Manufactured by Nikko, this perfect scale replica of the famous off-road Mercedes Unimog 4WD truck is one of the nicest looking ready-to-run R/C models produced in the 80s. Today it is highly sought-after by Paris-Dakar fans, Unimog fans and scale R/C fans.
By 1982, the Paris-Dakar Rally was beginning to inspire and excite a growing segment of the public, thanks to it’s promise of adventure through uncharted wilderness. This crazy race across Africa had grown in stature following it’s debut in 1979, with a steady increase in both the number of entrants and the variety of vehicles making (or at least attempting) the journey.
The increased exposure was also beginning to attract a few high-profile celebrities with the means to afford an entry, and the desire to challenge themselves. But the immensity of driving a vehicle across Saharan Africa was still not fully appreciated by many of these newcomers.
When Mark Thatcher, the son of then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was declared missing for 6 days during the 1982 event, the world’s media turned it’s attention to the Paris-Dakar like never before. Thatcher and his team were later found alive by the Algerian Military after a massive air and ground search. But the crisis only served to inspire even more entrants in the years that followed.
Amidst all this struggle and controversy, naturally there were a few vehicles and drivers who emerged victorious – conquering the sandstorms and dunes to become the first to arrive in the Senegalese capital city of Dakar.
In 1982, in the truck class, the winner was a Mercedes Unimog. Specifically, it was a Mercedes Unimog U 1700, with an entry number of 380, and here’s how it looked:
Image courtesy: www.dakardantan.com
The drivers of this vehicle were Georges Groine, Thierry De Saulieu and Bernard Malferiol.
In 1983, Nikko Corporation of Japan believed that the best R/C toy you could have, was one that looked like a perfect scale model. And with off-road R/C toys really taking off in popularity at the same time as the Paris-Dakar itself, it made sense that toy companies would create models inspired by the vehicles winning the rally. So Nikko decided to make a 1/16 scale model of the winning truck from 1982.
Here’s a promotional image from a Nikko catalogue in 1983…
And here’s the model, as originally released in Japan and worldwide…
Nikko appears to have sold a lot of these Unimog toys in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, where they were branded “Technotoy/Nikko” and called the Gipfel-Sturmer – such versions were identical to the original release, except for the box. For me, my first memory of this model actually came courtesy of Tandy / Radio Shack stores, who also released it in 1984 under their own branding, along with some altered decals on the vehicle.
I also remember that the Unimog was often promoted with this image, depicting a 45° climbing ability – which I always wondered if other toys could match…
Nikko’s attention to detail on many of their early cars is pretty amazing, and the Mercedes Rally Unimog 4WD is one of their finest efforts. Try comparing this toy to the image of the real truck above – particularly the bumper, headlights, side bars, roof visor, horns…etc. They really did a great job.
The rear canopy can be easily removed, leaving a tray so that the truck can carry small objects. I also love the fact that the tyres and wheels look so realistic and scale-like. When do you ever see off-road R/C toys these days, that have this kind of appearance (look at the tyre tread and tyre wall lettering)…
Early 80s Nikko R/C models are, for these kinds of reasons, often a joy to behold – even for those of us who also love larger scale vintage hobby kit models.
The downside to realism of course, is that having lots of little details can sometimes make an R/C toy fragile when it comes to real running, and the kinds of games kids play. I was usually pretty careful with my toys as a kid. But everybody knew someone who wasn’t! And something like a Nikko Unimog was certainly not an ideal gift in those cases.
The side bars and rear vision mirrors were the first things that usually went missing when playing with this model. They actually came as separate pieces in the box which you had to clip into place. But they could easily fall out or become broken if the truck tipped on it’s side. Today, the vast majority of the examples of this model that you will find are missing those smaller pieces, and they may also be missing the roof horns and the roof spare wheel.
The front bumper is also quite fragile and will not withstand heavy impacts. While the rear canopy clip points can sometimes snap off as well. So be on the lookout for those.
But it’s not all fragile. For example, the tyres are non-pneumatic and extremely hard-wearing. And the vehicle has a fairly robust transmission and gearing, as I have never come across one with a gearbox that no longer worked.
The real highlights of this model though, are the fact that not only does it look authentic, it works authentically too by being 4WD, with two gear speeds and even a working differential! Needless to say, 4WD R/C models were extremely rare at the toy-grade level back in 1983, and Nikko was pretty much leading the way with a model such as this one.
The working headlights come on while running, that is to say, they’re at full brightness when the vehicle is traveling at full speed.
Driving this model is one area where, despite being an amazing and beautiful toy, things can get a little tricky. As mentioned earlier, you really need to avoid colliding with any other objects. And while it moves along quite nicely on smooth ground, it’s scale sized wheels, hard tyres, high centre of gravity and lack of any suspension make it a less capable off-roader than it might have been.
Add to that the fact that the steering and acceleration are direct (not Digital Proportional), and you open up the chance of tipping the Unimog over on bumpy terrain if you make too many sudden high-speed turns.
Instead, smooth surfaces are best, and smooth dirt is the safest way to enjoy a little authentic off-roading and to see the 4WD in action.
And let’s not forget that while this was an expensive toy for it’s time, Nikko had a large range of R/C models in the early 1980s. The Nikko Mercedes Rally Unimog 4WDs were created for realism and light off road fun. And they were in the mid-to-upper price range among Nikko’s line-up at that time. In other words, Nikko already made a few more expensive, larger and robust models that were designed for more serious off-road fun, such as the Off-Road Tiger which I also profiled recently.
After the initial release of this Unimog, Nikko (in conjunction with Technotoy) released the Technotoy/Nikko Alaska Polar-Expedition Mercedes Unimog, which even came with a tow hook, snow chains and a matching trailer!
There were also later models that used a slightly more off-road capable chassis, and slightly bigger tyres.
But never mind actual capability. What appeals to me most about Nikko’s Unimogs are the fact that they’re like scale model toys, converted into working models. Enjoy them gently, and display them on your shelf later.
If you’re looking to find one today, they’re fairly rare but a few examples usually come up each year. Finding one in mint condition though, is (as it usually is!)…almost impossible. But since this is a true classic among R/C toys, the hunt is definitely worth it.
On this page: Nikko Mercedes Rally Unimog 4WD (1983)
|Motor||(to be confirmed)|
|Differential||Yes (front only)|
|Batteries||4 x C, 4 x AA (Car). 6 x AA (Transmitter).|
Issues to look for: Nikko Mercedes Rally Unimog 4WD (1983)
|Items sometimes missing on this model|| |
|Other parts to check on this model|| |