Four-wheel drive is nowadays an expected feature of sport utility vehicles and off-road vehicles. But more than a century ago it was the biggest innovation in providing better control on any road surfaces. This year marks the 105th anniversary of the first commercially available four wheel drive vehicle produced by Daimler.
In 1907, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), the mother of Daimler Group today, launched the ‘Dernburg-Wagen’ which not only featured four-wheel drive but was also equipped with four-wheel steering to aid manoeuvrability. The five passenger vehicle had a ground clearance of 32-centimetres and was powered by a substantial 6.8-litre, four-cylinder engine developing 35 hp at 800 rpm. The Dernburg-Wagen was first used by its namesake German colonial servant Bernhard Dernburg in Namibia where the four-wheel drive and solid steel wheels wrapped in pneumatic tyres made sure he could drive safely on all foreign terrain.
The Dernburg-Wagen was one of the first commercial four-wheel drive vehicles in the world. However, the technology had been around for more than a decade before it went on the market in 1907. In the late 1890s, English engineer Bramah Joseph Diplock and Austrian-German engineer Ferdinand Porsche developed separately from each other a four-wheel drive system for a traction engine. By the 1920s, all car brands had picked up on the technology and introduced four-wheel drive models. In 1926, BMW and Mercedes produced the first sophisticated four-wheel drive, the G1 and G4. However, it wasn’t until the military needed “go-anywhere” vehicles that four-wheel drive took off.
After the Second World War, the Mercedes ‘Universalmotorgerat’ (Universal Motor Vehicle) or Unimog was unveiled in Germany in 1947. The Unimog was fitted with four wheels of equal size, four-wheel drive with front and rear differential locks and axles optimised for off-road use. It was a vehicle of immense strength and durability, virtues that last until today.
In the 1970s then, the predecessor of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class was produced. What looked like another military car was developed as a robust commercial vehicle with a go-anywhere ability. It could climb hills of up to 80 percent, had a tilt angle of 54 percent and 21-centimetre ground clearance.