Northwest NEWS

April 23, 2001

Features

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Victor Harding's 1963 Mercedes Benz Unimog was a Swiss army transport vehicle before it was imported to the U.S. Newer models from the Gaggenau, Germany, factory come in blue turquoise, orange, yellow, green, olive drab or white; and they're dipped not sprayed.
Photo credit.

Unimogs are dipped, not sprayed

by Jeanette Knutson Staff Writer
  
   Victor Harding, owner of Redmond's Victor's Celtic Coffee Co., missed the 6,000 kilometer expedition to circumnavigate the island of Borneo earlier this April. He didn't make the Easter weekend 2,200 kilometer trek on the tarmack roads of Tasmania, either. And he can forget about the adventure ride that runs from Rio de Janerio, Brazil, through Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina this fall. He won't cross the Rubicon, traverse the Baja or fare forth the deserts of Afghanistan. He's out of the loop. He sold his Unimog.
   Unimogs aren't sissy 4 x 4s. They don't come with cupholders (at least the old ones don't). They come with two gunholders, for rifles. They're big, "herky," military transport vehicles that make Hummers and SUVs look dinky.
   Some say Unimogs are "man's best friend." Harding calls them the "Porsche of four-wheel drive vehicles." Austin Gregory, the man to whom Harding sold his Unimog and owner of Woodinville's Coffee Republic calls them "the closest thing to a space age vehicle we have."
   It's been said that if God came back, he'd drive a Unimog. And Budda might want one, too.
   The concept of the "Universal-Motor-Geraet," whose English translation is roughly "universal motor tool," or Unimog for short, was formed in post World War II Germany. The country, in a depressed state, decimated by American and allied forces, and bound by manufacturing restrictions imposed upon the vanquished, turned its attention to farming. In 1944 Albert Friedrich, director of aviation motor development at Daimler-Benz AG, envisioned a "do-everything vehicle," one that could plow the fields, sow the crops, harvest the products and haul them to market; a vehicle with forward control and all-wheel drive to which multiple implements could be attached. In 1948 the Unimog made its debut at a Frankfurt trade show. One-hundred fifty orders were taken and a year later the first deliveries were made.
   Its versatility made it an international hit. Implements could be attached at the front, rear, center, sides, top and bottom. Besides its agrarian niche, the Unimog had a military and civilian appeal, as well. It has been and still is used as a troop carrier around the world. It can be modified to be an ambulance, a radio communication center, an on-road or off-road arctic or desert vehicle. It's been used in dam construction, forestry projects, snow clearing operations and firefighting endeavors. It's even been converted to posh motor homes and yuppy food-haulers.
   Harding got a charge out of driving his 1963 Mercedes- Benz Unimog to Puget Consumers Co-op (PCC) on grocery runs. He also did some gentle off-roading with it on the back roads of Index. He drove it to Seattle or Kent for coffeehouse supplies, hauled a cut cherry tree to a saw mill in Sultan once. One Christmas, he and his wife Jane strung lights around it, filled it with straw and carted a dozen friends around Redmond whilst they sang Christmas carols from sheet music.
   "It paid for itself in six months when I used it to haul lumber and rocks for the addition to the [coffee]shop. I had to clear out the building next door and haul away lumber and duct work and bring in granite for the face of the building.
   "I was always going to use it for advertising, but I never did get around to putting signs on it," he said.
   His best memory of it, though, is of countryside driving outside Index.
   "It was a beautiful clear summer day. There was snow on the mountain peaks. The roof was off. Jane was standing up and I was driving at a slow pace. It was like being in Austria, like [driving] in the 'Sound of Music,'" Harding said.
   And "One time I was driving home from Seattle and Jane was driving behind me. Jane said every guy in every car was rubbernecking [the Unimog] all the way home," said Harding.
   Though he didn't drive around waving to absolutely everyone he saw, he admits he did go through a "always being on show" phase of his Unimog ownership. He did his fair share of waving at the beginning, but that was close to two years and 25,000 miles ago.
   "It was my baby. I'll miss it. It was good to me. I bonded with it. But I had to be realistic. I had to put it back in the universe. I liked it. I had fun with it. I had to keep it going, give someone else a chance," said Harding.
   But he didn't wax nostalgic for long.
   "These things [Harding's Unimog was a Swiss army import] were kept in bunkers in Switzerland in a controlled environment. The army serviced them every 30 hours. Mine came with a shovel, a hatchet, a pick axe and snow chains in the original bags. It [had] two deep-cycle batteries, a straight six, a lot of torque, six forward gears, two reverse. It [had] infra red night vision, and you could isolate the lighting system so the enemy couldn't see you. You could use the front lights and not the back, or the back and not the front," he said.
   "It has a compressor built in," said Gregory, the new owner. "It has circuit breakers, not fuses. It can go up a 70 percent grade and down a 90 percent grade," he bragged. "You can go anywhere. You just have to be brave enough," Gregory said. "Its suspension is good so the ride is smooth, but it's pokey, it's loud [Harding wears ear protection]. It's not for a first date, not for people who want to have a conversation while driving," said Gregory.
   He recalls the first time he drove it into his coffeeshop's parking lot. He was on a test drive of sorts. Harding had let him take it home for the night.
   "Everyone cleared out of the [coffee]shop to see it. I thought to myself, 'Oh man, I've got to have this,'" said Gregory.
   David Stow of Duvall, not part of the Unimog-coffee connection, though he does admit to liking coffee, owned three Unimogs. He sold his last one recently. He used his for hauling things for himself and for friends.
   "I used to go to Carnation Farms for compost or get firewood or building materials. It was like having a giant pickup truck. I helped out at Sandblast hauling material back and forth to the Sandblast site. Remember when the previous site was down a steep embankment? The Unimog, being extremely agile, could traverse the embankment without a problem," said Stow.
   All three of these men came alive when they talked Unimog. Each was enthused and very knowledgable.
   Stow said he liked his Unimogs because, "Little boys like big trucks."
   Gregory fell for his because it encompassed everything his coffeeshop represented. It fit the look and decor of his place perfectly and he hoped it would become synonymous with his shop.
   Harding fell in love with his Unimog "because it [was] a sexy truck ... solid, beefy and overly built."
   And he'd like to thank his wife "for not bursting [his] bubble, for letting [him] live out [his] childish youth."