Mercedes is celebrating 100 years of all-wheel drive cars this year with the Vision GL420 concept we recently covered. The first AWD car it built was the Dernburg-Wagen, which also featured all-wheel steering. Boy racer cars such as the Subaru Impreza WRX and the Mitsubishi Evo have made AWD popular for its exceptional grip around a track, but it was originally used by Mercedes to be used in a Germany colony in Namibia.

You can read more about the Mercedes AWD story after the jump.

This story highlights the fact that luxury car manufacturers have a marketing problem. Despite Mercedes offering 48 different models of AWD vehicles and BMW being the segment leader in AWD sales, it’s Audi’s Quattro system that has the best reputation for superior grip and handling.

Traction with tradition: Over 100 years of all-wheel drive at Mercedes Benz

* In 1903 Paul Daimler laid the foundations for the company’s all-wheel drive system

* The “Dernburg Wagen” made its debut in 1907, featuring revolutionary all-wheel steering

* Unimog, G-Class and the first E-Class 4MATIC as further milestones

Stuttgart, Jan 04, 2007

The Mercedes-Benz all-wheel drive story started in 1903. Ever since, the company has adhered to a clear policy: if you want to tackle difficult terrain safely and effectively, the all-wheel drive is the best technology. Over the decades it has been used successfully in very different Mercedes-Benz vehicles, in passenger cars and commercial vehicles. Some models, the G-Class or the Unimog for instance, bask in a legendary worldwide reputation. Yet even on normal roads, the all-wheel drive delivers superb performance, as the Mercedes-Benz saloons and SUVs with 4MATIC demonstrate.

As early as 1903, Paul Daimler laid the foundations for designing vehicles with all-wheel drive. The son of company founder Gottlieb Daimler was the then Head of Engineering at the Austrian Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in Neustadt, Vienna. In 1904/05 a military towing vehicle was built with all-wheel drive. Over the following years, several towing vehicles and armour-plated cars were developed with all-wheel drive. Yet it wasn't until World War I that the car finally supplanted the horse-drawn carriage within the military. Later all-wheel drive vehicles were increasingly used on building sites or for snowploughing. Benz & Cie. was keen to cash in on this development and so all-wheel drive commercial vehicles were also developed in Gaggenau.

All-wheel drive and all-wheel steering: the “Dernburg Wagen”

In 1907 the German Imperial Colonial Office ordered a vehicle from the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) for a very special mission: it was to be used in the then German Southwest Africa colony, the current Namibia. Excellent off-road mobility was part of the specification. Paul Daimler designed an all-wheel drive vehicle, only one of which would be built in the DMG Berlin-Marienfelde plant. The car was named after Bernhard Dernburg (1865 to 1937), State Secretary of the German Imperial Colonial Office, who used the vehicle in German Southwest Africa on official business in 1908. The trail of this unique vehicle goes cold in the post-colonial era – its whereabouts now a mystery.

The vehicle featured a touring car body with six seats. It was an imposing vehicle: measuring around 4.90 metres long, height including roof more than 2.70 metres and a track of 1.42 metres, its kerb weight was around 3.6 tonnes. The vehicle had permanent all-wheel drive and even all-wheel steering for better manoeuvrability. All of the power-transmission components were shielded against fine drifting sand. Its climbing ability was 25 percent.

The 1:4-scale model of the “Dernburg Wagen” reflects the most important details of the original, a superhuman achievement, particularly as the DaimlerChrysler model builders only had five measurements plus six contemporary photos to work from.

Other Mercedes-Benz passenger cars with all-wheel drive

In 1926 the know-how of the fledgling Daimler-Benz AG turned to building another high-traction passenger car, the three-axle G 1 (W 103 series). The G3 (1928) and G3a (1929) were subsequently developed based on this model. They were all driven at the two rear axles, making them ideal off-road vehicles despite their lack of true all-wheel drive capability. And the powerful G4 (W 31 series) also basically adopted the same design, although certain models also featured additional power transmission to the front axle. Heads of State and top military brass came to appreciate its virtues as a prestige all-terrain vehicle. In the 1930s, Mercedes-Benz built other lightweight all-wheel drive vehicles, primarily for use in the German armed forces.

The Mercedes-Benz G5 (W 152 series, 1937 to 1941) was the precursor of today’s privately owned off-roaders. Mercedes-Benz unveiled the G5 at the 1938 London Motor Show as a “colonial and hunting vehicle”; various bodies were available ex factory. In addition to all-wheel drive, it also had selectable all-wheel steering.

All-rounder with stature: the Unimog

In 1948, the Unimog was unveiled in Frankfurt/Main. The name was coined from the abbreviation of the German "Universalmotorgerät (Univeral Motorized Unit)” – similarly echoing the wide-ranging applications mastered by the all-wheel drive vehicle. Initially Maschinenfabrik Boehringer in Göppingen manufactured the Unimog before Daimler-Benz took over the entire concept in 1950; series production started in the Gaggenau plant in 1951. Over the decades the Unimog has stood the test of time in agricultural applications, long-distance trekking, municipal operations and with the military. It is a match for virtually any type of terrain.

The undoubted success of the Unimog concept is reflected in many of the original vehicle's hallmark characteristics that still remain even today: four identically sized wheels, all-wheel drive with differential locks front and rear, portal axles that can cope with rough terrain, shafts front and rear and a small platform to transport cargo and implements. Numerous variants are available ex factory, allowing the vehicle to be customised to meet very specific applications. And there’s even been a lifestyle-oriented fun version: the Fun-Mog.

A class of its own: the Mercedes-Benz G-Class

In 1979, Mercedes-Benz launched the G-Class. The cross-country vehicle was developed as part of cooperation between Daimler-Benz AG and Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria, in the form of the Geländefahrzeuggesellschaft mbH joint venture. Daimler-Benz subsequently took over full control but with production remaining in Graz at Steyr-Daimler-Puch, the current Magna Steyr. There are four G-Class model series, with various body variants, including a long or short Station Wagon, Cabriolet, panel van and pick-up. In countries like Austria, Switzerland and also in the Eastern European bloc, the G-Class is also marketed under the Puch brand name.

The 460 series set the ball rolling in 1979, only to be replaced later by the more comfortable 463 series (launched 1989), and the simpler 461 series (from 1991) built in parallel. Meanwhile the 462 series is at times assembled in Thessaloniki, Greece from completely knocked-down components.

In the initial conceptual phase, the G-Class was designed as a commercial vehicle. That was soon to change however and the vehicle customised to withstand punishing off-road terrain. The performance figures are outstanding: climbing ability up to 80 percent, directional stability up to 54 percent on lateral slopes, 21 centimetres ground clearance, angle of approach/departure 36/27 degrees respectively mean the G-Class can negotiate the most difficult off-road terrain effortlessly. At the same time the chassis provides safe, comfortable on-road handling.

Early customers included the police and military in many countries. Special versions were produced too, such as a hunting vehicle for the Saudi Arabian royal family, the extra-long G-Class developed by Mercedes-AMG or the “Popemobile” for Pope John Paul II.

The G-Class has been available with petrol and diesel engines offering a range of outputs in all the model years, including high-power AMG variants. It has kept pace with the very latest technology developments but refused to compromise as far as its off-road capabilities were concerned. Over the years, its civilian customer base has become increasingly important, and the G-Class is now available as a comfort-oriented version as an option. The 463 series represented a major leap forward in this respect. The G-Class is also available as a GUARD special-protection version. From 2001 onwards, the classic off-road vehicle made its mark in the major North American market, with much of the production now ending up in the U.S. And the G-Class has long since earned its spurs as the straight-lined, uncompromising evergreen off-roader in the car market.

High tech for passenger cars: Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC

In the mid-1980s the time was also ripe to fit Mercedes-Benz passenger cars with all-wheel drive. The all-new 4MATIC technology made its debut in the 124 series E-Class in 1987; it combined mechanical and electronic components using state-of-the-art technology. The permanent all-wheel drive enhanced the already excellent characteristics of Mercedes-Benz vehicles. From 1999 onwards, the 4ETS Electronic Traction System teamed up with 4MATIC to act as differential locks.

Mercedes-Benz extended its all-wheel drive line-up for passenger cars in the 2003 model year. 32 vehicles were available with 4MATIC in five model series. And in the line-up for the first time was the W 220 series S-Class with short and long wheelbase. In 2006, the W 221 successor model series was unveiled, the first S-Class to combine a diesel engine with all-wheel drive, the S 320 CDI. Even the C-Class was fitted with 4MATIC as part of the 2003 all-wheel drive initiative for six-cylinder models.

Sport Utility Vehicle from Mercedes-Benz: the M-Class

In 1997, Mercedes-Benz made a foray into a newly emerging market by launching the M-Class (W 163 series). The Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) was generally fitted with 4MATIC all-wheel drive. The M-Class combines the comfort and handling safety of a passenger car with the ruggedness and off-road capabilities of a cross-country vehicle. And the fact it also offered ample room and optimum adaptability went down well, turning the first M-Class into a runaway success.

In 2005, the W 164 series M-Class took on the strengths of its predecessor, sporting cutting-edge technology, new powerful engines, the standard-fit 7G-TRONIC 7-speed automatic transmission, the even more effective 4MATIC all-wheel drive, AIRMATIC air suspension and the PRE-SAFE® anticipatory occupant protection system. The design added an extra sporty touch, courtesy of the flat windscreen, striking front wings and the shoulderline rising toward the rear.

Lots of room on four driven wheels: the R-Class touring SUV

In March 2005, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the R-Class touring SUV. The R-Class took the acknowledged strengths of established vehicle categories, such as sporty Saloon, Estate, MPV and SUV, and fused them to create a new car with a character all of its own. All engine variants were fitted with the 4MATIC all-wheel drive as standard.

The Viano 4MATIC, which celebrated its world premiere at the IAA Motor Show in Frankfurt/Main in September 2005, gets you to your destination effortlessly and safely, however adverse the conditions. The Viano 4MATIC can safely transport up to eight persons, whether for day-to-day or recreational purposes, however bad the conditions on the road or the weather may prove. It comes in two wheelbase and three length variants as well as the Viano MARCO POLO camper van.

A high-performance off-roader: the GL-Class

The North American International Auto Show 2006 in Detroit hosted the world premiere of the GL-Class in January 2006, to be followed by the European debut in Geneva in February. The extremely robust, spacious lightweight construction gives the new GL-Class advantages in terms of ride comfort, dynamism and safety compared with its rivals. The standard specification includes 4MATIC permanent all-wheel drive, providing the GL-Class with superb dynamic handling whatever the conditions.