Street-Spotted: Mercedes-Benz 280 GE

This 280 GE from the early 1980s is powered by an inline-six.

The presence of the original Mercedes-Benz G-Class in the U.S. is taken for granted these days, but many people forget that Mercedes did not start officially selling it here until 2002. This means that all of the G-Class vehicles prior to that year were brought in during the freewheeling gray market era, with New Mexico-based Europa International modifying the G-Class for the U.S. market before Mercedes started doing so. And as this 280 GE reminds us, not all of them were lavishly optioned or offered with five doors.

The W460 G-Class debuted in 1979, initially designed as a light military vehicle. Mercedes teamed up with Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria, to engineer and build the model, which required building a new factory from scratch. The initial model that went on sale in 1979 was codenamed W460, while the early military version was designated W461. The initial model was available in three- and five-door hardtop flavors, as well as a three-door convertible.

The version seen here is a 280 GE, which means it’s powered by a 2.8-liter inline-six good for 156 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque. Before you mock its modest output, take a moment to appreciate the fact that it was a 280 GE that won Paris Dakar in 1983 with Jacky Ickx and Claude Brasseur behind the wheel.

These early G-Class vehicles, of course, were not optioned as luxuriously as the models that Mercedes itself started importing in the 2000s, and they often featured cloth interiors, manual transmissions and two-spoke steering wheels the size of manhole covers, which you can see in the photo below.

Early G-Class vehicles had far more spartan interiors than we’re used to seeing in the W463 of the last two decades.

The G-Class was a bit of an oddball 4×4 to import in the 1980s because it didn’t have the luxury toy cachet that the model acquired in the U.S. and elsewhere later on. The interiors were not as spiffy as those of the Range Rover of the time, but the driving experience was still a notch above that of the Land Rover Defender, which was a bit noisier but equally off-road oriented. Perhaps we have the Defender of the 1990s to thank for bringing the G-Class here because they were aimed at roughly the same demographic.

This 280 GE gets bonus points for a very 1980s color scheme with a strong Miami vibe, and for the gold-colored wheels. This color combo works surprisingly well because otherwise it would look like a United Nations vehicle. If we were in the market for an older G-Class as a seaside town runabout, we’d probably opt for a convertible or a version with very good air conditioning –these have a reputation for very toasty cabins with all that glass.

Everyone’s favorite anorak fact about the W460 is that they were also produced under license by Peugeot and by Puch, and they were badged as such. So next time you see an old G-Class somewhere in Europe, check the badges to see if it’s actually a Pug or a Puch.

A number of G-Class cars made it into the U.S. in the 1980s in the gray market era.

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