Ugliness in a Wheeled Breadbox” is how a 1974 issue of Popular Mechanics described The Thing. “I saw the Thing and it was so ugly it was cute,” one owner said, describing his first encounter with his Thing.
Perhaps no other car has so perfectly typified its nameplate than the Volkswagen Type 181, known in the US as The Thing. Though I was just a wee lad when it was first introduced to the North American market in 1973 I recall that it was billed as the quirky, fun successor to the original Type 1 Beetle. It certainly was quirky.
Recreational off-road vehicles were becoming more common in the late ’60s and early ’70s thanks to the budding environmental movement and the continued rise in discretionary spending among younger buyers that had made the Mustang so popular years earlier. Jeep CJs were abundant and Ford’s Bronco, introduced in 1966, contributed to the rising popularity of what would eventually become the SUV. Into this growing market segment stepped … Volkswagen?
The Thing started life early in 1938 when Ferdinand Porsche was tasked with producing a small, lightweight off-road vehicle for both the German Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, ostensibly to be based on the existing VW Type 1 (Beetle). Porsche soon realized that, given the weight restrictions (550 kilograms, about 1200 pounds), simply strengthening the existing Beetle’s chassis wouldn’t cut it. It was eventually designed from the ground up as a pure military vehicle and, with the Type 62 “Kübelwagen” moniker in place and participated in World War II from the start with prototypes taking part in the invasion of Poland in September 1939. It retained the air -cooled, rear-engine, rear-drive design and other mechanicals of the Type 1 and was produced only as a 2-wheel drive version; several prototype 4-wheel drive models were produced, but the added weight and complexity precluded full production.
Despite a lack of all-wheel-drive capability, the Type 62 had a number of features that enhanced its off-road capabilities including very light weight, a flat and smooth underbody, self-locking limited slip differential, and a portal gear hub reduction that provided for higher ground clearance and more torque. It was used extensively by Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa where its flat undercarriage proved incredibly useful for riding over sand.
Production carried on through the end of the war by which time it was known as the Type 82; all in all, more than 50,000 vehicles were produced. In the 1960s the design was resurrected when various European governments attempted to cooperate in developing a new light-duty military vehicle, tentatively dubbed the “Eurojeep.” While development of the new vehicle was taking place VW was again tapped to provide a bridging vehicle for use in the meantime. The original Type 62/82 was dragged out of the closet and modified using existing parts of various models including, once again, the Beetle, Karmann Ghia, and Volkswagen Transporter Bus. The final product was dubbed the Type 181.
Though the Eurojeep was never built, VW started selling the military version of the 181 in 1969 and a civilian version in 1971 in Europe and Mexico. American sales began in 1973 as The Thing. There was some reason to expect good sales numbers for The Thing, since dune buggies based on the original VW were popular. It was hoped that some of that image of rugged fun would rub off on The Thing.The sales brochure reproduced below shows how the beach aspects of Thing marketing reflect this.
Like the Jeep, Things were very utilitarian. The body consisted of a series of rib-reinforced flat stampings welded together. You could remove the doors without tools, and they were in fact swappable front-to-rear and the windshield could fold down flat. The interior was similarly sparse with bare metal door panels and a glove compartment that was little more than a hole in the dash. The only internal heating available was a gas-fired heater attached to the gas tank (!!). The engine was the standard air-cooled 1.6 liter four putting out a whopping 46 horsepower, mated to a 4-speed gearbox as the only transmission option. Top speed was only 68 mph, and 0-60 took 23 seconds.
In Europe it was marketed as simply the 181 and was also sold elsewhere as the Safari and the Trekker (a right-hand drive model for the UK was sold as the 182). The 1973 Thing came in only three colors, orange, yellow and white. For 1974 an ‘Acapulco’ version was produced which was little different from the basic model with a few extras: blue and white paint, hard or soft top, and running boards.
Several factors came together to kill The Thing. While young people loved the car, it was priced around $3,000–almost $1,000 more than the Beetle. This was pricey for such a spartan vehicle, especially in comparison with the Jeeps, Broncos, and FJ40 Land Cruisers. The Thing was a fairly capable off-roader for a two-wheel-drive vehicle, but could not keep up with other 4-wheel drive models on the market. Many owners complained about the draftiness, the leaks, the hard ride, and the lack of power. The final blow came when it failed to meet new stricter crash standards for 1975. Things continued to be produced and sold in its civilian version through 1980 and the military version through 1983.
Things have become classic cult vehicles. Prices have been increasing, and you can expect to pay up to $5,000 for a good driveable version. Many in mint condition are going for $12,000 and up. Most of the ones I see around the Seattle area have been repainted in a myriad of colors, reflecting their owners’, errrrrm, unique tastes. Though Things never quite replaced the classic Beetle in sales or widespread notoriety, those that remain are beloved by their owners, and rightfully so.
Note: I originally got much of the information and photos from a now-defunct web site ran by James Nantz. The top orange photo is via Wikipedia (Bubba73 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48096383)