1961 Unimog 411
Where a baboon needs a walking stick, boffins say, a Unimog can drive. The baboons may not be too worried about Eniel Viljoen from Villiersdorp’s restored 1961 model, but his handiwork has recently been earning him prize after prize.
Modern 4x4s which boast a ground clearance of more than 20 cm can only hang their heads in shame when a Unimog drives past. Why? Because this stalwart which has been rolling off the production line for 60 years (with a break here and there), has a ground clearance of around 40 cm!
While doing your homework about the legendary capabilities of this beast, you will find it was the only recovery vehicle a few years ago which could rescue a truck stuck with two rhinos on the back.
Its prowess as war veteran on almost every continent furthermore, is legendary. Year after year it competes in the Dakar Rally, and a host of tomato red European tourists have kissed the Cape Town soil after an extensive journey through Africa in one.
Its robust nature also makes it a favourite among foresters and firefighters, and about half of the world’s snow ploughs are Unimogs.
But the Unimog did not originate from a need for warriors, firefighters or a feeder of tourism appetites. When Germany had been wrestled into submission by 1945, the country had to start over, and the new rulers decided the defeated state had to become an agricultural nation.
The German tractors which had to help pull the country into a new direction, didn’t exactly inspire Albert Friedrich, aviation engineer at Mercedes-Benz.
So he designed an off-the-wall “tractor” which would radically push the envelope of conventional agricultural mechanisation.
It had to be a four-wheel drive vehicle, he decided, with diff-locks, four equally-sized wheels and decent ground clearance, power takeoffs at the front and back, a loading bin, space for two in the cabin and it had to be able to do speeds of 0.5 km/h to 50 km/h, for ploughing and road driving.
When the revolutionary “tractor” had to be named, the acronym Unimog (Universal Motorgerät, or “universal power unit”) was chosen. When this revolutionary vehicle was first exhibited at an European show in 1948, orders soon ran up to 150.
Eniel Viljoen, a Villiersdorp businessman and farmer, got the chance to restore a 1961 Unimog 411 to its original glory a couple of years ago.
According to this veteran of “14, 15 restoration projects”, including two Chev bakkies and a host of tractors, you have to have a lot of grit to restore a Unimog.
And a partner who understands because, Eniel says, he does not stop until a project has been completed.
“Every night I need to fix something … I just about see my wife and daughter on Sundays only.”
Although the Unimog has been parked in the Villiersdorp tractor museum, Eniel has played with it a few times in the mountain on his farm: “It drives splendidly. Thanks to its ground clearance, short wheelbase and wheel articulation, it can climb everywhere.”
He doesn’t want to use the 1961 model for serious 4×4 outings, as Mercedes-Benz has no spares and second-hand spares are as rare as second-hand coffins.
How did you end up with the Unimog?
I got it in October 2004 from Petrus Roux, founding member and first chairman of the Western Cape Veteran Tractor and Engine Club.
Petrus had used it on his farm in Fraserburg, where it had broken down.
In exchange for a case of brandy, he gave it to me to see whether I could restore the Unimog to its original condition. But he had to wait a year before I could start working on it.
What condition was it in?
It was quite complete – the body had relatively little rust and few dents and the engine and even the mudguards were original. It had the original large tyres, although they had been retreaded twice. They were cracked all over, and the tubes protruded here and there.
What are the Unimog’s specifications?
It has a 30 hp engine, a “crash” gearbox with no synchromesh, and its Landau four-cylinder 1.7-litre diesel engine which produces a maximum torque of 101 Nm, propells it to a top speed of 45 km/h.
The Unimog also has front and back diff locks and a compressor which, through an air coupling, provides air to the front, back and to a three-point coupling. This is designed to enable the Unimog to pull a trailor fitted with air brakes.
Its approach angle is 45°, departure angle 75°, ground clearance 40 cm and the distance between the bottom of the side panel and the ground is a huge 51 cm.
Its wheelbase is 2.1 m and it has six normal gears for the road and a two-speed reverse gearbox.
Where did you start?
First I removed the plates which the previous owner had welded to the chassis.
Then the vehicle was completely dismantled. The broken units such as the engine, gearbox, diff-locks and brakes were repaired within about a year.
One thing I learned the hard way is that a Unimog is like a jigsaw puzzle: there’s only one way of removing parts, and only one way of reassembling it. If you get the sequence wrong, or forget to replace something like the grille, you have to remove everything and reassemble it all over again.
After it had been assembled, the previous owner discovered a broken pulley on his farm. I had to rebuild the pulley and we sweated about 30 hours to fit it. I had to unbolt and move the loading bin back and remove the gearbox cover and the diesel tank.
It was also a struggle to fit the handbrake, one of the last levers I needed to get in place, and I had to remove parts of the body to fit it.
Did you do it all alone?
Not quite. A Grabouw firm rebuilt the engine top (I learned from them the Unimog has the same engine as the Mercedes-Benz 170-diesel of the early sixties) and a Johannesburg firm repaired and calibrated the temperature gauge (all the gauges, except for the temperature gauge and the speedo’s cable were in a good condition). The radiator was in a good condition, but it had to be recored as it was clogged.
Even the original wiring could be retained. One of my friends was visiting the Mercedes-Benz museum in Germany at the time and brought back a wiring diagram of the Unimog for me.
And the body?
First all the body and chassis parts were sanded and the unrepairable sections cut out and other parts welded in. The body was also cleaned with grease remover and hosed down with a high-pressure hose. (By the way, the side panels of the loading bay are made of meranti.)
A total of 12 litres of paint – an undercoat and three coats – were used to restore the body to its original colour. (The Unimog came in three colours – yellow, green and orange.)
Were tyres a problem?
Tyres are frequently restorers’ biggest problem. I could retain the original rims and fitted large tractor tyres (10.5/18 inch) which I found in Bloemfontein. The same tyres are used on tractors which are used in orchards.
Radial tyres for tractors are freely available, but these nylon tyres which I needed for the Unimog, I could only get in the Free State.
How much time did you spend on the Unimog?
About 600 hours over almost two years, mostly from 8-12 pm. And when I got stuck, I worked right through to daybreak.
Will you keep it?
it’s not for sale. About four months ago someone offered me R100 000 for it at the Western Cape Veteran Expo at Villiersdorp.
Everyone who has seen the vehicle, including a Brit who has rebuilt two, say they have never seen such a completely restored Unimog. In England, a restored Unimog is worth between £7 000 and £15 000 (R97 000 and R210 000), depending on its condition.
What is your next project?
A 1953 McCormick-Deering tractor which belongs to my dad.