No question about it, you'll get farther in a G-Class than in any other trendy SUV. But how about a 1906 Mercedes Simplex? The old timer turns out to be quite a mountain goat.
The sun slowly rises in the cold October sky, wiping the veil of frost off the fields and country lanes as if by magic. Nature awakens, revealing small puddles and mud holes that were just moments ago covered by a thin sheet of ice. Soon, the golden disc will illuminate the pastoral scene like a giant Klieg light.
This is a steampunk machine
The race car body comes from Puteaux in Paris. Wheelbase: 11.1 feet.
Suddenly, a deep rumble shakes the idyll, threatening like an oncoming storm. Overlying it all is a hiss and a clatter like something out of a Wilhelminian manufacturer's plant, increasing rapidly to a roar before becoming slower and slower again right in front of us. "Sorry I'm late," says Hermann Layher, pulling the hand brake along the side of his Simplex with a firm grip and heaving the lever next to it into neutral position in the open shift gate. "But it's ungodly cold today, that's why it took a while until it got started up." "It" is a Mercedes Simplex 35PS, built in 1906. Layher, director of the Auto & Technik Museum in Sinsheim, an hour northwest of Stuttgart, and born about 50 years after his charge, has brought the car out here, amidst the rolling hills and fields. The great-grandfatherly Mercedes is one of the principal participants in a comparison test like none before. Layher is known in vintage car circles for refusing to shy away from even the toughest challenges, and he's the only man who could achieve what we are trying to do here.
Mr. Layher is a real car-guy
Massive chains on the left and right transfer power to the rear wheels.
He almost froze to death during the Paris-Beijing Rally when his 1907 American LaFrance died on him at an elevation of 13,000 feet. And in his Simplex, he takes a turn into the brush without the slightest hesitation. "This car has been built for unpaved roads," he shrugs, offering to give off-roading a try – just to see how it compares with the modern G-Class. Of course, there's no doubt that the G will win the challenge, but even then the Simplex will not be the loser, Layher swears. "If we get stuck in the mud, the G will get us out," says the guy from the museum, obviously valuing species-appropriate husbandry over respect for a six-figure price tag and historical significance.
"Swarovski crystal on a shovel"
However will this end? The Model G is happily climbing the hills while the driver of the 106-year-old Mercedes Simplex gets the shock of his life.
Agreed, a G-Class is not the most price-conscious choice for playing around in the mud. Our test car, a G350 BlueTec with a 7-speed automatic transmission, comes with a hefty 85.000 Euro price tag – base price, of course. A newly styled interior, a standard Infotainment System Command Online, new LED daytime running lights and modified outside mirrors are supposed to bring the decades-old standard for modern off-roaders into the here-and-now. But in reality, having all that fancy new stuff in a G is like putting Swarovski crystal on a shovel. The Simplex 35PS doesn't go for knick-knacks. It's a direct descendant of the first 1900 Mercedes automobile. Featuring a light alloy engine, a low center of gravity and a honeycomb radiator, it revolutionized car manufacturing. Having simplified ease of operation, the Mercedes had also found its new name – Simplex. One thing never changed, however: It was always a vehicle for royals and millionaires.
Four Brakes For One Machine
The driver controls revs and ignition timing on the steering wheel. The co-driver is responsible for watching the gauges.
In the meantime, Hermann Layher's Simplex idles like an old steam engine. "Get up here!" he hollers. "Let's see if I can lose you guys on rougher terrain!" Subtly and at the same time forcefully, he engages first gear and eases up on the coil clutch. Suddenly, the iron giant jumps, and Layher shoots away, straight into the next dirt road. The huge four-cylinder with its 5.3 liters displacement thunders like it wants to chase away an entire pack of wolves. Everything on the Simplex looks as solid as if it came from a crusaders' castle: The chassis alone weighs 2646 pounds, and the rigid axle construction front and rear features semi-elliptical springs. To decelerate such unfettered technology, you need what are, in effect, four different brakes: a Cardan shaft brake plus a band brake working on the intermediate shafts, and which you operate with your foot, and a pair of additional drum brakes that work on the rear sprocket wheels and are controlled by the handbrake lever. So much for the Simplex.
Simplex or adventurous driving
Anyway, if you know how to control the gas and brakes sensibly, you'll find yourself with decent traction in the dirt, even on tires so thin they would fit perfectly on a small bike. Unsuspecting strollers stare open-mouthed when Hermann Layher and his Simplex plow through muddy country lanes and climb medium-sized hills with no problem whatsoever. At the beginning of the 20th century, courageous drivers conquered hair-raising Alpine passes – on nonexistent roads, even traversing low-running streams when they couldn’t find a bridge. But some hills are just too steep for the Simplex. Even with the 198 lbs weight of one of our editors over the back, it didn't have enough traction for storming up the next peak. "It didn't do too badly now, did it?" says Hermann Layher rather laconically, brushing off the mud the rear tires had thrown forward onto the seats.
The G-Class is no toy SUV
A modern classic for quite a while: The G-model has been produced since 1979 without few alterations to its looks.
The G-Class had left the Simplex in the dust a while ago. The electronically controlled permanent all-wheel drive turns the car into a veritable mountain goat racing up to the peak. Ladder frame, solid axles front and rear, reduction gear and three 100 percent limited slip differentials that can be engaged in low-mode; so equipped, the G-Model can master the most extreme terrain. Eighty percent grades, no problem. Its 8.3 inches ground clearance enables the G to climb over major rock ridges, and its 23.6 inches fording depth lets you cross many a river. Side slopes of up to 54 percent are possible. And to complete the off-road specs, the slope angles come to 36 degrees at the front and up to 27 degrees at the rear. The V6 diesel, meanwhile, purrs like a contented kitten. In the G350 BlueTec, the four valve-engine has a displacement of three liters and delivers 208 hp at 3400 rpm and maximum torque of 398 Pound-feet between 1600 and 2400 rpm.
In the end, the new kid is lending the old guy a hand. Then, at the top of the hill, the Simplex continues under its own power, and Hermann Layher thunders off into the sunset as if this were only a really weird dream.