Most know the Mercedes-Benz G-Class as an ostentatious machine that sells for roughly the same price as a small house, drives sort of like a tank and binges on gasoline like a Dyson does on hairballs. But only part of that statement is always true.
The G-Class is ancient and many of its variants aren’t built to be blingmobiles at all. In fact, some are pretty rough workhorses and some land between war machine and fashion accessory.
What if you wanted to use a second-hand, small-engine’d Geländewagen as the basis for a camper? Would that actually work? I mean, sure, the thing is rock-solid and quite competent off-road. It also looks dope as hell. And we’ve seen these trucks tricked up in a variety of cool configurations before.
The problem with a G-Wagen without AMG’s endorsement and massive engine is that it’s very slow. And being an old European car, not necessarily that reliable. Since most “modest” versions weren’t ever sold on our side of the world, spare parts aren’t all that easy to find.
Personally, I’d expect the ownership experience of such a contraption to be summarized as a giant headache of mechanical issues and ultra-expensive repair and gas bills. The adventure would end with you stranded in the woods from an inability to start the actual truck, alone with your spouse and a collection of West Nile-infected mosquito bites.
Yet, I was so intrigued to find out if this could be done, that I took one out for a drive.
(Full disclosure: the opportunity to drive a G-Wagen camper came from a Jalopnik reader that immediately emailed me after I reviewed the Volkswagen Westfalia. According to him, his home-built G320 camper is best camper.)
What Is It?
In the 1970s, Mercedes-Benz made friends with Austrian industrial company Steyr to cook up and manufacture a military off-road utility vehicle, that, according to legend, was the then-Shah of Iran’s idea. That vehicle would come to be known as the Geländewagen (cross-country vehicle) or, more commonly called the G-Wagen or G-Class.
About 40 years later, these tough trucks are still essentially handmade in Graz. In almost the exact same design they were originally trotted out with.
Mercedes started selling the thing to the public in 1979, both in two-door and four-door configurations. And it sold rather well. Even the Pope bought one.
We only got the G-Wagen in North America in 2002. But back in the 1990s, if you had, say, $135,000 (roughly $259,000 today) and knew the right people, you could import one through a grey market.
The one you see here is a 1997 model. It looks, well, exactly the same as the original G-Wagen that saw light 18 years prior. Except 1997 is an important year for the G. That’s when the truck got the lovely power-retracting convertible two-door variant and two new engines: one new 3.2-liter V6 gas, and one diesel.
However, the changeover didn’t take place until partway through the model year, so you’ll see the odd 1997 G320 with the earlier vehicle’s inline 3.2-liter six-cylinder, like this one has.
That inline-six was rated to a modest 210 horsepower, saddled with the onus of propelling more than two tons. Its 0-60 mph time would cause the space-time continuum to distort, and the only way to send that thunderous power to the ground was by way of an electronically controlled automatic.
Why Does It Matter?
At 38-years-old, the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen is the second longest-running nameplate in Daimler’s history after the Unimog. And it’s probably the longest running body style of any car… anywhere. Ironically, even if it’s old, the G-Wagen is still considered to be one of the most prestigious SUVs out there; a favorite among rich kids with inflated egos, with sales figures actually climbing incrementally each year.
But with the arrival of new, more refined, super-expensive SUVs, like the Bentley Bentayga and whatever Rolls-Royce is working on, which aren’t just plenty capable off the road for their target clientele, but will also outlap the G-Wagen on a track, Mercedes-Benz is forced to finally give its breadbox on wheels a thorough overhaul to improve its road-holding capabilities and efficiency.
A new G-Class is scheduled to arrive next year, which means the rudimentary G-Wagen as we know it is about to change a lot.
The Big Grey Box
My first contact with the ’Wagen was at night, in a quiet neighborhood, where I was asked to meet the owner, Ernest, to pick up the keys to his rig. Upon my arrival, the G was instantly recognizable, sitting there in a dimly lit corner of the street, appearing like an upright Lego block, towering the modern, sleek automobiles parked around it.
As Ernest walked out of his house, I stood there, staring at the truck with its Front Runner roof rack, Rigid Industries LED bar, and Smittybilt tent stored on its roof, resembling a tall, skinny man with an abnormally long forehead wearing an equally awkward top hat.
While Ernest chatted away about how he had purchased the truck at an auction in Japan, had it imported to Canada, swapped the engine for a diesel, modded the thing to 700 horsepower, blew the engine, then swapped it back to a stock six, I inspected the machine, almost breaking my knuckles as I knocked them against the massive front steel bumper – ouch, god-dammit! – This thing really is built like a tank.
I walked out the back, and spotted both an AMG badge and an “AMG Japan” sticker – “they were already on the truck when I bought it, and I found them cool, so I left them there” – Ernest commented. Yes. Even if this isn’t a real AMG, they are cool.
Just like the entire truck looks batshit awesome.
Ernest threw me the keys, warned me that the gas gauge wasn’t working – typical German stuff – and told me to have fun with his truck. Off I went, in a German-built military vehicle with leather seats and door inserts, not knowing if I’ll be stranded on the side of the road from lack of fuel.
Hey, at least I could camp in it if shit hit the fan.
Serious lack of power and awful handling aside… honestly, not many.
I will say that the non-AMG G-Wagen has some of the worst brakes I’ve ever sampled in any car. And not because they take forever to bring this barge to a halt, but because they don’t work at all. It isn’t too scary though; because you’ll never actually be going anywhere fast in this thing.
Fuel economy really is the biggest letdown though. You’d think the six-cylinder would have improved mileage over the V8 versions. Well, it does, until it doesn’t. A new AMG G63 does about 14 mpg at best. This one pulls 16 mpg. Except, it won’t sprint to 60 in 4.3 seconds nor pull off giant burnouts. This one is slow and horrible on gas.
Inside, the G-Wagen is surprisingly comfortable due to its thick, upright leather chairs all around. I also dig how well you can see out of it thanks to its high ride height and large windows.
One area where I was particularly pleased with this thing was in tight parking spaces. The G-Wagen is actually much narrower and shorter than you might think, making it a formidable urban runabout. And those giant yellow blinkers protruding out of the front fenders resemble a pair of glowing zits, put there to identify the edges of the vehicle, making it easy as hell to park, or position on the road.
Then, there’s the abundant cargo space. Since this is essentially a storage container on wheels, the trunk-area behind the seats provides a massive with 40 cubic feet of space. Fold those rear seats down and you’ll fit 75 cubes of your crap. That’s almost as much as a brand new Honda Pilot, and the G is much shorter.
So, when driven casually, which is the only way to drive a G320, the ride is choppy, wobbly, bouncy, and since it’s built on an old steel frame from a time when your parents were attempting to conceive you, it will occasionally send hard jolts up your spine when driven over large cracks in the pavement.
But generally speaking, it’s tolerable.
Ernest’s home-built camping machine is actually quite clever, and doesn’t hinder the G-Wagen’s cargo space. That tent up there is a foldable unit that protrudes out the rear of the truck on a large platform, with a little ladder that drops down so you can climb into it. It also creates a roof over the truck’s tailgate, perfect if you need to cook your significant other some eggs and bacon on a rainy morning.
If you can muster the excessive gas bills, and don’t mind being thrown around once and while, then I’d say that yes, you could daily a non-lux G-Class.
We might as well skip this part, because if you try driving the G-Wagen hard, you’ll most probably die, or kill someone. There’s excessive body roll, especially with that condo on the roof. It has no brakes, and the steering feels totally disconnected from the front wheels.
I still don’t understand how the G-Wagen can even do a corner without ending up on its side, or how a 500-plus horsepower version can even be a thing. (Apparently that one is just as scary as I’d imagine.) The transmission also takes forever to shift, and when it does, it usually emits a loud clunk along the way. As far as performance goes, this thing sucks.
Unless, of course, we’re talking off-road performance. While I didn’t get to take this G rock crawling, its straight axles, locking differential, aggressive angling and abundant ground clearance are pretty much an ideal formula for making progress where cars have no business being.
Second-hand G-Wagens aren’t cheap. Clean examples rarely go under $40,000. Ernest paid $32,000 CAN for his, after factoring in exchange rates, importation and inspection costs. Even two-door models from the early eighties still hang around $22,000.
Ernest claims that the drivetrain in his has proven to be quite reliable so far, and since it shares an engine and transmission with an E-Class, spare parts aren’t too hard to find.
But repair costs get scary, especially when it’s something specific to the G-Class, in which case parts need to be shipped from Germany. Ernest’s gauge cluster is acting up. He knows it’ll cost him, that’s if he can find the part.
Oh, and that tent up there costs about $1,700, and worth every penny if you ask me. Because a G-Wagen camper is ten times more badass than any Westfalia will ever be.
So the G-Wagen can be a handful to own second-hand, but if you can get your hands on one that’s in decent shape, their solid market value do make them a good investment.
It turns out that a campered-out G-Class isn’t such a bad idea after all, and suddenly, I want one. Actually, I find that in this configuration, with the ho-hum V6, the G-Wagen makes a hell of a lot more sense than the over-the-top, Bilzerian-approved AMG versions.
Yes, a Mercedes-Benz G320 is tremendously slow, horrendous to drive hard and terrible on gas. But when purchased second-hand, it’s an honest to goodness, super-solid 4×4 that should keep running for a long time, as long as you’re willing to deal with some electrical issues along the way.
If adventure is your thing and you’re not afraid of a few challenges, then please, do like our friend Ernest here, buy an old G-Wagen, strap a small house on its roof, and head out into the wild like a champion.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.