Curbside Classic: VW Type 181 "Thing"

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic vw type 181 thing

Does this Thing ever speak to me. In German, undoubtedly; which may well have something to do with the affinity I feel with it. I’m going to try to not be too chauvinistic, but there is something intrinsically Germanic, brilliant and adaptable in the basic Volkswagen design, which facilitated more permutations than any other car ever. The same basic underpinnings that created the Porsche 356 are here at work in the Type 181, the descendant of the WWII Kübelwagen. Even though you haven’t seen the last two yellow convertibles this week, if I had to choose one from all five, this Thing might well have be the one. Figure it. But where else can you get a four door rag top that will last forever, can go off-roading, and you don’t have to worry about putting up the top when it rains.

The fact that VW updated and put into production a thirty year old design is fairly remarkable in itself. In response to the delays of the proposed Europa Jeep, an ambitious pan-European project to design an advanced amphibious four-wheel drive light military vehicle, the German Army was in desperate need of new wheels. An updated Kübelwagen was the solution, and VW agreed. Anyway, by the late sixties, VW based off-road buggies were a huge phenomena, and the Mexican market was crying for a simple rugged vehicle. The Type 181 was just the ticket for the times, military and civilian, and it required a minimum of development time and effort.

The 181 sat on a Karman Ghia floor pan (wider than the Type 1), and used some heavier duty Transporter parts like the rear axle reduction gears, which of course got their start on the Kübelwagen. After 1973, the 181 switched to the newer (1968 and up) Transporter rear suspension, eliminating the reduction gears and swing axles. From the look of the positive camber on the rear wheels of this Thing, I’m thought it was a pre 1973, but the taillights say otherwise. The typical VW 1500 and 1600 cc engines provided motive power.

Civilian sales started in 1971, and a year later in the US. But by 1975 it was already gone from the US market for failing to meet new safety standards. Safety was not exactly high on the design criteria, for sure. But then it’s probably less likely to roll over than the Jeeps of yore. That was certainly the case in WWII (see separate post on the Kübelwagen). And it rode a hell of a lot better than the stiff-kneed Jeep.

The Type 181 went on to be sold to European militaries until 1983, who loved its cheap purchase price (probably a tiny fraction of a Humvee) and reliability. And the Thing has developed a cult following, with prices running ever higher; over $40k for a restored Thing at a Barrett-Jackson auction. I waited too long, once again.

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3 of 22 comments
  • Blowfish Blowfish on Apr 29, 2010 These folks made them new in Vancouver. Close to 50 grand as I was told. I drove one back in the late 70s, is slow all I can say, but would be great for off road. Simple to drive , work on. Wonder how dirty /Pollution wise are these VW air cooled engines? The 75 beetle models did slap a Catalytic muffler on it, was it still dirty as in Enviro correct? As a suggestion, would TTAC one day allow us readers to up load car pics, as many of us would have similar pics captured else where to share.

    • Cstoc Cstoc on Apr 29, 2010

      Any car from the 70's is horribly polluting compared to a modern one, even if they're running perfectly. They emit literally hundreds of times more pollutants. If they're not running perfectly then it's thousands of times more. There's been tremendous progress over the past 35 years. Paul, you used to live in LA in the 1970's. If you've been there recently you know the smog levels are much improved.

  • Cjclaymore Cjclaymore on Apr 29, 2010

    My roommate in college had a '74. Bright yellow, with a checkerboard stripe painted just off-center running up the hood and down the back. Used a (stolen) "1" billiard ball as the gear shift knob, sticking with the yellow theme. Hole rusted in the floor, so we never used it when it rained. Top speed of about 65 mph, and the e-brake was held together with pieces of a ballpoint pen and a nail. But it always turned heads, and everyone at parties knew if Steve was already there or not.

  • John H Last week after 83 days, dealership said mine needs new engine now. They found metal in oil. Potential 8 to 9 month wait.
  • Dukeisduke An aunt and uncle of mine traded their '70 T-Bird (Beakbird) for a brand-new dark metallic green '75 LTD two-door, fully loaded. My uncle hated seat belts, so the first time I saw the car (it was so new that the '75 models had just landed at the dealerships) he proudly showed me how he'd pulled the front seat belts all the way out of their retractors, and cut the webbing with a razor blade(!).Just a year later, they traded it in for a new '76 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (they had owned a couple of Imperials in the '60s), and I imagine the Cadillac dealer took a chunk out to the trade-in, to get the front seat belts replaced.
  • CaddyDaddy Lease fodder that in 6 years will be on the 3rd owner in a poverty bound aspirational individual's backyard in a sub par neighborhood sinking into the dirt. The lending bank will not even want to repossess and take possession of this boat anchor of a toxic waste dump. This proves that EVs are not even close to being ready for prime time (let's not even talk about electrical infrastructure). EVs only exist in wildly expensive virtue signaling status-mobiles. FAIL! I know this is a Hybrid, but it's a Merc., so it will quickly die after the warranty. Show me a practical EV for the masses and I'll listen. At this time, Hybrids are about the way to go for most needing basic transportation.
  • Jeanbaptiste The bubble free dash on the R32!
  • Kcflyer i miss the garden variety of these and the chevy and buick twins. Good cars, comfy, solid v6 powertrains with good power and efficiency. Too bad they quite making them