Beast From The East: 1980 Unimog 416

“What?” I yelled back at Tom Henwood for the third or possibly fourth time since we left the shop. He laughed and handed me a headset to deaden the cacophony swirling around the cab. It helped, but to quote Uncle Lewis, the thing still sounded like “a dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant.” Its six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz diesel rests directly beneath the driver and passenger, and it roared in protest trying to propel the Unimog forward. The aggressive tires howled against the pavement, and the wind noise was abhorrent, smashing into the uninsulated cab with all of the aerodynamic advantages of a brick wall. This thing was LOUD, and it wasn’t particularly comfortable either. Despite the cab’s width, it was shockingly cramped, as the motor takes up almost all of the interior space. The footwells were barely big enough for my size 14s, and the seats, though well-kept, were something I’d expect to see in a tractor, and not a new one either. The suspension at least was comfortable, but take a sharp corner, and you’d suck up the seat cushion while praying to the gravity gods for mercy on your foolish soul. Even the brakes were trying to kill us, working only half the time with maybe a quarter of their strength. If this Unimog hadn’t been a manual, I doubt we would have made it down the street, yet there I was grinning ear to ear. It might have been the overdose of exhaust, but I was falling in love with this glorious machine.

If you asked me what an overland truck needs, I’d probably tell you good tires, a reliable motor, and the bare minimums of equipment to keep you comfortable. For some, that might be a blanket and a backpacking tent, for others possibly a pop-up camper, but the point is to keep to things as simple and straightforward as possible. However, some vehicles don’t need to be practical. I’m a firm believer that every now and then we need a vehicle that is so absurdly impractical that the only justification for driving it is simply for the sake of having fun. After all, no child puts a poster of a beige Corolla on their wall. They hang purple Lamborghinis, bright-red Ferraris, neon-orange trophy trucks, and if they made a poster of it, they would undoubtedly hang up Main Line Overland’s Unimog too.

That’s because no matter how you measure it, this thing is as ridiculous as it is awesome. Take the transmission for example. It has eight forward gears, rather standard these days, but it also includes four reverse gears. Then there’s the motor, a Mercedes Benz straight six that barely produced over 100 horsepower when new, yet it turns four 43-inch Continental mud tires without a trace of difficulty because the Unimog has a simply outlandish crawl ratio. How outlandish? Well, it’s hard to nail down exact numbers, but most internet gurus agree on an absurd ratio of 4000:1. To give you some realistic concept of what that looks like, Jalopnik calculated that this truck’s top speed in its crawl gear is LESS THAN .05 mph or three times slower than a sloth can walk. Just let that sink in. This puts a mind-blowing amount of torque to the wheels, allowing the truck to crawl over anything in its path.

Of course, if you want to talk about crawling over things, the clearance doesn’t hurt either. Thanks to Mercedes’ portal axles, the 416 can measure the air beneath its chassis in feet rather than inches. For those curious, it was about 1.4 feet before MLO installed the larger tires. A snub nose and short back end give it approach and departure angles a Rubicon can’t even dream of, and despite the longer wheelbase, its breakover will almost certainly never be an issue. I mean, just look at it, the thing is a Tonka truck.

A snorkel? You bet. Auxiliary off-road lights? Why not? Lockers? But of course! Front and rear locking differentials to be exact, and they’re powered by an onboard air compressor providing traction for any situation where you find yourself at a loss. That being said, you’d have to work really hard to need them, because this thing is the master of articulation. Not only will it droop and compress its coil springs like no tomorrow, but the ladder frame is designed to flex in the front and back while the center stays rigid as well. That gives this truck a distinct advantage on the trail. If you are REALLY in trouble, or more likely someone else is, Main Line installed a Warn winch to perform recoveries. For those struggling to envision what a flexible and rigid frame looks like, take a look at this picture, and you might understand.

Most people would probably have stopped there, but dream trucks aren’t built by doing good enough, so Main Line installed a custom flatbed camper platform on the back and mated it to a Four-Wheel Camper. This flatbed Grandby model is finished out with Woolrich fabrics inside, and throws in a dash of luxury to this rough and tumble truck. After a day of driving, you’ll want it—trust me. The finishing touch was the custom toolbox and spare tire mounted between the cab and the camper, the cherry on top of this sweet setup.

So at the end of the day, we have a truck that can’t fit in your garage, is far from fuel efficient, and has a top speed of just 60 mph. It is loud, difficult to handle, and uncomfortable, but it will give you a tush of steel after flexing it each time you attempt to come to a stop. Despite all of these flaws though, this Unimog is an absolute joy to drive. It sets your pace and forces you to take in the surroundings instead of just passing through. People will wave, kids will smile, and locals won’t ignore you—instead, they’ll invite you for a cup of coffee and hope to learn more about your life. It may not be remotely practical, but when it comes to having fun, and experiencing what overlanding should be, I’d argue there’s nothing better.

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Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Senior Editor while living full-time on the road.