The Mercedes Benz G-wagen (1979-2018)

Encased in amber on this page is a collection of parts representing a greater sum, a tool made redundant by progress but reborn as a status symbol, an anachronism that survived as the object of enthusiast lust. Sound familiar? Parallels to the wristwatch aside, we loved the original Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen because of what it represented: an epic and improbable triumph of smart engineering and authentic style.

The backstory is equally as improbable. The first prototypes were commissioned in 1973 by the Shah of Iran, at that time a major Mercedes-Benz shareholder. He asked the company to create an all-new truck, one that could traverse his kingdom’s vast and harsh terrain. The resulting machine, equipped with a stout diesel engine and hardcore four-wheel-drive system, resembled a Jeep that subscribed to Architectural Digest and liked hitting the squat rack. It underwent extensive torture testing in the Arctic Circle and Sahara Desert, only to arrive in early 1979—just after the Shah was deposed.

The original 280 GE on display before the new model’s arrival at the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit. (Photo: Daimler/Deniz Saylan)

Not that it mattered. Build by hand at a dedicated facility in Graz, Austria, the new truck’s overall rugged construction, robust mechanicals, and freakish off-road abilities were a revelation. It wasn’t long before the Geländewagen, known colloquially as the “G-wagen,” found its way into military fleets around the globe. Mercedes began offering a street-legal version to civilians across Europe. Sales held steady throughout the 1980s.

Then something funny happened. Which is to say, nothing happened.

 (Photo: Daimler/Deniz Saylan)

Whereas modern cars get styling tweaks after two or three years, and a clean-sheet redesign after seven or eight, the Mercedes saw just one exterior overhaul, in 1990. Even then, it retained the same durable body-on-frame bones, the same upright windscreen, and squared-off profile. When the G-wagen finally arrived at U.S. dealerships, in 2002, it was stuffed with premium features and a complex V-8 engine but still rode on its original steel chassis. Customers lined up to pay six figures for what was essentially a brand-new antique.

They quickly discovered that, as a commuter vehicle, the G-wagen was compromised in nearly every facet. The mega-tall roof, engineered to accommodate a high seating position for scanning rutted dersert topography, became an albatross in parking garages. The soft suspension and slow steering were ideal for off-road handling but sloppier than a soup sandwich on asphalt. The braking performance and fuel economy, about which the less said, the better.

The original 280 GE on display before the new model’s arrival at the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit. (Photo: Daimler/Deniz Saylan)

But the design resonated. Rolling around Beverly Hills or South Beach, where a curvaceous, high-tech supercar is all but mandatory, the G-wagen’s brutal angularity and warhorse vibe seemed vaguely rebellious and deeply cool. Mercedes leaned into the silliness, offering customers new levels of conspicuous absurdity—a six-wheel version, an exotic twin-turbo V-12 engine, a special-edition wearing fluorescent yellow paint. Incredibly, the G-wagen, effectively unchanged after nearly four decades in production, hit record sales last year before its all-new replacement was announced.

The cynical take is that we, as a people, are attracted to excess. Maybe that’s true. But the G-wagen’s brand of excess stood for something, even if many of the customers didn’t realize it. Planned obsolescence is a treadmill; newness is a cult. But function and quality, and good design, are forever.


Paul’s Take…

“The G-wagen succeeds because it’s a piece of anti-design design. Of course, there’s something disingenuous about that—it’s a very elaborate, powerful, luxurious vehicle. But it’s ostentatiously boxy, and looks plain in the same way that someone in jeans doesn’t look dressed up. It’s a brilliant piece of reverse snobbery, which is why it took on a whole new life as a luxury vehicle. It appeals to people who want to spend a lot of money and avoid conventional status symbols.” 

— Paul Goldberger, architecture critic and Vanity Fair contributing editor

Revolutions Per Minute: The Bell & Ross Vintage Bellytanker

Looking for a new timepiece to match your new hot rod? Look no further than the Bell & Ross Vintage Bellytanker, a collection inspired by early Land Speed Record racecars.

Danger and speed are central to the Bell & Ross ethos, so when it came time to create a pair of special edition watches, the brand decided to honor hot-rod impresario Bill Burke.

PHOTO: Courtesy Bell & Ross

Burke, a U.S. Navy veteran, is widely credited with building the first Land Speed Record Bellytanker, repurposing a P-51 Mustang spare he purchased for $35. The resulting creation, once equipped with a hopped-up V8 engine at the nose, was capable of reaching 130 mph. (For reference, an average Ford sedan of the era struggled to manage 65 mph.) But Burke soon realized the 165-gallon tank couldn’t accommodate a full-size driver seat. So he welded in a bicycle seat.

Repeat: These guys went 130 mph, inside a scrapped steel airplane part, sitting on a bicycle seat.

PHOTO: Courtesy Bell & Ross

And wherever there’s history, airplanes, and lunatic speeds, Bell & Ross is sure to be nearby. The company honors Burke and his breed of hot-rodder with Bellytanker editions of two pieces from the Vintage collection, the time-and-date V1-92 and the V1-94 chronograph. The former offers a simpler, plain-bezel look and smaller 38.5 mm size, while the latter measures 41 mm and features a fixed-position tachymeter. Both employ an automatic mechanical movement, boast a satin-steel-polished case and a gorgeous gilt metallic copper dial, offer 100m water resistance, and feature a too-cool custom casebook design. Unsurprisingly, these Vintage Bellytanker watches are a limited-run proposition; Bell & Ross will make just 1000 examples total.

PHOTO: Courtesy Bell & Ross

 

The Biggest Little Car Shop in Texas

Hot-rodders around the world trust Dave’s Perfection Automotive in Austin, Texas. The shop’s owner has some words of wisdom for budding car collectors.

 

Dave’s Perfection Automotive might be one of the planet’s leading shops for hot-rodders and vintage car collectors, but it doesn’t go out of its way to advertise. There’s no website. It’s identified by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it street sign, and you get there by driving down an unassuming alley. Call and ask for the proprietor, and you might hear the following refrain: “We don’t call him ‘The Phantom’ for nothing.”

 

Step inside, however, and you’ll see why collectors worldwide track these guys down. In one corner is an International Harvester Scout II, the pinnacle of 1970s off-road cool, and the vehicle that reps Liz Lambert’s famed Hotel San Jose, which helped make Austin a hot spot two decades ago. There’s a plush Cadillac Eldorado and boat-tail Buick Riviera on the lot, both belonging to a Frenchman who sent the cars Stateside for repairs. And then there are the men running this place, including a mechanic who has worked here for 30 years, and Steve Wertheimer, the longtime Austin scenester who took over after the shop’s founder, Dave Geddes, passed away.

“I was always one of those guys who liked to take things apart,” Wertheimer says. “Sometimes I could get it back together, sometimes I couldn’t.”

He grew up reading car magazines, but didn’t get into collecting until after he bought the Continental Club, the legendary South Austin music venue, in 1987. He befriended Jimmie Vaughan, the iconic blues guitarist and older brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Charlie Sexton, a singer-guitarist and frequent tour-mate of Bob Dylan’s. Both men collected cars, and encouraged Wertheimer to do the same.

One night, Sexton introduced him to a local car enthusiast named Mercury Charlie, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, declared that Wertheimer should own a Mercury. He just so happened to be selling one, a parts car that needed to be restored from the ground up.

“I went out to [Mercury] Charlie’s house every night for it seemed like eight months, and we worked on this 1951 Mercury,” Wertheimer says. “And we basically built the car, put it together, and I’ve been driving that thing for thirty years.” Indeed, the car—curvy, streamlined, jet-black, unmissable—is parked in front of Dave’s most days.

Later, after attending a car show in Paso Robles, Wertheimer caught the hot-rod bug. His first was a 1930 Ford Roadster, christened The Continental Kid, which he still owns, and is powered by an engine he built himself. He founded the Lonestar Hot Rod & Kustom Roundup, a massively popular spring car show, in 2001, and took over at Dave’s in 2012. Along the way, he picked up a few more hot rods (with names like The Black Dahlia and Goldenrod) and became something of a local impresario.

Accordingly, there’s typically a two-month wait just to get your car in the door at Dave’s. When you do, Wertheimer says, the mechanics will likely discover there’s more work to be done than you initially thought. (Original components on older cars wear quickly, and most of the frames and bodies were made from steel, which is susceptible to rust.) From there, it may take months for your car to be finished; it’s not easy to track down vintage parts, and once the team does, it takes time to get them sent to Austin and installed correctly. As Wertheimer notes, “Most of the stuff that we have to deal with, you can’t down to O’Reilly’s or Pep Boys.”

Thinking about getting into hot rods? Wertheimer has a few pieces of advice that will sound familiar to anyone who collects watches. First and foremost, find an expert who can examine your potential quarry and assess its condition. “Don’t get all hyped up over the shiny paint and chrome and all that stuff,” he says. “Local dealer auctions are notorious for putting lipstick on a pig. They wind up over here immediately afterward trying to fix all the stuff that those guys covered up. It’s worth spending a hundred bucks to take a friend or a professional with you to go check out the car. It’ll save you a hell of a lot more money in the long run.”

Once your purchase is sorted mechanically, Wertheimer has one final piece of advice to offer: Drive the thing. Not just for pleasure, though that will be considerable—but also to keep it in good shape. Many of the cars in Dave’s Perfection Automotive suffer from simple lack of use, because owners are too nervous about taking such a beautiful vehicle on the road. (Wertheimer drives more than 20,000 miles a year.) And hey, if you still wind up needing some help, you know who to call.

“Seeing someone drive off, saying this car runs better than ever—that’s where I get the most satisfaction,” Wertheimer says.

Perfection, you might call it.

 

Bell & Ross Vintage Bellytanker

 Bell & Ross channels the heyday of American Land Speed Record



Looking for a retro-style timepiece with a killer backstory? Look no further than the Bell & Ross Vintage Bellytanker collection, inspired by early Land Speed Record racecars, which invaded dry lake beds and salt flats during the 1940s and ’50s. Like hot rods, bellytankers were highly customized in nature and home-brew in spirit. Unlike hot rods, they weren’t recognizable as Mercurys or Chevrolets; Land Speed Record car bodies were streamlined fabrications, often utilizing World War II fighter plane emergency drop tanks—“belly tanks,” in military parlance.

Bill Burke, a former Coast Guardsman, is widely credited with building the first bellytanker, repurposing a P-51 Mustang spare that he purchased for $35. The resulting creation, once equipped with a hopped-up V8 engine, was capable of reaching 130 mph. (For reference, most family sedans of the era struggled to hit 70 mph.) But Burke soon realized the 165-gallon tank couldn’t accommodate a full-size driver seat. So he welded in a bicycle seat.

Repeat: These guys went 130 mph, inside a scrapped fuel tank, sitting on a bicycle seat.

Bellytanker-style concept car, built by Bell & Ross to promote the new watches

Wherever there’s history, airplanes, and lunatic speeds, Bell & Ross is sure to be nearby. The company honors Burke and his breed of hot-rodder with Bellytanker editions of two pieces from the Vintage collection, the time-and-date BR V1-92 and the BR V1-94 chronograph. The former offers a simpler, plain-bezel look and smaller 38.5 mm size, while the latter measures 41 mm and features a fixed-position tachymeter.

Bell & Ross V1-92 (left) and V2-94 chronograph (right) — the latter is also available on a stainless bracelet for an additional $300

Both employ an automatic mechanical movement, boast a satin-steel-polished case and gorgeous gilt metallic copper dial, offer 100m water resistance, and feature a too-cool custom casebook design. Unsurprisingly, these Bellytanker watches are a limited-run proposition. Only 1000 will be made in total—500 of the BR V1-92 and 500 of the BR V1-94.

Bell & Ross BR V1-92 Bellytanker ($2,300) and BR V2-94 Bellytanker ($4,400 – $4,700); bellross.com 

Moon Shot

The new Apollo Intensa Emozione elevates four-wheel exotica.


By Max Prince

Apollo Intensa Emozione Hypercar
(Photo: Apollo Automobil)


There are sports cars, and, above them, supercars. But there’s nothing above a hypercar. These ludicrously fast, bespoke gems from boutique brands such as Pagani and Koenigsegg, represent the hottest trend in automotive exotica. Into this rarified segment rolls the new Apollo Intensa Emozione, a handmade Italian thriller that brings cottage-industry vibes to the bleeding edge of modern high-performance driving.  

Apollo Intensa Emozione Hypercar
(Photo: Apollo Automobil)


That starts with the chassis. It’s hewn entirely from carbon fiber, the same lightweight material used in NASA gliders, and built small-batch by composites guru Paolo Garella. The engine, an operatic 6.3-liter V12, receives similar treatment; Autotecnica Motori, the premier tuner in Italy, uses custom parts to deliver an astounding 780 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque, plus a screaming 9000-rpm redline. The minimalist interior brings fighter-jet chic, complete with made-to-measure bucket seats, molded to fit each individual buyer. But the really shocking stuff is on the outside.

Apollo Intensa Emozione Hypercar
(Photo: Apollo Automobil)

Penned by Joe Wang, a former McLaren designer, the Intensa Emozione looks downright radical. The exterior focal point is a teardrop-shaped greenhouse with dramatic, upward-opening doors. The intricate network of aerodynamic scoops and vents recalls a Le Mans race car; the buttressed rear wing is so effective above 180 mph, it generates downforce greater than the vehicle’s total weight. Meaning that, at high speed, the Apollo could actually drive upside down and stick to the ceiling.

Apollo Intensa Emozione Hypercar
(Photo: Apollo Automobil)

Production of the Intensa Emozione is limited to 10 units, with customer delivery beginning in 2018. Consider this one of the most desirable machines ever created, a singular convergence of art and science, exemplary of the breed. Because anything less is just a car.

Apollo Intensa Emozione
0–60 mph: 2.7 seconds
Top speed: 208 mph
Price: $2.7m
apollo-automobil.com

 

Time, Accelerated

The fastest Ford ever built is commemorated with two new watch series.


By Jonathan Schultz

Bradley Price knows the Ford GT supercar in a way that only its builders—and the occasional “friend of the brand”—are allowed to. “I saw prototypes taken apart,” Price, 37, recalls of his visit to Ford’s performance skunk works in Dearborn, Michigan. “I got to see them on a lift. Those sights really stuck with me.”

Not long after the Ford GT blindsided the world’s pleasure receptors in 2015, its maker began scheming on a commemorative wristwatch. The GT nameplate evokes Le Mans, France, where, in 1966, Ford’s GT40 embarked on a historic run of Ferrari-stomping in the French countryside. The new GT, a 647-horsepower, $400,000, hand-built missile limited to just 1,000 examples, would seem commemoration enough, but Ford thought otherwise.

“They reached out to me,” Price says. Surveying his Autodromo brand from its home in Brooklyn, it’s not hard to see why. Autodromo chronographs are steeped in motorsport without stooping to boy-racer clichés like faux-carbon fiber or italicized, blocky type. It also helped that Chris Svensson, now Ford’s global head of design, was a fan.

“He actually wore the prototype of the red-and-white watch, the ’67 Heritage, last summer when they unveiled that colorway of the car,” Price says of his patron.

The LM 2016 Dial is inspired by the class-winning Ford GT that ran at the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours. It’s even emblazoned with the winning car’s racing number: 68.

The Autodromo Ford GT Endurance series consists of five color and graphics treatments, each intended to evoke not only the GT40s of old, but also the hypermodern GTs. “It’s all about the continuation of the sixties through today,” Price says. “This watch is really about telling that story.” And at $695, it’s a relatively accessible yarn.

But another, more exclusive chapter is baking: a line of Owner’s Edition chronographs limited to buyers of the car. Price is not revealing numbers, though he demurs that they will cost “significantly more.”

“The hour and minute hands are sapphire crystal,” he says of the Owner’s Editions. “When I tell people in Switzerland, they’re like, ‘What?! That’s bold.’”

Purchasers of $400,000 supercars would have it no other way.