Back at the height of the space race your dad’s ‘Visions of the Future’ annual promised we’d all be driving flying cars by the year 2000. Incredibly, we weren’t (but hey, we got the Kia Rio instead), and now 16 years later, bitumen, tarmac, call it what you will, is still pretty crucial to the moving-about process.
But Doc Brown and Marty didn’t need roads where they were going, and for the next two days we won’t either. We’re going road-free, cutting though fields and scrambling along tracks and over rocks instead to connect Britain’s east coast with its west.
We might be running coast-to-coast but we’re not exactly talking Cannonball Run-levels of balls-out pedal-to-the-metal high-speed adrenalin here. Back in 2013 Ed Bolian smashed Alex Roy’s 2006 record by driving his CL55 Mercedes from New York to LA in less than 29 hours. That’s roughly how long we’re expecting our traverse to take, excluding stops to sleep. The difference was Ed was covering an entire continent and 2800 miles in that time. By the time we reach Ullapool on the west coast of Scotland we’ll have added fewer than 70 miles to the odo’s count.
The car we’re using is a bone stock £88,800 Mercedes G-class, the G being short for Geländewagen, which conveniently translates as ‘cross country vehicle’. In one way or another it's been around since the ‘70s, starting life as a no-nonsense military machine, but finding popularity with utility companies and farmy types until some point in the early ‘00s when it took off its nerdy glasses, pulled the scrunchie out of its hair, tossed its head in slow motion and was transformed into a super cool luxury vehicle.
Well, we say transformed, but for all the smart leather, modern safety systems and the iPad-style Comand media kit, this is still a proper old-school off roader: a largely hand-built body-on-frame beast with flat glass and panel gaps so wide a Lexus engineer’s vernier calipers would be lost down the crevasse and never seen again. If you don’t slam the door behind you like you’ve just lost £1500 at the bookies, it’ll never close. It feels so Cold War it’s almost a surprise not to find a rocket launcher strapped to the roof when you retract the suede-lined sunroof.
The only mods done for the trip were the removal of the running boards for maximum ground clearance, and a set of proper mud and snow tyres. In dry, summer conditions the normal road rubber would probably suffice. But November in the Scottish Highlands? Call us pansies but we went chunky just in case.
You might have noticed we’re driving a G350cdi, rather than the pimp-daddy G63 AMG version. Couple of reasons: first, the diesel’s ground clearance is superior, and second, when you’re averaging something like 11mph driving across a field, it’s not often you feel the need for 500bhp+. The 350’s pretty eager anyway. It might look like a Land Rover Defender, but it’s got a much bigger kick, its 242bhp V6 taking it to 62mph in 8.9sec and on to 119mph. Not bad for a car with the aerodynamic properties of the Trump Tower.
The steering is slightly less spritely. To get the G to turn at all you have to crank the wheel like you’re uncoiling a fire truck hose at an oil refinery blaze, and even then the delay between you turning and the car turning is positively boat-like. Yep, the G-class is a pretty hopeless car, judged by modern standard. But it’s about to be brilliant.
From the banks of Cromarty Firth we climb north past the Fryish Monument and through the Highlands’ first wind farm. The upright driving position and slim pillars mean visibility is brilliant – and that’s pretty handy when you’re tackling a goat track carved into the side of a mountain.
This year’s searing orange autumn colours are so spectacular it’s easy to get distracted from what’s going on beneath those twin live axles. It’s amazing how quickly you become blasé about the abilities of a proper off-roader. And to be fair, significant stretches of the journey are on ground that’s not sealed, but flat and smooth enough that even an SL would have sufficed.
But the next minute you’re wading through 600mm of river, scrambling over boulders waiting for the sickening crunch of rock against hard place that never comes, or punching in the rear and centre diff locks using the console buttons to tackle something so steep and craggy you’d struggle to ascend it on foot. This isn’t some man-made off-road track full of carefully contrived obstacles. This is the real thing. This is Mother Nature, and by the look of some of the terrain, it seems like she’s had enough of parenting.
There’s no hill descent control on the G-class but by engaging low range and locking the 7G-Tronic ‘box in first gear you get much of the same effect. We use boards to cross bogs that even the mud tyres would struggle with, but everything else we throw at it barely causes the G to raise an eyebrow. And you feel so invincible inside even the wild bears and wolves one of our hosts hopes to reintroduce to his estate in future years could come charging and you’d stroll on without a care.
Two full days of driving after leaving Cromarty Firth, we roll onto the green at Ullapool Golf Club, literally parking our tank on the lawn. If we’d taken the road route we would have got here in 90 minutes. But where’s the fun in that? Okay, well, the roads in the Highlands aren’t exactly dull and if we’d had a 488GTB… but you get the idea.
We’re not suggesting the G-class is the only SUV capable of this journey, but now that the Defender has gone to the great tilt table in the sky, the one they really ought to call Master G is about the only one that could do it with such charm.
Photography by Barry Hayden