Roland Feix and his action-packed life for the Unimog.
Roland Feix has a sparkle in his eyes when he talks about the Unimog. And it’s really no wonder as the life of this 93-year-old is closely linked with this vehicle from Mercedes-Benz. Together they have lived countless adventures – for example during a rescue operation at over 4000 metres altitude in the Andes. But even his first encounter with the Unimog left him with goosebumps. It is a moving story that Roland Feix tells, when we meet him on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Unimog at the Unimog Museum in Gaggenau.
A proud employee of the Gebrüder Boehringer mechanical engineering factory.
After fleeing from the Sudetenland, the then 21-year-old man completed an apprenticeship in Marktredwitz in March 1949. As chance would have it, an acquaintance showed him a brochure that was to change his life for ever. It showed a new kind of vehicle: the so-called universally applicable motorised device, or Unimog for short. Roland Feix, interested as he was in technology, was electrified and immediately applied to work at the Boehringer plant.
Although Roland Feix received the much awaited invitation to a job interview, it presented him with a problem at the time: how could he, a virtually penniless man, travel to Göppingen? Equipped with immense amounts of motivation, he decided to take his bicycle and rode the almost 400 kilometres. A decision that turned out to be absolutely worthwhile because, after a short conversation, Roland Feix was hired on a handshake. Shortly thereafter, on 4 July, he started working as a fitter at the Boehringer factory. "I’ll never forget this date," the 93-year-old proudly recounts. The 23rd Unimog had just rolled off the assembly line.
From spectator on the assembly line to a demonstrator the world over.
What then followed was an unprecedented career which, from the very start, intertwined him with the Unimog. "First of all, I had to get to know the vehicle in its entirety. The transmission and the portal axles were totally new," Roland Feix explains. "To this end, I spent a number of months on the assembly line before I was allowed to carry out my first vehicle demonstrations."
In addition to vehicle technology, the aspiring demonstrator also had to familiarise himself with what was at that time still the central field of operation of the Unimog. "I had no idea about agriculture, but I had a very good teacher in Erich Grass, a certified farmer," Roland Feix recalls. "He came with me to the demonstrations, showed me how I had to plough, for example. This helped me become very well acquainted with the challenges of farming."
This know-how was the foundation for Roland Feix’s professional activity. He was thus able to accompany the success of the Unimog with his demonstrations – first in Germany, then around Europe.
With the growing success of the Unimog, demand outstripped supply at Boehringer. One of the reasons for the bottleneck: the stationary assembly line. Unlike the moving assembly line, it only allowed the production of three Unimog units simultaneously. "So at the end of 1950, production was relocated from Göppingen to Gaggenau," Roland Feix reports first-hand. In his opinion, Daimler-Benz was the right decision to enable large-scale series production. "The engine was already from Mercedes anyway, and part of the team that worked on the first Unimog came from Daimler."
Enthusiasm for the Unimog was great. It thus soon became clear that I would go with them to Gaggenau.
Roland Feix, Unimog pioneer
However, from a personal perspective this wasn’t quite so clear initially for the young man: "Relocation was a decision that was not easy for me to make because I felt very much at home at Boehringer – it was a family-run business", says Roland Feix. "However, my passion for the Unimog was stronger. So it was soon clear that I was moving to Gaggenau, where the success of the Unimog really took off".
Open for something new.
Today Roland Feix is sure that the decision he took then was the right one. And he is also sure about what it was that laid the foundation stone for the fascination of the Unimog: "The whole Unimog concept thrilled me. Before it there were trucks and tractors, or tractor-trailer combinations for working in the fields. As a multi-purpose vehicle, the universally applicable motorised device replaced the tractor one hundred percent," he enthuses with shining eyes. "In addition, with its speed of 50 km/h it had the advantage of completing transport tasks faster – and, thanks to its load area, it could even do it without a trailer. It could power implements at front and at the rear. In my opinion this was pioneering for agriculture and that made vehicle demonstrations with the Unimog such a wonderful task for me."
As adaptable as the Unimog iteself.
After his first demonstrations in Germany, Roland Feix moved onto the international stage: The first visits to Spain, Austria and Finland were extraordinary for the young man. But one assignment surprised him more than anything else: "My boss at the time approached me and asked ‘Mr Feix, can you go to Argentina for two months?’ This was an offer I definitely couldn’t refuse!"
However, the talented salesman soon realised that in the vast South American country, agriculture would not be the primary are of operation of the Unimog. "Argentina’s immense pastures were not systematically and intensively cultivated in those days. And that was what the Unimog was actually predestined to do," remembers Roland Feix. "That’s why I constantly reflected upon areas in which the vehicle could be better used instead."
He was put to the test again and again for his ideas – for example during a demonstration near Mendoza in 1952. A ski group had gone missing in the Andes at the time. At the request of his Argentine hosts, the German was to help in the search for the missing skiers at over 4000 metres altitude – and in the process prove the superiority of the Unimog in the mountains.
Roland Feix accepted the challenge and set out for the high Andes with a team of two Unimog units equipped with snow chains, a winch and twin tyres. The greatest danger was from deep crevasses in the ice. "I told the crew of the second Unimog to ‘always stay at least 50 metres behind me’. Because if I fell in, I would have a fixed anchor point that could pull me out with the winch – and vice-versa," Roland Feix reports of this adventure-laden journey. Finally, near the Chilean border at the Laguna del Diamante the rescue group found the equipment of the lost ski group – but the skiers themselves remained unaccounted for.
All the same, Roland Feix had proven that the Unimog can operate reliably even under extreme conditions. From the very outset that was his formula for success with the Unimog: Detect problems and present solutions. In this way he was able to win over many businesses and industries almost everywhere in Latin America: "Whether fire brigades, in forestry and agriculture, the oil industry, railway companies or for airports: I’ve had dealings with so many people. That was an incredibly interesting activity and one that suited me very well."
This year the Unimog celebrates a special birthday.
We look back on 75 years of universal motorised equipment. And look forward to the future.
A life for and with the Unimog – in the private sphere, too.
On the other side of the world, however, Roland Feix not only found a task, but a home as well. He founded a family and so, what was originally to be a mere two-month stay in South America actually became a total of 15 years.
With his wife and their three children he eventually returned to Germany in 1967. The use of jetliners had reduced travel times to such an extent that he was able to fulfil his sales duties in South America from Gaggenau and also look after business in Spain and Portugal. At the same time he was now closer to the development team, and serving as an important interface, he could directly contribute his practical knowledge from the places of operation.
When I joined a carnival association, we naturally used a Unimog with a trailer for the parades.
Roland Feix, a fan of carnivals
Having moved to Gaggenau, Roland Feix’s enthusiasm for the Unimog didn’t stop at the factory gates. As an active member of a carnival association he incorporated his favourite vehicle in his hobby: "When I joined a carnival association, we naturally used a Unimog with a trailer for the parades," he smiles. "Ever since then it is a firm feature of the carnival celebration itself."
After 44 years, Roland Feix finally went into well-deserved retirement in 1993. However, he couldn’t completely let go of the Unimog, because as a founding member of the Gaggenau Unimog Club and an active contact person for the Unimog museum he maintains an active interest in the history of the multitalent from Mercedes-Benz, despite his advanced age. No wonder then, that the Enthusiast intends to take part in the rally to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Unimog.