Welcome to Ridiculous Rebadges, a series of articles in which I go through and examine the details and circumstances surrounding some of the more infamous and some of the more esoteric vehicular rebadges throughout automotive history.
As petrolheads, we usually don’t think very highly of Ssangyong. To be fair, as human beings we generally don’t think very highly of Ssangyong. South Korea’s fourth largest automaker behind Hyundai Group and GM Daewoo, the little brand with too many consonants has always been derided as a producer of cheap yet undeservingly pretentious automobiles, with the ambitiously named Chairman mimicking the appearance of the W220 Benz and the gargantuan Rodius resembling some sort of luxury yacht, apparently. However, what few recognize (or are willing to recognize) is that many of Ssangyong’s offerings do indeed share their basis with one of the biggest names in the automotive business: Mercedes Benz.
The venture began in 1991 when Ssangyong decided they needed to produce a vehicle which they could market to the general public. The company had sold only industrial vehicles in the past and, with the 1987 purchase of Panther of Britain, they suddenly realized that having a commercial truck branch combined with a boutique sports car branch would likely not result in the greatest business plan. Rather than do what the other Koreans had done years before (and what the Malaysians would do in the upcoming decade) and simply buy some ancient Mitsubishis to put their name on, Ssangyong went big and headed straight for Daimler-Benz. Their timing was impeccable because Mercedes was looking to develop an SUV to sell in the burgeoning offroader segment, something to compete against the mighty Nissan Patrol, Mitsubishi Pajero, Land Rover Discovery, and other 4x4s of the same ilk. Ssangyong decided an SUV would be just dandy as their first passenger vehicle, and so the Musso was born.
Meaning ‘rhinoceros’ in Korean, this was a pretty apt name for the resulting vehicle whose myriad of shapes and jagged edges could best be described as resembling a poorly made Chinese ‘Transformers’ toy.
Apparently they drove pretty well despite their appearance, with steering feel being somewhat terrifying but the Benz-sourced engines being powerful and the double-wishbone/multilink suspension keeping the beasts composed on the road. It seems Mercedes was suitably unimpressed by the Rhino though, likely for its controversial appearance, and pulled their version of the truck far before Ssangyong would.
However, this gave Mercedes an idea: perhaps it would be shrewd for them to produce a vehicle which was a bit more rudimentary to sell in the burgeoning Southeast Asian market, preferably based on tried and true mechanicals but without Ssangyong doing the styling.
This resulted in the MB100/140, an updated version of Daimler’s old cabover passenger van but with the a facelift done by Mercedes and corresponding Mercedes I4s and OM diesels.
Ssangyong was given the rights to build the thing in Korea as the two companies had agreed upon in 1991, but we can safely assume that Daimler explicitly forbade adjustments in the looks department.
Ssangyong ended up selling their version as the Istana and the vans saw relative success in the Asian market. (I actually had the ‘pleasure’ of riding in one back in 2007 when I was in mainland China and I mean, I guess it beats riding in a horse-drawn wagon?)
This wasn’t the end, though. Mercedes was completely done putting their badge on anything that Ssangyong produced, choosing instead to ruin their reputation by partnering with Chrysler instead. For odd reasons, though, they still allowed Ssangyong pretty much free usage of their parts bin of prior models, and for that reason, nearly every Ssangyong from the pretentious Chairman to the original Korando used Merc chassis, engine, and transmission bits in the early 2000s. While today these ‘90s Benz parts are no longer produced in Korea, the now Indian-owned Ssangyong likely owes its existence to Mercedes Benz, if not its reputation.