Across Africa with the Unimog I: As far as we can go

To be honest, we simply needed a Unimog for our Africa trip. There was no logic involved – we wanted one, we got one and did some conversion work on it, and now we’re on the road with it. I’ll be reporting on what we experienced before and during our journey with the Unimog at regular irregular intervals here on the Daimler-Blog.

The search

Our search for a Unimog 435 model was not immediately successful. Such a model offered many benefits as far as I was concerned. For example, it has no electronics, only electrical systems, you can buy one used with a long wheelbase from the German Federal Armed Forces, and it’s bigger than a 406. Technically speaking, a Unimog with a split transmission and an OM366a engine would be ideal, of course. Unfortunately, while I was looking for a Unimog, I found that such models usually fell under two categories: “rare and expensive.” That’s why I decided to start looking for a Unimog with a naturally aspirated OM352 engine with 131 hp.

But where could we get such a vehicle. I immediately thought of VEBEG, the organization that manages surplus equipment sales by the German federal government — everything from old battle ships to military fleet vehicles and, of course, Unimogs. You enter a blind bid and then wait and see if your bid was successful. In the case of a bid on a Unimog, you also get to visit a military base, which is an interesting experience. You can drive in, take pictures — no problem! Three days later I received the sobering news that my bid was 700 euros lower than the highest one. It was time to start all over again.

In the end, we were able to buy our Unimog in a totally normal way via the Internet, as pre-owned vehicle. The seller sent me videos and I ended up traveling across Germany to take a look at his Unimog. I went for a test drive and everything was fine. We signed the sales contract and I embarked my first Unimog journey — 600 kilometers at a speed of just under 80 Km/h. Put simply, the trip was loud, very loud.

Difficult beginnings

The diesel filter kept threatening to clog up on that first trip, and eventually it did, leaving the Unimog and I stuck on the side of the autobahn. I changed the filter and checked the axle fluid near the city of Kassel, and then stopped at a gas station just short of Frankfurt. I got a couple of napkins, rolled them up, and stuffed them into my ears to use as ear plugs. Then I drove off again.

When I got home, I took a close look at my new Unimog: There was rust on the cab, in the fuel tank, and on the platform frame, and I also needed a new battery case. I changed the engine oil and axle oil, put in a new thermostat, sandblasted and painted the air filter housing, and stripped the paint off and galvanized the running board and bumpers etc. I fixed up the fan for the interior, installed new brake hoses and brake pads, and changed the brake fluid.

The wooden floor of the platform had been eaten away by time, so I removed it and replaced it with aluminum diamond plate. That alone took around 60 kg off the weight.

Stuck! Even our trusty Unimog was unable to overcome mud holes like this one.

Then it was time to test the Unimog’s performance in mud. Obviously, Unimogs have excellent ground clearance, but you can forget about continuing a trip if even the engine is stuck in the mud. Someone in a Japanese car was able to pull us out. (Embarrassing…) After two hours of intensive cleaning, all evidence of the trip through the mud was gone.

On we go – first the technical systems, then the looks

The Unimog needed a proper paint job. Unfortunately, the silver paint it came with wasn’t car paint, so I had to sand everything off. After that, I took the Unimog to be painted, since I’m not particularly good at that. I wanted a RAL color. I was hoping that this would make any painting I had to do later easier. I decided to use RAL1014 — the classic German taxi color – and matte black for the Mercedes star and detachable parts. The company that did the painting found rust on the windshield flange, so I had to replace part of the roof Frame.

Family vacation

Summer 2016: Family vacation in South Africa, 5,000-kilometer circular tour. We more or less drove one time around South Africa, from Johannesburg to Mokala National Park and then on to the Northern Cape, into the Kahlahari Desert and on to Augrabies Falls. Then we headed to the Western Cape coast and drove the Garden Route to Durban, finally heading back to Johannesburg via the Midlands.

We rented a normal car for the trip. We had no problems 90% of the time, but an offroad vehicle would have been better for the other 10%. Around one-third of the roads we traveled on were unpaved, and you need to really watch out for potholes on those roads. The only thing you can do is drive slowly. The situation is different with the sand in the Kalahari desert. We were lucky that an offroad vehicle was around to help push us out of a sand hole we got stuck in. Splashing across the so-called low water bridges presented yet another challenge. The whole time I was thinking about my lonely Unimog at home.

A great vacation — not really a wilderness. And that’s when I started thinking about taking the Unimog to Africa.

The Unimog talks to me: “We’re going to Africa!”

And I said, what? Why? When? And the Unimog said: With all-wheel drive. With a ceramic cooktop. With a coffee machine A refrigerator box. Eight gears. A differential lock. A power shift transmission. Portal axles. And a real mattress. All of Africa. Everywhere.

Now I had to start planning and building. I needed an aluminum frame to keep the weight down. A Unimog can pull two tons on rough terrain. Less is more, however, since then maybe it wouldn’t sink into the soft sand of the Namib Desert that easily. My Unimog is 2.9 meters high with the cab. The trees in southern Africa don’t grow that high, which meant we wouldn’t be able to drive under them. I therefore realized that the aluminum superstructure couldn’t be much higher than the cab.

I had to start building the superstructure at a height of 140 cm above the ground, which left only 1.5 meters for the superstructure. That wasn’t enough, so I came up with the idea of using a hinged roof with a cable winch to open and close it. The roof is a lot bigger than the folding roof on a VW bus, which means it’s also heavier. Obviously, I was going to taper the body at the overhang at the back to make sure the maximum angle of departure was maintained.

Time to get to work

I had to design and build everything by myself. I used FreeCAD and Q-CAD with a Linux system for the drafts. I worked on the aluminum in my workshop, which involved more than 40 hours of WIG welding. I imagine I made my electric company pretty happy.

I wore out an entire pneumatic rivet gun for the 8,233 pop rivets on the exterior aluminum paneling. I lined the interior of the bodyshell with Styrodur. I used 4-mm waterproof plywood with white glaze for the visible surface on the inside. For the roof, I used an aluminum-plastic composite panel — the type that’s often used for advertising billboards. I stabilized the roof with an aluminum beam in the middle, and the roof itself was securely bolted to the frame, so I knew there would occur no problems while we were on the road. It was all very simple and stable.

The superstructure completed

I had a company in Kirchheim am Neckar making the fabric walls of the folding roof. A local carpenter helped me with the interior design and the selection of wood for it. For the interior fittings, I cleared a project space in my basement and produced lots of sawdust and wood shavings. The luxury kitchen in my Unimog is actually a stainless steel tool trolley that I bought on the internet. I took off the wheels and handles and riveted the trolley firmly to the frame. It’s simpler and more stable than a set of caravan drawers.

Attention to detail

I used a normal water faucet with a switch mechanism for the running water supply. When you press the switch, a submerged pump in the canister engages and the water begins to flow. When the 10-liter canister is empty, I can hang the pump in a new canister. I don’t use a fresh water tank or a waste water container. Just a battery and 10-liter canisters. We didn’t want to use gas for cooking because it would have involved using an additional energy source. Our motto is diesel fuel and compressed air only.

Okay, but if there’s a 230-volt electrical connection at a campsite, we use it to charge our battery in the superstructure and then cook with the ceramic cooktop.

The army apparently isn’t interested in the optimal use of space — the Unimog had sheet metal boxes under the platform for storing tools etc. I replaced those with aluminum storage boxes that I built by myself. You can fit a lot of things in these: Five 20-liter canisters of diesel fuel, engine oil, transmission oil, tools, spare parts, wooden storage supports, 20 meters of steel cable for the grip hoist, our army-issue Heinze diesel cooker, a small but nice kettle grill in a self-sewn bag, electrical extension cords, charcoal, an emergency generator, and the obligatory folding spade.

We’ve got two tires hanging on the back, and for when the sand gets extremely fine, 4-mm aluminum sand plates attached at an easily reachable height with different screw heads.

This blog post is the first installment of a travel blog. Dr. Robert Mutschler will report at regular intervals on his experiences on the road — and about his Unimog too, of course. He plans to use his Unimog, which he largely designed and built by himself, to take trips as much off the beaten path as possible through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Dr. Robert Mutschler works on strategic issues in the Passenger Car Production Planning department. His motto is that “those who have their technical stuff together also have their costs under control,” which may explain why Mutschler is currently cited as the inventor in 33 listings at the German Patent and Trademark Office. Mutschler is on sabbatical from March to December 2018, and he and his family plan to explore and experience the fascination of the Unimog during this time.