He may only have to travel around 80 kilometres to get here, but he is still reckoning on driving for around two hours. “Sure, in this vehicle I’m not exactly the fastest driver of all,” says Rainer Hildebrandt, 60. He runs his hand across his face and smiles mischievously. “But I might just be the happiest. Because I just really love being out and about in it on the road and even more so off the road.”
Hildebrandt’s U 421 is 48 years old. The 52 PS output of the green (DB 6277) Unimog with red wheel rims has a top speed of 63 km/h. Okay, probably downhill. But it is built for off-road terrain, where it is virtually unstoppable.
Unstoppable: With all-wheel drive and differential locks at both axles, the Unimog 421 can cope with practically anything.
Exotic: a Boehringer with a body for excavation and loading: Zappel’s favourite Unimog.
Rainer Hildebrandt, president of the Unimog-Club Gaggenau, is on his way from his home on the Wine Route in the Palatinate region to Grombach between Heidelberg and Stuttgart. He has known the man he is going to meet there for a long time from many club meetings. People get together there, have a chat and enjoy the excursions.
But this time he is visiting Wolfgang Zappel at home. And there is a special reason for this: Rainer Hildebrandt knows that the entrepreneur owns one of the most interesting Unimog collections around. Some 30 historic vehicles, including some very rare ones – true curiosities, valuable gems.
Zappel’s profession has a lot to do with his hobby. In Grombach the machinist, 56, runs the medium-sized company Zagro, which prepares new Unimog vehicles for special applications – commercial vehicles that operate in the normal way, but also on rails. The main task of these so-called “road-railers”, which he exports to Japan, India, China, Nigeria, South Africa, Mongolia, Turkey, Russia and Singapore and many more countries besides, is to shunt rail vehicles. His father built up the family business, and Wolfgang Zappel later took over from him.
The Unimog (Universal Motorised Working Machine) is part of German industrial history. In 1948 it was unveiled to the public for the first time in Frankfurt by the German Agricultural Society (DLG). Series production began at Boehringer in August of the same year. 602 Unimog vehicles were built there until the summer of 1950, their trademark being a stylised ox head with U-shaped horns on the bonnet. Daimler-Benz AG then took over the Unimog business in 1951. As of 1953 the star replaced the ox head on the universal motorised working machines produced at the Gaggenau plant.
Utility vehicle: Martina and Wolfgang Zappel collect wood in the U 411 for their fireside evening.
From then on new fields of application made the Unimog the world’s most versatile commercial vehicle. Its applications include winter maintenance, field work, road construction and mowing work on virtually any terrain, often with spectacular attachments. And it increasingly developed into an implement carrier. 380,000 units of this compact light-duty all-wheel-drive truck have been built to date. Two thirds of them are believed to be still at work: in forestry and agriculture, transportation, within the military and in rail construction.
With its unparalleled off-road capability thanks to all-wheel drive with differential locks on the front and rear axles, it drives through and climbs over virtually anything: deep water, steep inclines and high ridges are no problem for this all-rounder. Over 2,000 Unimog vehicles are still built every year, many of them by hand. Around 2,500 implement manufacturers worldwide are currently certified for Unimog attachments.
Rainer Hildebrandt will soon be at his destination. He only has limited space behind his steering wheel of his U 421. It’s loud and cramped in the cab, and there is neither a radio nor air conditioning. Everything has a nice look about it, even if a little outdated. And you sit really high up, higher than in any SUV. That gives you a good overview.
Queues of vehicles often form on the main road behind Rainer Hildebrandt, because he isn’t the fastest of drivers, what with the modest horsepower at his disposal and the large, high-profile tyres. But when he is overtaken there are often smiling faces looking up at him.
Country outing: Mrs Zappel now has plenty of firewood on board.
Climbing gear: Also part of the vehicle collection: the caterpillar Unimog.
“To me, driving the Unimog is quite simply a passion,” says the former Mercedes‑Benz Group AG manager shortly before he arrives in Grombach. And he has very vivid memories of how he first caught this bug: “After I graduated I journeyed through West Africa for six months with friends. From late 1981 to mid-1982 we travelled in a Borgward AD 522 and we often had to dig our way laboriously through sand dunes. A new U 100 once breezed past us with what seemed like the greatest of ease. That was the defining moment. It stoked my passion and enthusiasm for the Unimog.”
He bought his first 20 years ago, the second 13 years ago, and 10 years ago he was even lucky enough to be given the U 421 as a present: the platform vehicle had been standing in a field for years, where it had been rusting away in a terrible condition. Hildebrandt’s son Manuel helped with restoration and maintenance, which took a good six years, many hundreds of working hours and also swallowed up a lot of money. “It was a labour of love,” says Rainer Hildebrandt.
The meeting between the Club President and collector Wolfgang Zappel has something of a family gathering about it: Zappel’s U 411, built in 1957, 30 PS, top speed of 53 km/h, is the predecessor – what you might call the older brother of Hildebrandt’s U 421, in which he has just covered and enjoyed the 80 kilometres. This creates a bond between them and the two men immediately hit it off. It goes without saying that their excursion in the platform vehicles takes them straight to Wolfgang Zappel’s unique collection, parked in a factory hall 36 kilometres away.
Cabriolet drivers: The Zappels love being out in the fresh air.
Happy collector: the two Unimog enthusiasts in the treasure trove.
Two of the rare Boehringer models are there, both around 70 years of age. The other vehicles include Unimog models with a loading crane, snow shovel, several historic road-railers as well as Unimog vehicles from former military stocks. From construction year 1948 up to the 1990s.
“Unfortunately I no longer own the white U 1450 in which I drove my wife Martina to our wedding in 1993,” Wolfgang Zappel explains. “But we celebrated our silver wedding anniversary last year. So the Unimog turned out to be a good omen for us.”
Rainer Hildebrandt wants to know where he got all these gems, and Wolfgang Zappel answers: “I know someone who specialises in photographing historic, often exotic, Unimog models. He sometimes calls me up and says there’s an interesting vehicle up for sale. Then off I go and with a bit of luck I become its next owner.” His wife does not always approve. But he says they have never had any serious arguments over it.
“I know what you mean,” replies the Club President, smiling. “Women and Unimog, that’s tricky territory.” He talks of a journey he went on across Switzerland with his wife last summer, covering 1,500 kilometres.
The U 421 took them through valleys and over mountains and alpine passes. The heat in the cab was sometimes like “sitting on a hotplate”.
Rainer Hildebrandt still looks back on their Swiss travels with amusement: “‘Next time, you’re going on your own’ – that’s what my wife said once we were back home. But we’ll see if I can’t persuade her to come with me again.” His dream trip? He wants to go from Spain, where he once worked for Daimler-Benz, to the North Cape. “A 4,000-kilometre rustic ride,” as he calls it. “I’d love to do that!” Meanwhile Martina Zappel tells an amusing story: “He even wanted me to agree to getting a Unimog bed – a load platform in the bedroom. As much as I love him, I refused. A Unimog bed? No thank you!”
Test track: Men turn into boys on Zappel’s private obstacle course with a water ditch and steep inclines. In the water: a U 1450.
The men then complete a few laps of Wolfgang Zappel’s private Unimog obstacle course with a deep water ditch and steep inclines. This is where grown men turn into daredevil youngsters. In the afternoon Martina Zappel has an idea: “We’ll have an evening by the fire. Let’s go and fetch wood from the forest.” The U 411 with its platform is the ideal mode of transport for this, too. And in the evening the three of them sit in front of the fire. This looks very much like the beginning of a lasting friendship.
The club was founded in 1993 and is named after the place where Daimler-Benz AG built Unimog vehicles as of 1951. The club has over 6,900 members in 34 countries. Their average age is 53, and around three per cent of the members are women. In Germany there are 29 regional groups which organise meetings: nuts and bolts days, model information evenings, excursions. The club also initiated the Unimog Museum in Gaggenau, where rides in the outdoor area for visitors are a highlight.
Placard: This is how Daimler-Benz advertised the universalist in the early 1950s.