedes-Benz “Universal Motor-Gerät”, or Unimog for short, for almost 80 years.

Shortly after the Second World War, Böhringer in Göppingen began developing such a multifunctional vehicle. Quite early on, Böhringer and, after the takeover by Daimler-Benz, the company decided to offer as wide a range of products as possible under the star in order to meet all requirements. This resulted in the “original Unimog”, the 411 series, the medium 406 series from 1963, the heavy 425 series (from 1974) and the 404 series, which has been the most widely built model to date.

With this portfolio – combined with numerous body variants and superstructures – the Unimog succeeded in being used in countless fields of application. From tractor in the field to lifesaver in the high mountains.

Let’s hope that you don’t have to deal with the military wolf of the German Armed Forces more than necessary or even come into contact with the Land Rover of the International Red Cross or the Unimog of the mountain rescue service. But it’s good to know that in an emergency there are four-wheel-drive vehicles that can be relied on to assist helpers and protectors.

Text Paolo Ollig Photos Bundeswehr, DRK e.V., ICRC

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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