The forecast is for rain. Lots of it. Even photographer Baker calls to see if we should cancel, but there are two overriding reasons why this particular shoot doesn’t need to be rescheduled: the vehicles themselves.
Fortunately for us, we are testing something rather more substantial than a pair of delicate Italian soft-tops that, if myth is to be believed, would be heard fizzing away in the lightest of showers.
Instead, we’ve got two proper toys to play with, which means that the suede loafers and sports jacket have been left in the cupboard in favour of a stout pair of boots and a Barbour.
We’re not talking about a complete ‘back-to-basics’ experience, though, because the pairing of Range Rover and Mercedes G-Wagen offers an insight into the world of luxury 4x4s that came to prominence in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Previously, those country folk who wanted an alternative to their Land-Rover were left a little high and dry. Solihull’s staple seller was more than capable, but it lacked creature comforts and was basic even when compared to the standard saloon car of the previous decade.
As the 1960s drew to a close, the British firm was ready to offer something quite different. At that point, America already had a thriving market for what would become known as Sports Utility Vehicles, courtesy of the Jeep Wagoneer and Ford Bronco. It took a visit by Graham Bannock, Land-Rover’s head of market research, to convince the management that this was an area worthy of exploration.
As the man in charge of new projects, ‘Spen’ King set to work along with chassis designer Gordon Bashford and, in 1970, the two-door Range Rover was launched.
In contrast, the G-Wagen (or Geländewagen, to use the full name) finally hit the market almost a decade after the Range Rover, although its story begins in 1973 with a plan between Daimler-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch to develop a light, all-wheel-drive, off-road vehicle.
Steyr-Puch already had experience in this field as producers of the Haflinger and Pinzgauer, and there is an obvious military influence on the G-Wagen’s look and feel.
At its launch in the south of France in 1979, the versatility of the new Mercedes was immediately clear. While the Range Rover was available only as a two-door, the G-Wagen came in four possible body configurations (with a fifth added a year later) with four engine alternatives – a staggering 40 possible combinations in total.
The design process of the Mercedes also differed greatly from that of its British rival. While initial development for the Range Rover consisted of hot-weather testing in the Sahara and cold running in Alaska, the G-Wagen was evaluated within the factory.
It served to highlight the difference a decade can make, with computer-based analysis and mathematical simulations being used to find the limits of the ladder-frame chassis before any mules were even built.
Once the first ready-to-drive prototype rolled out of the factory in Graz, testing took on a more familiar twist, visiting coalfields between Cologne and Aachen, Steyr-Puch’s Shöckl site in Austria, the North African desert and even the Atlas mountains and Arctic Circle.
All of that work paid dividends because the moment you climb into the G-Wagen, you feel as though you could go anywhere and do anything... albeit at a stately pace in the featured 1989 300GD, which ‘boasts’ a 0-60mph time of 23.7 secs!
The five-cylinder, 3-litre diesel unfortunately runs out of puff unless exact and full use of the rev range and gearchanges is made, and on the motorway you find yourself jostling for position with lorries when it comes to facing any sort of gradient.
It’s completely at odds with the Range Rover, which feels like a sports car in comparison thanks to the Buick-derived 3.5-litre V8 powerplant beneath the bonnet.
Rather than having the later fuel injection, this 1984 Vogue is fitted with twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors, which makes for a smooth power delivery and a pleasing rev range when coupled with the five-speed manual gearbox. It’s a combination that results in a rather more impressive 0-60mph figure of 15 secs.
Once off the beaten track, however, those figures don’t really count for much – it’s all about how effectively you get to where you are going rather than how quickly, and it’s fair to say that both cars impress in their own way.
The Range Rover boasts permanent four-wheel drive, a lockable centre differential and a dual-range transfer box that, with low range selected, assists on particularly tricky surfaces.
The G-Wagen is two-wheel drive as standard – something that is easily displayed on wet grass, for instance. Selecting four-wheel drive immediately restores grip, as well as parity between the two vehicles. The Mercedes also has a dual-range transfer box, but the difference comes with the fact that it features two locking differentials that you can select from the cabin.
Four-wheel drive in both vehicles feels robust enough, but the rutted green lane on which we opt to test them offers both a loose surface and a challenging gradient. With low range selected, neither Range Rover nor Mercedes shows any sign of a struggle and propel us to the top with aplomb, not once breaking traction.
Both manufacturers opted to ditch the traditional, and often harsh, leaf-spring suspension in favour of a coil-spring set-up, and each coupled it with telescopic dampers and Panhard rods.
In the case of the British car, Spen King argued for the change not just on the grounds of comfort, but also because the extra articulation would help to keep all four wheels in contact with the ground once you ventured off the beaten track – helping to maintain grip in the process.
But the point of these off-roaders is not just how well they perform on the odd green-laning excursion.
Climb into the Range Rover and the luxury aspect is plain to see. Unlike the Series or 90/110 Land-Rover, this interior can’t be hosed down once the dirty work is done, but the ergonomics of the dash layout and seating position mean that it is easy to forget the ‘go anywhere’ side of the Rangie’s split personality and just enjoy it as a spacious and well-equipped road-going classic.
Deep-pile carpet, velour seat trim and golden wood cappings on the door tops all contribute and, with air-conditioning and electric windows as options added over the years, its target market is clear.
The spacious rear seats boast triple folding armrests, while there is also plenty of room in the boot. It is accessed by that basic requirement of any grouse shoot – the split folding tailgate, on which many a picnic and midday scotch will have been served to the landed gentry.
The G-Wagen is more utilitarian in design. Obviously Mercedes-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch had different ideas as to what constituted luxury, but there is nothing actually at fault with the interior. In fact, there are some neat touches, such as the under-seat ‘locker’ that holds the jack, and the large side-hinged rear door that means you can make the most of the load bay, which also boasts an extra set of seats on this long-wheelbase model.
It got more luxurious over the years, too, with the 1990 facelift giving the G-Wagen a W124-style interior. Once you’re behind the wheel, the gearknob seems a decent reach away thanks to the lower transmission tunnel but, as with the Rangie, the dash and its controls are clearly arranged and accessible.
In another classic you might be critical of the quantity of plastic trim panels, but here it serves to reassure you that it won’t be the end of the world if you get your 4x4 dirty.
“Do you want to wash these wheels before I photograph them?” asks Baker, but it seems almost disrespectful to the G-Wagen to do so. We’ve been splashing through half-flooded routes, navigating our way down green lanes and racing across a grass runway, and neither car has done anything to lead us to doubt their ability.
They have also provided a comfortable place to sit, heat at the push of a button or slide of a lever, plus aesthetics that are still appealing 40 years on. We leave the wheels dirty and trundle off to a country pub where, as if to further illustrate their broad appeal, they look right at home and draw plenty of admiring glances.
Both examples have been the subject of some restoration – in particular the Range Rover, which was bought by owner Ben Metcalfe on eBay and then given a full rebuild by the marine engineers he normally employs to fit out luxury yachts.
This was never meant to be a straight back-to-back – the two models are fundamentally different in terms of specification and you could argue that the Mercedes would be better paired with an early Defender. But as we sit in the pub, looking out at the mud-splattered workhorses, untroubled by everything we had thrown at them, I can’t help but ponder the usual question: if I had to choose one, which would it be?
I struggle to get over just how limited the 300GD is on the motorway, but a different engine option would solve that particular problem, and the six-cylinder petrol alternative would certainly reduce the disparity between the G-Wagen and the Range Rover.
Off road, it felt indestructible – a sense that was reinforced by the lack of luxury compared to the cosetting offered by its rival. Given the brief, however, perhaps that is where the Brit just edges it. The combination of eager V8 with that trademark sound, comfort, space and excellent off-road ability means that it ticks all the boxes, while also being a damn fine-looking classic.
Perhaps more importantly, I started the day convinced that the Range Rover was the one for me: I didn’t really get the appeal of the Mercedes thanks to its unique looks and neither-here-nor-there stance in the utility/luxury market. But, as the day draws to a close, I am disappointed at having to hand back the keys now that I have had a peek into just why the G-Wagen has such a dedicated following. Another few goes and I reckon I might consider myself a convert.
Ultimately – and despite the rain, wind and cold – it is heartwarming to know that there are two classics out there that can still raise a smile even in the most British of weather.
Images: Tony Baker
MERCEDES-BENZ 300GD LWB
- Sold/number built 1984-’91/3905
- Construction steel chassis, steel body
- Engine all-iron, overhead-cam 2998cc five-cylinder diesel, indirect fuel injection
- Max power 88bhp @ 4000rpm
- Max torque 126.5lb ft @ 2400rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear or all four wheels, dual-range transfer box, twin differential locks
- Suspension: front live axle on leading arms, coil springs with Panhard rod rear live axle on trailing arms with Panhard rod; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 14ft 4in (4395mm)
- Width 5ft 53/4in (1700mm)
- Height 6ft 5in (1975mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 4in (2850mm)
- Weight 4491lb (2037kg)
- Mpg 19
- 0-60mph 23.7 secs
- Top speed 83mph
- Price new £17,240
- Price now £12-20,000
RANGE ROVER MK1 4-DOOR
- Sold/no built 1981-’94/326,070 (all Mk1s)
- Construction steel chassis, aluminium and steel body panels
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 3528cc V8, twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors
- Max power 125bhp @ 4000rpm
- Max torque 190lb ft @ 2500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, driving all four wheels, dual-range transfer box, automatic differential lock
- Suspension: front live axle, radius arms, coil springs rear live axle, radius arms, self-levelling struts; telescopic dampers and Panhard rods f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 7in (4470mm)
- Width 5ft 8in (1780mm)
- Height 5ft 9in (1800mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2540mm)
- Weight 4650lb (2109kg)
- Mpg 15.4
- 0-60mph 14.4 secs
- Top speed 96mph
- Price new £15,473
- Price now £12-30,000+