By on April 28, 2010

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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22 Comments on “Curbside Classic: VW Type 181 “Thing”...”

  • avatar

    Local family has one. The mom taught with me at my previous school site. You always know when some work is being done to one of the other family vehicles or one is needed for a long distance trip by one of the older children, out comes the “THING.”

  • avatar

    four doors, an engine, some seats and a stripped interior…man, you just have to love the simplicity of the Thing!

  • avatar

    The Thing rocks, merely for its audacity.

    If it had a V8 and was built by GM, we’d call it a Hummer. And then tree-huggers would set them on fire.

    • 0 avatar

      No. The appeal of The Thing is this: it was simple, cheap, reliable and different. It would get 35 highway miles on a gallon of gas.

      If one could claim any of this about a Hummer, no one would be setting them on fire either.

    • 0 avatar

      @baabthesaab: you have to admit that the H1 Hummer is/was different: portal axles, inboard brakes, tire inflation system, radiator on top of the engine rather than in front, etc. So it meets at least 1 out of 4 on your list of criteria.

  • avatar
    Beta Blocker

    A colleague at work bought one of these new in 1972. It has been his daily commuter car for the last 38 years. The engine and transmission have been replaced several times, the interior reupholstered once, and the exterior has been professionally repainted once. He has no plans to sell it after he retires in a few years. We used to kid him that he had a thing about The Thing, but the joke got old after ten years or so.

  • avatar

    A fun fact about these (pun intended) is that if you remove the interior panels around the rear seats the German army issue gun mounts are still there. Just clip in the assault rifle of your choice and you’re off.

  • avatar

    The Thing was my first ‘mystery car’. I drove by a house that had one parked out front every day my last two years of high school. I would always blatantly rubberneck when I drove by trying to catch a glimpse of a badge or a model name, but without any luck (I almost always caught it on the side profile).

    Not until I was in college when I actually caught someone driving one into a parking lot did I find out what the thing was, a Thing.

    I would love one of these as a toy, and prices really aren’t bad on ebay motors, there are a couple of very nice looking ones at $10,000 and $15,000
    right now.

  • avatar
    martin schwoerer

    No need to pay 40k: get one done for one grand:

    Paul, you need to do a special on corrugated-body cars. The rippled stuff is just so great: lightweight, strong, interesting to look at. Nothing says utilitarian like corrugated. It has no demerits except for aerodynamics and stylishness. And me, I want a Citroen HY.

    • 0 avatar
      A is A

      “It has no demerits except for aerodynamics and stylishness”

      IMO corrugated is stylish as hell. It is also retro in a more authentic way than a New Beetle or a MINI.

      (I can not help but love the looks of a Junkers 52 -“Tante Ju”- or… a Chrysler Sebring)

  • avatar


    Based on the tail lights it has to be a 73 or later. Those combo VW light clusters first appeared in the 73 model year.

    For Beetle spotters tail lights, cooling slats, and bumpers are how you distinguish the rapid changes from 69 through 74. The big round cluster lights appear in 73, and the bumpers raised up in 74.

  • avatar

    I liked the crazy 70s paint jobs you used to see on these. I believe polkadots were a factory option.

  • avatar

    I don’t know what it says about VW Thing owners, but Patty and Selma Bouvier drive one.

  • avatar

    Isn’t that positive camber on the rear wheels?

  • avatar

    I always thought these were cool and as a kid I was intrigued by the removable doors. FWIW some specialists have imported the military versions which feature gasoline fired heaters and sometimes 24V electrics.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    I’m going to call you on that and say the BMC Mini underpinnings spawned more derivatives.

  • avatar

    Those seats and shifter don’t look stock. This Thing hiding a bigger engine? LSX conversion, perhaps?

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      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.

  • avatar

    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.

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