Pictured is a 2000 Mercedes-Benz G500, except Mercedes-Benz didn’t begin selling the G-Class in the United States until 2002. So how is it that there’s an older, but not yet 25-year-old, G-Wagen legally registered in the United States today? It’s all thanks to a little company in New Mexico called Europa International.
In the early 1980s, Europa began importing and selling European-spec Gelandewagens in the United States. So-called "grey market" imports such as these were relatively common in the U.S. until 1987, when they were outlawed by the government with the passing of the Motor Vehicle Safety Compliance Act (an initiative, ironically, spearheaded by Mercedes-Benz).
With a wrench now thrown in its gears, Europa decided to undergo the extremely costly process of federalizing the G for the U.S. market, including emissions regulations, complying with motor vehicle standards and other challenges. After achieving its goal in 1993, Europa resumed sales of the vehicle, now as the exclusive G-Wagen importer and distributor for the U.S. Very few non-U.S. market vehicles have been privately federalized like this (off the top of my head, I can only think of the original Smart ForTwo, and a handful of "Motorex" Nissan Skyline GT-Rs), making the Europa G-Wagen a rare breed.
After Mercedes introduced the more potent G500 in 1998, Europa sought and was given small-volume manufacturer status for the G-Class in the U.S. At one point, Europa was responsible for selling over 10 percent of worldwide G500 production. Part of the reason for Europa’s success is that they focused their marketing efforts on the high-end luxury market, with most Gs commanding prices in excess of $100,000 during a time when the vehicle was more about utility than luxury like it is today.
Europa’s imports were so popular that Mercedes-Benz USA began servicing them itself at its own dealerships, which then led to their decision to purchase the U.S. distribution rights from Europa in 2002 — officially adding the four-door G-Class to its own U.S. product lineup thereafter. Still, Mercedes has never offered the elusive two-door and cabriolet models in the U.S. — so any of those that you see on the road were almost certainly sold by Europa.
Mercedes sold 3,114 U.S.-spec G500s in the model’s first year as an official Mercedes-Benz USA product. After that, sales began to wane, hovering between 600 and 2,000 units per year, until seeing a significant uptick in 2013, when the idea of boxy, rugged SUVs began to regain popularity. Thanks to a slew of model run-out special edition trim levels, Mercedes sold a record 4,188 G-Classes in the U.S. in 2017 — the last model year leading up to the debut of the all-new G550 at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show. Altogether, Mercedes has sold just over 32,000 examples of the original G-Class since it debuted in 2002.
Typically, European-spec vehicles that have been imported to the U.S. via the gray market don’t return a VIN when you look up their license plates in the Carfax database. Since this one had gone through some degree of legitimization through the federalization process, it actually returned the model name "Vehicle: Unknown Type" along with a VIN number (WDBEG4213Y7118012) when I put it into the Carfax app. I googled the VIN number and found an old "For Sale" ad that confirmed that this was, indeed, a 2000 Europa G500.
Europa exists to this day, now as Europa G Wagen LLC, and with a whole slew of G Wagen-related offerings including used vehicle sales (they seem to gravitate toward re-selling their own two-door and convertible models), restorations, service and parts sales. You can find them online at "GWagen.com".
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.