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From albatross to icon: The man who saved the G-Wagen

The first thing you will notice about Heinz Neunzig, outside of the twinkle of mischief in his eyes and that signature mustache, is his looming physical presence.

Standing 6 feet 6 inches tall, the German-born giant towers above those around him, a larger-than-life Mercedes-Benz retiree with way more than just one hell of a story to tell. Known within the community as the man who almost single-handedly turned the brand’s G-Wagen from a scuttled military experiment into the celebrity staple it is today, Heinz is someone who is highly revered by those in the know — a living legend with unshakeable aspirations, humble views and an insatiable sense of adventure.

I recently had the privilege of spending several days with Neunzig and various members of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America during their annual StarFest event, where I focused both my camera lens and inquisitive mind upon the man responsible for the G-Wagen’s salvation and success. Trundling slowly down rutted-out public access roads in Talladega National Forest, we chatted about life in Alabama, Heinz’s history with the company, adventures abroad and some of the lesser known aspects of the vehicle itself, stopping only when a particular photograph was deemed necessary.

Heinz’s story began the moment he completed college in 1972, where his junior executive sales specialist role at a dealership in Germany kick-started his career with Mercedes-Benz, never expecting that someday he would be living in America. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the sheer magnitude of these Mercedes-owned “mega-dealerships” is downright staggering, with larger operations typically having close to 1,000 employees on deck any given day, making them a rock-solid launch pad for anyone looking to get into the automotive industry.

By the time 1978 rolled around, Heinz was being called back to HQ in order to “learn the numbers.” After what seemed like an eternity of pushing papers, the aspiring auto enthusiast made a decision one night to never tinker with administrative work again. The then-34-year-old began asking around about transfer opportunities. With a move to a less-than-glamorous role in the cargo van division aligned, Heinz refocused his career upon his strength in sales once more, secretly yearning to work with more interesting automobiles.

His big break came in 1979, when the brand’s G-Wagen (or Geländewagen if you want to refer to it by its proper title, umlauts and all) was officially dubbed the most unloved vehicle in the lineup by salesmen that Heinz saw his opportunity. The boxy SUV was a “love it or hate it” kind of contraption, and with its outline looking somewhat akin to a 5-year-old’s artistic interpretation of what a car should look like, had long drawn Heinz’s eye.

Engineered to be a military machine above all else, the G-Wagen of yesteryear is a far cry from the blend of utilitarianism and opulence seen today. Stripped-down, uncomfortable and packing a price tag that with inflation was around a third of what it is today, the brick of a Benz was a bit of an albatross for the sedan and sports car specialist. At the time, the 4×4 was offered exclusively with a four-cylinder diesel layout, did not come with AC, was cumbersome even in short-wheelbase form and featured very few creature comforts.

Yet despite all of its frugalities, its unique locking differentials, raised ride height and superior breakover angles made the Geländewagen an incredibly capable off-road machine. This explains why the Shah of Persia had placed 1,000 units on order in 1972 for annual delivery, thus making it the official light military vehicle for the region — a move that prompted Mercedes-Benz to ramp up production considerably.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of robotic assembly lines and the specifics of the order, by the time the vehicles were ready, the Shah was no longer in power and Mercedes-Benz was left with a metric mother lode of G-Wagens. With nary a military buyer in sight, and millions of dollars in product on the line, the only thing left to do was demilitarize the vehicles for civilian use and put them up for sale to the public.

Due to its bricklike styling points and its non-German assembly point in Austria, the G-Wagen either repulsed buyers and Mercedes-Benz salespeople alike or drew them in like no other vehicle in the lineup. Heinz, in the latter camp, adored the way the vehicle looked, and its undeniable 4×4 prowess and unmistakable design provided the young salesman with a unique sales pitch.

And so it was that, in 1979, one of the brand’s slowest-selling vehicles was about to undergo a marketing overhaul the likes of which no one within the company could ever have predicted.

Playing upon the fact that people either loved or hated the vehicle, Heinz based his focus around finding employees within Mercedes-Benz who also adored the G-Wagen, and from there proposed the assembly of a team of around a dozen specialists who would focus exclusively on selling it. This meant planning out intensive training exercises, where the team would be exposed to every sort of off-road encounter imaginable in a G-Wagen in order to prove firsthand what the vehicle was capable of conquering. Heinz also requested approval to bump sales commission bonuses for anyone who moved a unit, in turn designing incentives like biannual international adventure trips for the top G-Wagen pushers, instantly making the 4×4 a priority for anyone on the sales floor. These incentive trips overseas doubled as a way in which he could leverage foreign dealerships to carry the vehicle, making it a win-win situation for everyone involved.

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