Unimog S 404 migration to the US
The late Jack Russell once told us of a mining organization in Colorado that imported 20 or so S404s in the mid 50s. Details are lacking. If any readers know of the organization and details surrounding their importation, use and the current whereabouts of any surviving specimens we’d like to hear from you. Over the years several customers have sent photos of their vehicles, some equipped with a hardtop neatly done, which could possibly have originally be installed by this concern. All of these vehicles sported the early features: "wing nut" windshield securing nuts, overhead-mounted windshield wipers, "pizza" disc wheels, etc.
For the first 20 years of their existence, the S404 was military, or paramilitary issue predominately. While Mercedes was developing and marketing successive upgrades of the 2010 (the 411) and larger, diesel-powered units (the U54, U72, U80, etc now commonly known as the U900 or “406”.) and a never-ending array of attachments and modifications, the military S404 was consistently the same basic vehicle with few functional modifications. This universal application and interchangeability has served the aftermarket Unimog owner well. Exceptions abound to the military contracts for the S404. Anyone could approach Mercedes and place an order for a S404. This was done by many police departments, research and testing organizations, mainly in Germany, and some of these limited series production and “one-off” vehicles have found their way into the US as well.
The first major influx of the S404 into the US came in the late 70’s when the Bundeswehr opted to gradually replace the S404 with the newer, larger U1300 in 1977. Surplus cargo trucks ruled the market! We acquired our first S404 in 1979 from an importer based in Texas who brought several units to Venice California. With the grey market flourishing, cars and “mogs” (still relatively unknown in the US and recognized by US customs as an “agricultural tractor”) entered the country, and the mogs were considered a duty free agricultural commodity, irrespective of their configuration! This initial influx began to taper off during the 80s until the KS decided to surplus their TLfs (Tank-lösch-fahrzeug = tank extinguishing vehicle) as well. Numerous fire trucks hence appeared late in the decade, both equipped with “wet” (Tlf) and “dry” chemical (Trolf) capabilities. As fire trucks are also a duty free commodity, they too experienced easy importation consideration.
The remaining S404s retained in military service in Germany were reassigned to a support rather than a general transport role and as a result, many were reworked by government contractors to serve as a ground-to-air liaison between the army and air force as a radio equipped, target acquisition and fire support vehicle for ground and armored units, and thus so equipped with ground-to-ground, as well as ground-to-air equipment and other supporting equipment. With the cold war threat from the USSR diminishing and the reunification of the federal German Republic, these vehicles too were declared surplus and began to trickle into the US towards the mid 90’s.
Coincidental to this migration the Swiss began to surplus their 404s. Simultaneously, the Belgians and French started this expulsion of materiel. Many of the vehicles were purchased by or given to foreign countries as military assistance offerings. Mexico, Turkey, Angola, to name a few. Perhaps in the future an additional “flood” of 404s will hit the market once these governments elect to surplus them out – but that’s conjecture at this point.
To top this off, the Bund (short for German government) decided to dispose of their large stock of spare parts from the cold war stocks, now deemed unnecessary. The resulting crated motor, transmission and portal axle feeding frenzy have elated the US hobbyist, restorer, and rock-crawler communities still to this day and made their enjoyment and maintenance of the S404 less costly than was previously the case.
Alas, those days are history – at least for the moment. Some aging stocks of parts are still to be found albeit subject to potential deterioration. In the foreseeable future, some of these items will find their way into the US, however, the term New Old Stock (NOS) will take on a greater subjective meaning. As well, 404s in the hands of private parties in Europe are slowly gaining the prominence of WWII vehicles as collectors’ items to be preserved in their original configurations. Unassociated with the Unimog is the stigma attached to anything used by the axis powers during World War 2, and so owning one doesn’t automatically label one as a fascist. With gasoline prices at this writing upwards of $ 7.00 per gallon (87 octane) in Europe, driving a piece of history with the voracious appetite of the 404 is approaching luxury status.