The Ubiquitous Unimog

The Ubiquitous Unimog

Uniquely European vehicles for your layout

By Ernest H. Robl

If you model any post-WW II era on your European layout, there are vehicles that will give your small-scale world a unique European flavor – the ubiquitous Unimog.

If you haven’t spent much time in European countries, you may not be aware of the how widespread and important these medium duty trucks, produced by Mercedes Benz (MB), are in most European countries. But, you don’t even have to spend time in Europe; just look through the catalogs of any European manufacturers of scale vehicles.

What is a Unimog? Depending on its color coat and attached equipment, it is

  • The most widespread European road and highway maintenance truck
  • The backbone of light transportation for modern European military forces
  • The vehicle of choice for expeditions into hostile terrain
  • The railcar mover of choice for many large industries

And these are just a few of its more important roles. Unimogs can also be found configured as fire-fighting vehicles (particularly for combating forest fires and for use by smaller rural volunteer fire departments) and as police and construction vehicles.

Unimogs, whose form has only changed slightly over the years, are easy to recognize. And, when well maintained, they have quite a long useful life.


Catalog illustration of Kibri kit 13059, a fairly standard long-frame Unimog used in the construction business. (This model is lettered as a maintenance vehicle lettered for Breuer, a company that provides construction cranes.) The light colors of this kit make it particularly suitable for painting.

Unlike passenger autos, where manufacturers produce a slightly different-looking model every year, many versions of the Unimog varied little over their production run of many years.

Still can’t quite see what the role of the Unimog is? Think of it this way: In the U.S., the Humvee is the purpose-designed standard light military truck. Though it has been offered in civilian versions, it has never caught on in industry, commerce, agriculture, and local government services the way the Unimog has.

Perhaps that’s because with the Unimog, success first came in the private sector, leading the military and paramilitary services (such as the German disaster response agency THW) to see how useful this vehicle could be.

In North America, there simply isn’t a single vehicle model from a single manufacturer that has quite the role of a Unimog.


Catalog illustration of Kibri kit 18270, a Unimog configured for use by a rural fire department or forest service for use in combating brush and forest fires in rough terrain.


The ultimate irony is that the Unimog was basically a failure at its initial purpose.

MB began building the Unimog shortly after WW II as a farm tractor! Well, actually, the intention was to have a universal vehicle that could both work the fields and haul produce to market.

After the War, farmers in Germany (and most other European countries) were desperately trying to make a comeback, while having few mechanized resources to work with. During the War, all vehicle production had gone into the war effort, and no tractors or civilian trucks had been made in many years.

The name derives from the German designation “Universal mobility machine” (Universal Mobilitäts Gerät).

Unimogs were built from the beginning with full-time four-wheel drive and a high ground clearance. A special suspension design with long spring travel allows all four wheels to remain in contact with the ground even over very rough terrain. An important part was (and still is) the integrated power take off (PTO), a mechanical link that can be used to power a wide range of accessories.

But, like most compromises designed to be all things to all people, the Unimog didn’t work particularly well as a farm tractor – or for hauling produce to market. The latter was hampered by its relatively small load surface.

That doesn’t mean that the Unimog didn’t still find a role in agriculture, particularly in forestry. Its all-terrain capabilities (also used by military services, search and rescue, and law enforcement) still make it possible to reach remote parts of mountain farms. If there is produce to be hauled, it is usually done with a trailer or with a larger general-purpose truck.

Early versions (designed for farm field work) were somewhat limited by a top design speed of about 35 mph. More current versions have nominal top speeds in the 50-60 mph range, making it possible for them to still travel at reasonable speeds on country roads or highways.


The two basic variations of the Unimog are the short and long frame. Both normally have the same square loading area. The difference is that on the long frame versions, there is usually some type of accessory equipment, such as a hydraulic loading crane, mounted between the cab and the cargo bed. (Because of the relatively small cargo bed, these cranes are, more often than not, used to load and unload other trucks or a trailer towed by the Unimog.)


Catalog illustration of Kibri kit 18467, a short-frame Unimog in the colors of the German disaster response agency THW, fitted with a generator and an extendable floodlight pylon.

MB has also produced both double cab versions and three-axle versions of the Unimog, though these are relatively rare, compared to the basic four-wheel version.

Rail relevance

In addition to all previously outlined uses, the Unimog is also a fairly good light switching locomotive.

Depending on terrain, a hi-rail (highway/rail vehicle — equipped with flanged guide wheels which can be retracted for road operation) Unimog can move up to three or four loaded freight cars and about twice as many empty ones.

Hi-rail Unimogs used for switching are normally equipped with an auxiliary air compressor to work train air brakes and sometimes have a ballast weight in the truck bed to increase traction. If the Unimog is equipped with a small hydraulic crane, that crane can be used to unload the ballast weight when the vehicle is needed for other purposes.


Catalog illustration of Kibri kit 16307, a hi-rail vehicle with a small excavator which can also be fitted with several other included accessories.

Hi-rail Unimogs are found throughout Europe in use by railroads of all types, transit systems, and medium sized industries with enough internal trackage to require switching within the facility.

On railroads, hi-rail Unimogs are used for track inspection, maintenance, light track and catenary construction, and for response to accidents or incidents at locations not accessible by road.

Transit systems use hi-rail Unimogs both to rescue electric powered railcars in track sections where the power has failed and for general maintenance work that requires the catenary or third rail to be shut off.

Even the German army, the Bundeswehr, has hi-rail Unimogs. These allow troops to do their own switching of railcars during deployments.

Of course, railroads also use non-hi-rail Unimogs for a variety of other purposes, making the stockpiling of parts simple.

While not intended for long-distance movement, some Unimogs have even been equipped with a fifth wheel to move highway trailers around intermodal terminals.

Another popular option is the hydraulically variable load bed height, which is available for some models. That allows loading and unloading equipment from other vehicles and a variety of loading docks.

Scale models

Models of Unimogs in various configurations have been produced by almost all major European model manufacturers, including Märklin, Roco, Wiking, Busch, etc. These models include both standard and hi-rail versions.

Roco, for example, has produced Unimogs in HO in both its railroad and military vehicle lines. Some hi-rail Unimog models have been offered in set with matching freight cars.

Most of these hi-rail models, however, are non-powered because in all but the largest scales, it would be very difficult to mount even the smallest of drive mechanisms in these relatively small vehicles. In addition, it would be difficult to give these vehicles enough traction to move railcars.

That problem has been solved in part through the use of so-called ghost cars. Ghost cars are freight (and sometimes passenger cars) with hidden internal drives. They allow the movement of a very small switching locomotive (or hi-rail vehicle) making it look like the latter is actually powering the movement.

While not totally unknown in the U.S., ghost cars were once quite popular in Europe before modern technology made it possible to put very small drives in small switching locomotives.

Kibri modularity

But, probably no model manufacturer has been more prolific in the production of Unimog models, mostly in kit form, than Kibri (now part of Viessmann).

Over the years, Kibri has produced many dozens of versions in HO, in a variety of colors and with a variety of external accessory equipment. The basic components all come from the same molds and most kits even have sprues with additional parts not needed for the current model.

In short, everything is modular. Want a particular Unimog with several features that are not included in one particular kit? No problem. Buy several kits, which include some of these features, and combine them in one model. You then still have enough parts left over to build a couple of “vanilla” Unimogs.

I’ve applied this to the vehicle fleet of my fictitious track construction company, which has about ten Unimogs, most with hi-rail wheels. If a model with particular features was not available with hi-rail wheels, I simply bought another kit with the hi-rail wheels and combined the parts.

Kibri also offers some packages with just add-on implements (cranes, snow plows, etc.,) which can be combined with existing models. (Not all of these are available at all times.)

Yes, the Kibri kits come in both short and long frame version — and many of the sprues include parts for each version. (I currently have several bins of Kibri vehicle parts – many from Unimog kits – that can be used on future projects.

These Kibri models look better if you spray paint parts before final assembly. If you plan to use a light color paint, look for models with the parts molded in a white or other light color plastic.


Viessmann recently announced several fully assembled vehicle sets (using Kibri toolings) that include a ghost car and a hi-rail Unimog. The ghost car is even a flatcar, using the very small drive developed for the Robel track maintenance vehicles.


Catalog illustration of Viessmann product 2680, consisting of a pre-assembled HO Unimog (with a heavy switching frame) and a powered ghost car with catenary wire drums. (Note the compressed air tanks for train air brakes on the back deck of the Unimog.)


(I have not yet seen any reviews as to how these Viessmann sets handle various track elements. I suspect they would work fine on relatively straight track but may have problems going through complex station switches, due to the light weight of the Unimog.)

Why no major U.S. applications?

Some sources indicate that the reason that Unimogs have never caught on in the U.S., other than with a few enthusiasts and collectors is that some versions of the vehicle did not meet U.S. emission standards. Well, it’s hard to image that MB could not have come up with a U.S.-compliant diesel motor for the Unimog, when it has managed to meet U.S. standards for a wide range of other vehicles.

A more likely scenario is that of a chicken-egg story. The vehicles are hard to sell in the U.S. because there is no real dealer and maintenance network; there is no dealer and maintenance network because there is no widespread use of the vehicles.

A few years ago, when I visited the Denver RTD, the agency that operates the region’s light rail system, I knew that they had a hi-rail Unimog (possibly at the recommendation of Siemens, which supplied its light rail vehicles). I asked several officials about the Unimog and the general opinion was that it was a great vehicle, but that it took forever to get parts for it.

(The Denver RTD Unimog has both a coupler for the light rail transit vehicles as well as a standard American knuckle coupler. As the RTD has a connecting track with Union Pacific – normally locked with gates on both sides – it can receive shipments of heavy equipment by rail. The Unimog picks up the car or cars on the connecting track and moves them into the shop where a heavy overhead crane is used to unload them. The Unimog can also rescue disabled light rail vehicles or move them in case of a power failure.)

The U.S. Army has a small number of Unimogs, mostly based in Europe. These are used primarily for training purposes as almost all other NATO countries, with which the U.S. troops have to work, have Unimogs. Also, if U.S. troops are deployed to another country, the Unimog is the most likely vehicle to be found in use by that country’s military.

Want to know who, nevertheless, is one of the biggest users of Unimogs in the U.S.? Hollywood! For movie scenes and TV episodes supposedly based in another country but actually shot in the U.S., one of the easiest ways to provide a foreign flavor is to throw in a few Unimogs.


Models of Unimogs would be at home in almost all parts of any layout for Eras 3-6 for depicting most European countries. In urban areas, they would be used by municipal services and at larger construction sites. In rural areas, there’s almost no limit to the variety of uses.

Yes, you can even use them as flatcar loads on military trains.

Me? As already mentioned, I have more than a dozen HO Unimog models. Two are Roco versions that came with freight car sets; the remainder were built from Kibri kits. Almost all have been painted.

When I visited Austria in December of 2001, I traveled by train through mostly snowy landscapes. In almost every town – and in between on country roads – Unimogs in orange maintenance colors and fitted with a variety of plow attachments were busy keeping the roads clear.

More information

For those interested in more technical information on the Unimog: There are extensive articles on the Unimog in both the English and German versions of Wikipedia, with the German version being more detailed.


As always, comments are welcome.


One Response to The Ubiquitous Unimog

  1. Great Article Ernest, I really enjoyed it.



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