Origins of the Geländewagen
A delve into the misunderstood origins of the Steyr-Daimler-Puch G
Back in April 2020 a rather eye catching Puch 500 GE popped up for auction with Sotheby’s. Whilst a rare car (1 of 3) is of course going to get some media coverage what really shocked me was that the majority of UK based mags/websites didn’t seem to know the legend that was Steyr-Daimler-Puch existed at all, let alone the fact that they actually designed the G! So, after quite a few months I decided to do some proper research and present the origins of the Geländewagen we now know and love.
Who were Steyr-Daimler-Puch
Hopefully you know who and what Daimler was(is)! The small Austrian firm of Puch started as a bicycle manufacturer, promptly moving onto motorbikes and then motorcars – actually being so successful with the design side of things setting a land speed record in 1909 of 130.4km/h. In 1928 they merged with Austro-Daimler, a subsidiary of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (Daimler and Maybach’s firm), becoming Austro-Daimler-Puchwerke. Oh, and Austro-Daimler’s previous chief Technical Officer happened to be Ferdinand Porsche, he’d only just moved over to Daimler in Stuttgart just prior to the Austro-Daimler/Puch merger. Meanwhile Steyr, also Austrian, had risen from an arms manufacturer (mainly precision rifles) to a leading manufacturer of motorcars thanks to their strategic recruitment of Hans Ledwinka – the brains behind Tatra’s phenomenal chassis design of a rigid backbone tube with swinging semi-axles all-round giving independent suspension. Throughout the 1920’s the entire Ledwinka family of engineers continually moved between Steyr and Tatra. Tatra’s cars becoming more widely known thanks to their streamlined shape and large, rear-mounted air-cooled engines – Steyr opted to keep with the more traditional engine upfront.
In 1934 Steyr merged with Austro-Daimler-Puch becoming Steyr-Daimler-Puch. At this time Ledwinka had designed the Tatra V570, as some of you will know this appeared a full two years before the VW Beetle which happened to bear a striking resemble and very similar mechanical design. Ledwinka complained to Porsche who declined that he’d copied Ledwinka’s design. Tatra moved to sue VW, however this stopped in its tracks when the Third Reich invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938.
1933 Tatra V570 prototype
As with the majority of manufacturers under the Third Reich’s direction Steyr-Daimler-Puch made armaments, aeroengines and even tanks for the duration of the war. Post-war Steyr began building lorries and tractors, whilst Puch resumed building bicycles and motor bikes. In the 1950’s Steyr built a Fiat 1400 under licence as the Steyr 2000. In the 1960’s Puch built the Fiat 500 under licence as a Puch 500, albeit with their own specially tuned 463cc 2-cylinder horizontally opposed engine. (They also did a larger 643cc, sold as the 650TR, which proved especially popular in rallying circles - winning the 1966 European Rally Championship with Sobieslaw Zasada behind the wheel)
The unique Puch engine proved popular in rallying - 650TR pictured.
The Haflinger and Pinzgauer years.
After the war ended every European army bought vast quantities of the JEEP, in the mid 50’s the Austrian Army approached Steyr-Daimler-Puch to design and build a successor. Heading up the project was Erich Ledwinka, Hans’s son. Erich decided to utilise the Tatra concept of a solid tube backbone, swinging axles with independent coil spring suspension and an air-cooled engine. As this vehicle was deigned to be an off-roader Erich opted to included portal axle hubs, increasing ground clearance and torque in one hit. To power it, a flat 2-cylinder engine similar to the Beetle and Porsche 356’s engine, but tuned by Puch. Due to its diminutive size and ability to scramble up and over the Schöckl mountain behind the factory, the little vehicle was nicknamed “Haflinger” (an Austrian pony breed) by the development drivers. This name stuck and the Steyr-Puch Haflinger 700AP became the workhorse of the Austrian Army. Between 1959 and 1975 over 16,647 Haflingers where made, seeing service everywhere from Switzerland to Australia, and even as aircraft tugs on HMS Ark Royal.
What made the Haflinger so capable was the extremely strong solid tube backbone coupled with the axle articulation of the independent portal axles, all completely sealed for maximum durability. Erich Ledwinka had also included a front and rear diff lock allowing the Haflinger to continue moving even if only one wheel had traction. The lack of bodywork (almost all where soft top) meant a ridiculously low centre of gravity, it was also extremely well balanced, the boxer engine and 4 speed manual transmission low at the back with the driver and passenger seated on the front wheel arches in a “forward-command” position.
Queen Elizabeth II enjoying Austria via Haflinger, 1969.
Due to the worldwide success of the Haflinger, Steyr-Puch where quickly asked to build a bigger version to replace the aging light lorries in many armies. Development started in the early 1960’s and by 1969 the Pinzgauer was born. (Also an Austrian horse breed) From the outside the Pinzgauer does look like a Haflinger on steroids – in many regards it is.
2 Pinzgauers flanked by Haflingers -
The same sealed tube backbone with swinging portal axles design with diff-locks was carried over. However, as the Pinzgauer was designed to be a load carrier the engine and gearbox was placed between the driver and passenger. Instead of a boxer engine the Pinzgauer launched with Steyr’s own 2.5L inline 4. This featured twin Zenith carbs and two oil pumps ensuring the engine would run smoothy even if running on its side. Much later on a VW turbo diesel with an automatic gearbox became available as well. As the Pinzgauer was designed to replace light lorries, Steyr-Puch decided a 6x6 version was needed. Featuring 3 diff-locks and an ingenious “bogey” style suspension design for the rear axles the 6x6 Pinzgauer would drive over and through anything you pointed it at. The later Turbo Diesel versions are still in service with many armed forces across the globe with the manufacturing rights now owned by BAE Systems.
6x6 Turbo Diesel showing its articulation on the Schöckl mountain track.
The first murmurs.
In the late 1960’s Steyr-Puch had begun to design a Haflinger successor. The European road network had significantly improved and Steyr-Puch’s military contacts where keen to see a more comfortable and road friendly, yet just as capable, vehicle. Development work on Haflinger 2 began. Steyr-Puch opted to use a more road friendly ladder frame chassis but keep the diff-locks and coil suspension that made the Haflinger so capable.
In 1972 the Pinzgauer and Unimog touched gloves before sparring for a Swiss army contact. The test ground the Swiss had chosen, the Mercedes test track at Gäggenau – the Unimog’s home turf! Apparently, the Mercedes-Benz reps laughed when the Pinzgauer and support Haflinger turned up for the test – however, these laughs quickly faded when the Pinzgauer and diminutive Haflinger scrambled around everywhere the larger Unimog went. This really brought the expertise of the Austrian firm to Mercedes’s notice. At the time Mercedes where building under licence the Land Rover for the border guards – you can imagine that the Merc bosses would have preferred to see a 4x4 wearing a star in their factories. Later that year Mercedes-Benz approached Steyr-Daimler-Puch to design a Land Rover competitor. Luckily Steyr-Daimler-Puch where already well ahead with Haflinger 2 (H2). According to a note issued by the marketing department of Mercedes-Benz to the design team at Steyr-Daimler-Puch, Mercedes wanted a universal vehicle, suitable for both military needs and private owners.
An early Haflinger 2 prototype
By the spring of 1973, H2 began trials. Once again Erich Ledwinka was entrusted with the design. Since the car was designed primarily as an army car, the body was emphatically simplified, with flat panels and a folding windshield for an open model. Underneath a bespoke ladder chassis, coil-spring suspension with solid axles, disc brakes upfront, drum brakes at the back, transfer box with low range and front and rear diff-locks. Prototypes began to cover thousands of kilometres in the most severe places on the planet: the Schöckl track where the Haflinger and Pinzgauer had been developed, in high Scandinavia beyond the Arctic Circle, in the sandy and rocky deserts of North Africa, in the vast dunes of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in Argentina.
In the seventies, one of Daimler's main customers where the Iranian royal family. The ambitious Shah Reza Pahlavi wanted to make his country the third military power after the USA and the USSR. With huge oil export revenues, he could afford it and in 1975 he placed an order for 20,000 of the new 4x4. In February 1977, Mercedes-Benz, together with Steyr-Daimler-Puch, created the joint venture GFG (Geländefahrzeug-Gesellschaft). It was decided to start production at the plant in Graz, owned by Steyr-Daimler-Puch. They planned to produce the H2 in a relatively small series - about ten thousand per year. There was no point in repurposing production facilities in Germany for the sake of such a quantity, and Steyr-Puch’s workforce had extensive experience in the manufacture of off-road vehicles.
The new company was called upon to develop, implement and further improve the design of the 4x4 as well as to promote the sales of the model. The engine, gearbox, axles were to be produced by Daimler, with the bodywork and the transfer case by Steyr-Daimler-Puch. The products were planned to be manufactured at a plant in Graz, 100% owned by Steyr-Daimler-Puch. One of the conditions between the partners was the division of the market. On the domestic market of Steyr in Austria, Switzerland, as well as the countries of the then "Eastern bloc", the Geländewagen was sold under the Puch brand. In other countries, the car was sold under the Mercedes-Benz brand. Approximately only 10% of consumer market Gs wear the Puch badge.
Puch badged station wagon.
On March 11, 1977, Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky laid the stones for the construction of the new Steyr-Daimler-Puch factory in Graz-Thondorf, which covered an area of more than 40,000 square meters. By 1978, a pre-production model with a soft quick-release top was ready, which was now called Geländewagen. The Bundeswehr on which the partners had high hopes, showed no interest in the new vehicle. (in 1976 the Bundeswehr had bought 8,800 of the Volkswagen 183 Iltis) Fortunately, the situation was slightly improved with orders for the border guards, as well as the Argentinian and Norwegian armies.
In September 1978 Shah Reza Pahlavi declared martial law in Iran. By January the resulting revolution forced him to flee the country. It became clear that the order for 20,000 vehicles had disappeared, however production of the G had already begun. Fortunately, the public premier was successful. Mercedes invited the world’s press to Le Castellet outside Marseille. Here they were presented with four models the 230G and 280G (Petrol) and the 240GD and 300GD (diesel.) The G came as standard with a four-speed manual gearbox, high and low range, front and rear diff-locks. Depending on preference, the buyer could choose a 3-door short-wheelbase convertible, or a 3-door short-wheelbase or 5-door long-wheelbase station wagon. The military was given the opportunity to order a long wheelbase model of both 3-door and 5-door versions.
The preferred military configuration, 3-door long wheelbase soft top.
Time has shown that the start of serial production only gave a small respite to the managers and engineers involved in the Geländewagen project as the orders started to fly in from around the world.
More to follow…