Here’s What It’s Like To Drive A 30-Year-Old Mercedes G-Wagen

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I recently had the opportunity to drive a diesel-powered 1987 Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. This is just like the plush, high-tech G-Wagen models that all the celebrities drive, except instead of an infotainment system, mine had an altimeter.

You'd know all about my G-Wagen adventures if you followed me on Twitter, because I posted a picture of myself standing next to the G-Wagen in question: a manual-transmission 240GD Cabriolet, graciously loaned to me by local automotive retailer Selden Motors, which is perhaps the only used car dealer on earth whose inventory includes both a 1965 Mustang and a stick-shift BMW X5.


So, you might be wondering, just how was the G-Wagen to drive? Well, if I said "slow," I wouldn't be doing my full duty as a highly respected automotive journalist to perfectly explain the situation. So instead, I'll use a real-world example that better illustrates my viewpoint: the thing drove like a riding lawnmower towing a sailboat. And I don't just mean some dinky little single-seater boat with a sail the size of a fluffy bathroom rug. I mean the kind of sailboat you refer to as your "other wife" when you've had too much eggnog at Christmas parties.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here, because any real G-Wagen review should include a Mercedes G-Wagen History Lesson, to illustrate just how long these vehicles have been in service to our great world. So here goes:

79 AD: The G-Wagen is created by Pliny the Elder, upon witnessing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. "We need a car that can withstand such future eruptions," Pliny writes, in perfect English, even though the language wouldn't be invented for more than 500 years. "And also transport Kim Kardashian and her butt to the mall."


337 AD: As emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great commissions a fleet of G-Wagens for his private use. "And black those babies out," Constantine tells a slave, shortly before sending the slave into the Colosseum, where he must battle a lion for Constantine's private amusement.

847 AD: The Mayans are hanging out on the shore, creating calendars and sacrificing animals to the Gods, when a diesel G-Wagen washes up after a nine-week journey from Europe, where it had accidentally fallen in the ocean. It starts on the first try. Unsure of what to think about the boxy, utilitarian vehicle, the Mayans sacrifice it to the Gods.


1214 AD: Genghis Kahn uses a fleet of militarized G-Wagens to take over hundreds of villages throughout Central Asia. This is largely overkill, since these villagers mainly live in mud huts and haven't discovered the concept of shoes, but Genghis Kahn carries on, undeterred. "I like the door latch sound," he says, as he beheads a terrified family.

1492 AD: Christopher Columbus sails to America with a fleet of G-Wagens, which he provides to Native Americans as gifts. Months later, they return the G-Wagens, saying: "Smallpox blankets would've been better than these German pieces of crap."


1786 AD: Unable to agree on a direction for our blossoming country, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson decide to have a G-Wagen drag race down Chestnut Street in Philadelphia to see who gets to write the sixth amendment. Franklin's G-Wagen, a 12-horsepower diesel model with enlarged headroom to accommodate powdered wigs, is gaining ground on Jefferson's G-Wagen, which is pulled around by his illegitimate slave children, when both vehicles are stopped by Philadelphia police and illegally searched for drug paraphernalia.

2012 AD: The G-Wagen is first used to transport Kim Kardashian and her butt to the mall.


Now that we have this highly important and extensively researched G-Wagen history lesson out of the way, it's time to discuss the specific G-Wagen I drove: a 1987 240GD Cabriolet, sold new in Milan, Italy, where it likely went to a rural farmer who believed the best time to tend to his crops was "tomorrow."

I say this because the 240GD wasn't a particularly sprightly vehicle. Remember earlier when I compared it to a lawn tractor towing a sailboat? Well, I was being charitable. It's more like a wheelchair towing a sailboat. And I don't mean one of those cool power wheelchairs with all sorts of computers and motors, like the one Stephen Hawking uses. I mean the kind of base-model, vinyl-wrapped wheelchair you get when you lose a leg and you're covered by an HMO.


Speaking of driving experience, I should mention at this point that the G-Wagen I drove had a dash-mounted, airplane-style artificial horizon gauge; the kind of gauge that tells you whether you're level, or descending, or ascending, or about to crash into Lake Erie. Initially, I had no idea why this gauge would be fitted to an automobile, but then I realized that when you're driving this G-Wagen, every corner feels like the banked turns at Bristol Motor Speedway.

So what happens is, you enter a corner, and everything is good, and then the G-Wagen starts to tilt, and you look down at the artificial horizon, but it's bouncing around uncontrollably because a) the suspension is stiff, and b) the gauge was installed by Italians for God's sake, and that means it's only about half as effective as it would be if it were installed by anyone else, including a team of capuchin monkeys with small hand tools. So you just gun it, and hold on, and hope for the best, and eventually you make it through, unscathed, until the next corner, where you repeat the exact same process in its entirety.


Fortunately, the G-Wagen wasn't all bad. I actually enjoyed the driving position, which is good, because the seats were bolted directly to the floor and couldn't be adjusted. I also liked the plastic rear window, which has clouded, and faded, and yellowed over the years, and yet it's still twice as transparent as the tint people put on modern G-Wagens. Oh, and a special shout out to the car's excellent Motorola flip phone, likely mounted on the dash so the Italian driver could scream and flail around his arms without having to worry about annoyances such as actually holding the phone.

So my conclusion on the G-Wagen is this: it's slow. It's awful to drive. It has no technology. The seats don't move. Visibility is mediocre. It's noisy. And here's the kicker: this one is on sale for nearly $30,000, which actually makes it one of the cheapest G-Wagen cabriolets available in the entire country. Some of these things cost a hundred grand or more. So yes, you have it right: not only is an old school G-Wagen cabriolet awful to drive, it's expensive, too. And this makes it one of the very worst vehicles I could possibly imagine buying.


In other words: I want one very badly.

For more on this G-Wagen, check out this highly informative video I made:


@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.