The slowest and smelliest G-class we've ever driven is truest to the original.
Thomas Burberry's innovative trench coat covered the shoulders of British army officers in World War I. That it would emerge from the reeking hell of battle and become a fashion statement by the Second World War was quite the evolution. Few luxury goods of this caliber originate from war.
One is the Mercedes-Benz G-class, which was developed initially for the Iranian army and instead became a West German and NATO assault vehicle during the Cold War. Only in the latter half of its 44-year run fighting Soviets and protecting popes has the G-class served as a glorified Rodeo Drive shopping cart.
Not this one. We're idling a gray 250GD called "Wolf," which refers to early W461 two-doors built for militaries, fire brigades, and police. Plucked from a German scrap field and rebuilt fresher than it came out of the Magna Steyr factory, this 250GD is a most authentic take on the G's original mission.
Unlike many vintage-SUV restomods, a 250GD from Expedition Motor Company rattles with the same diesel inline-five and long-throw manual transmission that the German army commissioned in 1991. Anyone familiar with low-horsepower classic cars knows the drill in modern traffic: Merge with extreme caution and stay to the right. In the 15.6 seconds that an AMG G63 takes to hit 120 mph, an EMC 250GD is barely touching 55—and that's assuming you don't start in the crawler gear or fumble an upshift, which is easy enough to do given the 250GD's shift linkage.
EMC founder Alex Levin prefers it this way. As a boy in Belarus, he'd steer a 300GD from his father's lap. Although his family emigrated to the United States when he was two years old, when they returned to visit, the white Mercedes hardtop with the clattering engine and knobby tires was waiting. Levin, 33, never lost the connection to his homeland. He started Expedition Motor Company in 2017 with one objective: Revive the gnarliest G-class.
"You have to have some sort of roots in Europe to restore these things," he said. "It's tough to put the entire chain together." Levin scavenges specific Euro-market models—only two-door diesel soft-tops from 1990 to 1993—and rebuilds them in Poland and Germany. It's a frame-off restoration that takes some 2000 hours to complete. When Mercedes parts are scarce, his team machines or 3-D-prints them from scratch. Levin sells roughly 30 examples a year from his shop in Frenchtown, New Jersey.
The 2.5-liter OM602.939, ironically called the "whisper diesel," gets a full rebuild and an upgraded fuel supply that unlocks two precious ponies over the stock configuration's modest output of 91 horsepower and 117 pound-feet. Unlike later G-class models, the Wolf has no center differential. It's a part-time four-wheel-drive setup like you'd find in any 4Runner. You just have to learn the German abbreviations for Strasse, Strasse Allrad, and Gelände Allrad (2WD, 4WD Hi, 4WD Lo). Two plungers engage the axle lockers. In low range in the lowest gear, it's impossible to stall.
There are a few concessions to modern engineering and consumer tastes, namely the extra pistons on the front brake calipers and urethane suspension bushings on the front axle that improve wheel control on the road. The EMC 250GD is lifted 1.6 inches, and Levin doesn't recommend highway travel, but for science, we pushed it to 70 mph, and the only consequence was a speaker cover coming loose. At that speed, the manual steering is light and full of trembling fear—as far as feel goes, there isn't much. Despite its tractor soundtrack, the diesel five is smooth from idle to whatever redline is (there's no tach). Wear a KN95 mask during cold starts, though; it's rough and positively poisonous for the first few minutes.
Levin is at least kind enough to include a Boss Audio head unit with a backup camera, a basic radio, functioning air conditioning, and electric heating for all four seats. There's a teak console with cupholders and more beautiful woodwork running along the side panels and cargo floor. The most lavish option is a Mercedes five-speed automatic.
Everything else is purposely inconvenient. The soft top requires 20 minutes to stretch over the frame and tie its straps through 35 loops. The rear seats are mounted high atop ammo boxes—be sure to have your passengers wear their seatbelts. Other army vestiges include a jerrycan, fold-down windshield, and bumper hooks for helicopter transport.
More than a hundred people have written checks to EMC despite—or because of—the Wolf's limitations. The $165,000 sticker is more than you'd pay for a new G550 (at least before options and dealer markup), but while Mercedes does offer civilians some military flair with the G550's G Professional package, that essentially just buys a roof rack and ladder. If a true war machine is what you're after, EMC makes the genuine article.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer for Car and Driver, specializing in business, government, and litigation news. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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