MERCEDES-Benz has launched a rescue mission to one of the most remote sites in Australia after six of its military-style wagons broke down.
Corrugations along one 70-kilometre stretch of the Canning Stock Route burst the shock absorbers on six of the seven vehicles attempting to make what the German car maker claims is the first full crossing of the 1900-kilometre route through outback Western Australia by a car manufacturer.
Five "normal" versions of the G-Class off-roader - and one military-specification ute - started to burst mainly rear shock absorbers while travelling along stretches of the stock route extending from Well 33 to Well 35.
Fourteen people, including two Mercedes-Benz technicians and one Drive team member, are stranded at the remote site, part of an attempt to publicise the off-road credentials of the recently introduced, rugged off-road G-Class range.
The cars today limped into a campsite at Well 36, where Mercedes-Benz has temporarily halted the expedition while it waits for five new sets of shock absorbers - four in each set - to be flown in from Melbourne to a remote airstrip near Well 33, about 1000km north-east of Wiluna in central WA.
The car maker then hopes to complete the 14-day crossing, which still has about 800km to run - mainly across the dunes of the Great Sandy Desert - before reaching Halls Creek early next week.
Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific managing director Horst von Sanden admits the cars have been put through a lot of pain.
"When we undertook this journey we were well aware of the punishment that the vehicles would endure," he says. "We put in place a group of very experienced Outback operators who have the expertise and logistical knowledge to cover off any eventuality. This planning has more than paid off in ensuring that we reach our goal of Halls Creek on August 9, 2011.
"I have complete faith in the team out on the Canning and the thorough logistics and preparation the team have put in place," says von Sanden.
Mercedes-Benz Australia has arranged for the replacement shock absorbers to land in Perth today, before transferring to a light plane destined for a remote Aboriginal settlement close to Well 33, about 1000km from Wiluna, and at a cost of about $5000.
It will be met by the only vehicle in the expedition to not suffer a failure - a military-specification G-Wagen station wagon with a modified suspension similar to the 1800 vehicles currently being delivered to the Australian Defence Force.
Mercedes-Benz is currently assessing if it will bring the GProfessional, as the surviving vehicle is called, to Australia as part of the two-vehicle G-Class line-up, which currently only consists of the G350, powered by a 3.0-litre turbo diesel V6, and the G55 AMG, powered by a 5.5-litre V8.
Local spokesman David McCarthy says the broken shock absorbers - and three snapped spare wheel mounts - were expected.
"I think we don't make an omelette without breaking the eggs," he said.
"We knew it would be tough, but it is important to have the right (technical) people and the right infrastructure, and I think that's proven us right."
McCarthy says the corrugations on the road today were the worst the expedition had seen so far.
"The Canning Stock Route is in very bad condition in certain areas and has caused suspension damage to most vehicles disembarking north of Well 33 over the past 48 hours," he says. "We have reduced the pace we are travelling at to ensure the vehicles remain drivable, which all seven of them currently are."
Despite the damage, McCarthy remains confident that all seven vehicles will make it to Halls Creek.
"I'm not displeased with how it's gone so far, but what I am pleased with is how we've resolved it.
"The hardest decision for me was that I had to pay for a charter plane to get the replacement parts here quicker," McCarthy says.
"For me, it was not an option to take a vehicle out [of the crossing attempt]. This has been months and months in the planning."
The day was blighted by another incident when an after-market UHF radio shorted out, taking out a number of other fuses with it, and the failure of one car's air-conditioning system, a necessity in the 30-degree-plus heat of the outback.