The “Essence Of Man” can be described in a number of ways. How long is your beard and mustache? Do you seek out adventure? Regardless of how you define it, we can all agree that often, as men, our vehicles speak highly of who we are. While searching for #adventuremobile on Instagram one day, I came across David Roth’s, Unimog (http://instagram.com/theuniblog). If any vehicle screams, “Take me to the top of a mountain and across the sun drenched sand seas of the Sahara”, it’s the Unimog.
Visiting David’s website, I learned that not only does he drive a cool truck, he takes it nearly everywhere. After a few emails back and forth, I asked David if he would put together a write up for AGW, sharing more about “Barf”, his 1964 Mercedes-Benz Motor Gerat and the adventures it leads him on. Grab your morning brew and read on my friends. -AGW
David Roth’s 1964 Mercedes-Benz Gerat aka Unimog aka Mog
Words and Photos below by David Roth
I wish I could say I had a lofty purpose when I bought my Unimog. An adventure through the Andes or a journey across the continent. Often, my journeys begin without knowing the exact destination. My first adventure with the Unimog started without a planned beginning. Perhaps buying the Unimog might have started in haste. However, sometimes the best adventures are those that we didn’t intend to take in the first place.
I’m sitting at my computer, it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday and I’m trolling Craigslist. I think I had a half-eaten turkey sandwich on my desk and was getting a bit discouraged by the various vehicles I had come across. Earlier in the day, I engaged in a philosophical discussion with my friend Marielle about “seizing the day,” which finally convinced me to buy a “just for fun” vehicle – an inexpensive Jeep or a poorly built British convertible. Something I could work on, have a bit of fun with, and most importantly, take out for a spin on the Pacific Coast Highway with the top down. But the Jeeps I found on Craigslist were either too expensive, too junky, or worse, both. And when I searched convertibles, the pickings got even slimmer. Drained of my excitement at the limited prospects, I typed U-N-I-M-O-G in the Craigslist search bar just to see what would come up. I lived in the middle of Los Angeles, so I doubted I would actually find anything. And that’s when it happened. Up pops this unassuming 1963 (mislabeled since it’s actually a 1964) Mercedes-Benz Unimog.
We have to go back about two years to understand my humble beginnings with Unimogs. Prior, I had never heard of a Unimog let alone knew that Mercedes-Benz made anything other than passenger cars. If someone would have randomly said, “Unimog” my first response would’ve been “Gesundheit!” I even worked at a Mercedes-Benz dealership in downtown LA to help make my way through college, but had no such luck running across a Mog. Randomly one night, a company I had done business with rented one through an exotic autos boutique and I found myself in the back of a Unimog troop carrier heading up the 405 to the Hollywood Bowl with a few of my coworkers. I don’t remember who played at that concert that night. I think it was Arcade Fire…maybe. But the Unimog made a lasting impression. It was matte gray with a canvas-covered cab and 12 of us sat on the inside of the troop carrier bed slowly ambling our way up to the venue. I remember specifically noticing the canvas top on the Unimog at the time and thinking it’d make a great convertible in the summer time. Two years later, that memory rushed back to me. And there she was. A bright green machine.
I immediately called the owner from the Craigslist ad and told him I’d be there within the hour to check it out. The current owners, a nice family in Huntington Beach, had purchased the Unimog a mere 18 months before from a guy in Oceanside. Prior to Oceanside, the Unimog resided in Northern California having been imported from Germany in 2005. At the time I found the Unimog, she had just over 41,000km or 28,000 original miles. The second owner had replaced the engine and transmission at the 15,000km mark, so I was looking at a vehicle with just over 16,000 miles on the engine and transmission. Not too shabby for a vehicle twice my age.
I can’t understand why any of the previous owners would want to let go of such a great vehicle, but as luck would have it (for me), the guys wife in Huntington Beach wanted him to “get a real camper.” He was forced to sell. So, on the spot, I made my offer. By the next week, my buddy Bobby was driving down to Huntington Beach to pick up my new ride, register it with the DMV and make the slow 45-mile trip back to my place.
I’ve come to realize that the Unimog is an incredibly capable vehicle. As I’ve come to say, “She’ll go over anything, just not very fast.” While off-roading, rock climbing and fording rivers is the strength of these earlier Unimogs, highway travel and specifically uphill highway travel is not. My first camping trip with the Unimog started out as a short trek to upper Kern River. This was my first time to Upper Kern River, a spot less than two hundred miles from Los Angeles, whose first-come first-serve riverside camping has quickly become one of my favorite areas to camp. Four of my friends decided to join me late Friday night in the Unimog and we set out from LA at 9pm. Some friends had gone up ahead to lay claim to a site and had texted us the route and trip time: 3 hours. No problem. I had never gone long distance in the Unimog nor did I truly understand how to best use the truck’s full 82hp, but I wasn’t worried. It took 20 minutes just to climb the Sepulveda Pass. Another hour to get to the top of the Grapevine. From there, we headed east toward Bakersfield and began the large, arduous climb for Kernville. Halfway up, my engine starts to sputter like it’s running out of gas and completely stops. I’m at the side of the road, blinkers flashing, and I’m unable to restart my Unimog. I’m in a mountain pass, so cell service is out the window. That’s when I remember that the gas is actually split between two tanks and I neglected to switch between them. Needless to say, we arrive at the campsite at 3am. However, bouldering down to park along the river was no problem once we arrived.
Indeed, it’s this slow Zen-like pace of my adventures that I’ve come to like the most. Part of my Unimiog’s charm is in keeping most of the major mechanics original while consistently finding way to upgrade the rear compartment to make dry camping and over Overland excursions comfortable. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Unimog is a model 404.1 and boasts a Mercedes-Benz Inline 6-cylinder, M180 motor. In fact, it’s the same motor you’ll find in most 1964 Mercedes 220se Sedans. It’s a 2.2 liter, 82 hp engine at 4800 rpm. Including her 1963 factory ambulance box (which I have converted into a camper), the total weight comes in at just above 8500 lbs. The original tires were Continental MPT 80 10.5R20, which I have since upgraded to Continental MPT81 size 275/80R20. Due to the unique construction of the portal axles (a technology using hub gears where the axle tube is above the center of the wheel), the Unimog 404.1 boasts a ground clearance of 15.8” and a 45-degree angle of approach and departure. This model Unimog takes regular unleaded gasoline and has a fuel capacity of 2x 15.9 gallons with a relative cruising range of 354 miles.
Linked up to that beast of an engine is a 6-speed synchromesh transmission with 2-speed reverse. An internal transfer case provides rear wheel drive or 4×4. In addition, there are mechanically locking differentials on both the front and rear axles and both the 4×4 and locking diffs are shift on the fly.
With the 404, the flexible frame is essentially a part of the suspension. I have coil front and rear springs. So that, combined with solid axles, the flexible frame, and torque tube suspension, I get a lot of articulation without sacrificing traction.
The cab is a traditional military 24-volt with a 19-amp, 300-watt generator. I’ve upgraded the rear box to be a 12-volt, 125-watt solar panel powering dual Odyssey PC31-2150 deep cycle batteries. There is neither power steering nor power brakes. The brakes are front and rear hydraulic drums.
While the shell of the ambulance box is original, I gutted the entire interior and built out a comfortable camper. I constructed cabinets, a dinette/bed out of ¼” and 1/2” birch plywood, and fashioned a propane stove on top of a caeserstone countertop. In fact, the last time I wood worked was in my seventh grade shop class, but I taught myself how to build cabinets, doorframes, and cabinet doors just for this project. A local stonemason cut the countertop from remnant black caesarstone quartz and a local upholster shop in Los Angeles helped me sew cushions for the rear dinette/bed. Integrated into the cabinets is a pioneer stereo powering 4 pioneer 6×9 three-way speakers. I also installed an Engel 45qt fridge/freezer to keep my food fresh on long journeys.
The cab is incredibly loud, and even with insulation and sound proofing, speaking with my co-pilot or friends in the rear box is incredibly challenging. To combat this, the Unimog has a system typically found in small aircraft or helicopters. The Sigtronics SPA-400 and RES-400 units power the close circuit communication system accompanied by 3 Sigtronic headsets. In addition, I added a back up camera using the Rear View Safety 3-camera setup.
My Unimog is an extension of myself really – ready for a broad array of activities both in Los Angeles and well beyond its borders. This vehicle is just as comfortable tailgating with the crowds at USC games, as much as it’s at ease off-roading with enthusiasts at King of the Hammers. What I’ve enjoyed most are the various camping trips I’ve taken her on. One could even say that since purchasing the Unimog, I’ve gone through a camping renaissance and try to get out of LA (when work allows) and off the beaten path at least once a month. Some of my favorite camping spots are within 200 miles of LA, which make for great long-weekend style camping. However, within the coming year, I hope to start spending time planning and executing longer trips including the Mojave Trail and maybe even one day, the Pan-American Highway.
David and Mark don’t know what to expect on their first Unimog adventure, but take in the sights of Los Angeles in the rear of a Unimog as it makes its way up the 405.
The moon illuminates the snow-covered Upper Pines Campgrounds in Yosemite National Park as our group stays warm by the fire.
Ribbons of light dance across the long-exposure frame of the Unimog at the Upper Pines campsites in Yosemite National Park.
The Unimog easily climbs the surrounding terrain at Truckhaven just west of the Salton Sea in Southern California.
After a long journey cutting across the dirt-covered roads connecting Jawbone to Weldon, CA, the Unimog takes a rest on the shores of Lake Isabella.
All along the Kern River, signs mark the easiest way to the river’s edge
Tall, dry grasses surround the Kern River valley. Just be careful of fields full of grasshoppers, which shortly presented themselves after this photograph was taken.
The Unimog has found a great spot to camp for the weekend. All along the Upper Kern River, first-come first-serve no-fee space is available for camping.
Chris just takes a nap in the sandbar of the Kern River while Betsy fishes for dinner.
Jackie and David sit at the river’s edge enjoying a cold beer.
David wipes his brow. The temperatures can soar during the day into the high 90’s while the river can dip into the low 60’s/high 50’s from the snowmelt runoff that feeds it.
David starts a fire as the sun retreats behind the horizon.