By Hannah Elliott (New York)
Ten miles into the drive to Joshua Tree, I turned back.
The drone of the diesel engine, the flapping ragtop cover—those I expected.
The rebuilt Mercedes G-Wagen I was driving was a 1990 250 GD, the short-wheel-based “Geländewagen” nicknamed Wolf after the German military trucks.
Stripped down and rebuilt by Expedition Motor Co., it’s a utility vehicle in the raw—I got that. Which is why a day of off-roading in the desert 100 miles outside of Los Angeles made sense as the ideal proving ground.
But the constant cold air rushing in through the spaces between the windows and the door frames, the flaccid sun visor that kept drooping to block windshield visibility, I did not expect those. Nor did I expect that top speed—I mean gas pedal absolutely floored—would not exceed 65 mph. With the wind behind me. Heading downhill.
I turned that Wolf right around and slipped into something more conducive to driving any distance from home. (It was a Lotus Evora GT, but that’s another story to come.)
I mean, I’m not a masochist. You don’t get extra points in life for enduring unnecessary pain. EMC never should have lent me this rig in the first place. The reason for that will soon become clear. I blame social media.
Perfect for Putting on a Trailer
I didn’t want it to be this way. The Joshua Tree about-face was a disappointment.
I have admired the 42-year-old G-Wagen for years, appreciating its origins as a work truck, its unapologetic style, and its many practical attributes for an ultraluxury vehicle.
I wrote glowingly about the latest generation of one, even drove an original 1980s GD in the hills around Mercedes’ hometown of Stuttgart, Germany. So I was exceedingly thrilled at the chance to test the latest Wolf assembled by Expedition Motor Co.
Founded in 2017, Expedition Motor Co. procures, strips, and hand-restores roughly 24 vintage G-Wagens a year, mostly for wealthy clients in places such as New York’s Hamptons, Miami, and Hawaii, according to founder Alex Levin.
They’re not legal in California, where they don’t meet stricter emissions standards, though that doesn’t mean you can’t register them elsewhere and, uh, drive them in.
The vehicles are assembled in Poland and Germany and then finished in New Jersey.
Pricing for those like the one I drove starts at $102,000, which includes nods to modernity such as some USB outlets and plastic cup holders installed on the floor.
My test drive also came with a 2.5L inline-five diesel engine and five-speed manual transmission (four speeds, really, plus “Low” and reverse). You can choose an automatic transmission and an engine that runs on unleaded gasoline, though it will cost you more.
Although it failed miserably on the attempted desert run, a separate excursion down into the Los Angeles River basin proved more rewarding.
The Wolf handled the steep road going down into the river with not a waffle, and it waded through the shallow water like an army trooper on easy recon.
I drove it over little cement jumps and cruised easily over the uneven terrain along the riverbed. With front and rear hydraulic independently locking differentials and grabby brakes, it handled the tight, curvy hills of Elysian Park as well.
Lots of people in the park smiled and waved. They took photos. I waved back. Fun!
You, like me, will need to take a big step up to get inside, as you would in any old work rig (Levin says he might add steps to some next year), and you will need extra good posture to take full advantage of the seat height.
The ergonomics of getting inside work better if you’re tall—I’m just under 6 feet in boots—but that brings up one of the more physically painful aspects of the vehicle: the short size and low placement on the floorboards of the shifter.
It’s maybe 6 inches long, which, when you’re tall and sitting high, is quite a reach down every time you need to shift. (I learned to drive a manual transmission on my dad’s Ford truck when I was 16—that had a stick-shifting rod a meter long—so this, while quite lovely on the clutch, was quite a bludgeon both to my expectations of how a “work truck” should shift … and to my back.)
In the rear, there are two seats, plus ample storage space. It’s minimal, with room enough for long legs and tall torsos. No frills.
The hard truth: This is not a vehicle for commuting, conference calls, or calm repose. You won’t want to drive it more than about a 10-mile radius, anywhere, unless it’s on your own property or you’re overlanding on some beauteous landscape.
Most likely, you will want to put the Wolf on a flatbed truck and trailer it to the rural destination of your choice. And then it will be charmingly rough to drive. Just don’t plan on actually driving it out there.
TikTok vs. German Engineering
And here’s the main point: The Wolf certainly looks very cool. With the windshield folded down, huge knobby tires, and even an on-board snorkel, it photographs as well as anything Ralph Lauren or Peter Beard would put in a safari-themed editorial.
The EMC online configurator is entertaining; you can choose among colors such as Agate Green and Orange Crush, pick bumpers with winches or without, opt for full canvas roofing or “bikini” top in black or beige, have amber or clear indicators, and option in various other cosmetic accessories.
But those cool looks ultimately are its downfall.
The slow nature of the Wolf bothered me far less than its poor craftsmanship. This is a work truck—it doesn’t need to be trimmed like a Bentley—but it does cost a lot, and the components should match the price tag.
That broken sun visor, the plastic cover of a window crank that fell off, thin leather tie-down strips that looked about as durable as the upper on a Payless shoe, poorly assembled windows with exposed weather stripping and loose framing—all troubling issues with build quality of the Wolf I drove.
So I asked Levin about them. He explained that an influencer had “trashed” the vehicle in the Hamptons in pursuit of getting great “bikini pics.”
Whatever happened on that photo shoot sounded like a sacrifice on the altar of social media.
It necessitated “two-stage paint correction” and a full-on tow out of a salt bog, Levin said. He also mentioned some latent “electronic gremlins” in the vehicle and other problems associated that had made that loan “a horrible experience.”
Which brings up two points. One: Aren’t military trucks supposed to be the most rugged, tough vehicles on the planet? It seems extraordinary that the full might of the German military apparatus was hamstrung by some TikTokers trying to get a good shot—and it doesn’t reflect well on EMC.
Further, and more important, if Expedition Motor Co. knew the car was compromised, why then give it to an actual journalist from a proper news organization?
Far better to never lend it out again than to let others base their entire perception of the company on a faulty product.
After our phone call, Levin sent me a long email detailing the “close to 1,000 man hours” required for each of the restoration builds and a link to the website saying he’s “prouder of this build than you are of your first born.”
Um, I don’t have kids. But in theory, he may be right. It’s just too bad that the one I drove leads me to believe he has some family issues to work out.