Can That Thing Schwimm?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

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Potential military applications of what became known as the Volkswagen Beetle were part of the earliest discussions that Ferdinand Porsche and Adolph Hitler had concerning the “people’s car” in the spring of 1934. However, it was only after what was then called the KdF-Wagen was approaching production in 1938 that Wehrmacht officials formally asked Dr. Porsche about designing a lightweight military transport vehicle, capable of both off and on road use in extreme conditions. The engineer and his design studio got to work quickly, producing a prototype based on the Type 1 in less than a month.

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That prototype, though, proved that the vehicle would need a dedicated chassis as even a reinforced Beetle platform wasn’t up to the rigors of the military’s needs. Porsche had Trutz, a coachbuilding company with military experience, help with the body design and what became known as the Type 62 got the go-ahead for development when the two-wheel drive vehicle proved to be competitive off-road with existing Wehrmacht 4X4 trucks. A self-locking differential made by ZF and the Type 62’s light weight proved to be sufficient.

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Pre-production models were battle tested during the German invasion of Poland in September of 1939. While commanders were generally pleased with the performance they told Porsche that the vehicle’s minimum speed of 8 mph was two fast to accompany marching soldiers and they wanted better off-road performance. Porsche satisfied both requests by implementing gear-reduction hubs in the rear axles. After the war those hubs made the Type II, what we know as the VW Bus, possible of carrying significant loads despite having only 36 hp. The self-locking differential was replaced with a limited slip device and a number of other changes were made so by the time what became known at the Kübelwagen was finalized it was given a new designation, Type 82.

VW Type 82 Kubelwagen, Photo: Wikipedia

The name Kübelwagen means “bucket car” and actually isn’t a description of it’s rudimentary bodywork. It’s full name was “Kübelsitzwagen”, bucket seat car, the Wehrmacht’s term for cars with open or removable doors that needed bucket seats to keep the driver and passengers in the cars. Production of the Kübelwagen began as soon as the KdF-Stadt (later Wolfsburg) works were operational in early 1940 (beating the Type 1 to production by months) and the German jeeplet stayed in production for the duration of the war. Total production was just over 50,000 units.

Kubelwagen, Sicily 1943. Photo: Wikipedia

A number of variants, experimental and production, of the Type 82 were made, but the best known is the Type 166 Schwimmwagen, an amphibious vehicle that was driven on land with all four wheels and in water by a hinged propeller that dropped into place.

Kubelwagen on the eastern front. Photo: Wikipedia

Since the flat platform chassis of the Type I and Kübelwagen were not exactly designed to glide through water, Erwin Komenda, Dr. Porsche’s body designer, came up with a patented unitized tub for the body, or rather hull. Mechanicals were based on the Type 87 4WD Command Car, a Kübelwagen with a Beetle body. When the Type 128 prototypes proved to be insufficiently stiff and not water tight, changes were made, including shortening the wheelbase to just 200 cm for better maneuverability. The production Schwimmwagen was named the Type 166 and eventually over 15,000 were made. While that production figure makes the Schwimmwagen the largest production amphibious vehicle ever made only 163 are listed as surviving today in the Schwimmwagen Registry and only about a dozen are in original condition.

Type 166 Schwimmwagen. Wikipedia photo.

Production Schwimmwagens had four wheel drive but only in first gear. There were ZR self-locking diffs on both the front and rear axles. In back, the Schwimmwagen used the same “portal gear” hubs that helped with getting the Kübelwagen going at low speeds and they also gave better ground clearance. A screw propeller, as mentioned, was hinged on the back of the Schwimmwagen, normally stored on the rear deck over the engine. When lowered into place, a coupling attached the prop drive to the engine’s crankshaft. There was no rear rudder, the front wheels provided steering on land and on sea they acted as rudders.

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Years after British Major Ivan Hirst got the postwar Volkswagen company going, in the 1960s a number of governments in Europe started collaborating on a new military vehicle to be used by NATO called the Europa Jeep. Development stalled and the West German government decided it needed something in the meantime. When approached, though they had turned down the idea of building a military vehicle in the 1950s, by the late 1960s, VW managers recognized that such a car might make sense as a consumer vehicle in some of their markets. At the time, VW based dune buggies were popular in the U.S. and Mexican consumers living in rural areas wanted something a bit more rugged than the Beetle. The idea was to use as many off the shelf parts as possible.

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The Karmann Ghia’s chassis was chosen because it was wider and stronger than that of the Type 1 Beetle, though it was further strengthened. Swing axles and the gear reduction boxes were contributed from the pre-1968 Type II transporter. For off-road travel there was over 8 inches of ground clearance, minimal overhangs front and back, and skid plates. Fenders bolted on and there were visible strengthening ribs all over the generally simple and flat body panels. Doors were interchangeable and removable, the windshield folded flat and the entire convertible roof could be removed for al fresca driving. An optional fiberglass hardtop was offered.

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The inside was just as spartan as the outside. There was very little in the way of trim or upholstery. Vinyl covered bucket seats and lots of painted sheet metal. There were drain holes and perforated rubber mats so the interior could be hosed out if needed.

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While there’s a great visual similarity between the Type 82 Kübelwagen and what became known as the Type 181, and while they were both used by the German military, they don’t really have that much in common, there are no shared parts.

In addition to military sales, the Type 181 was marketed to the public in Germany as the “Kurierwagen”, in the UK as the “Trekker”, the “Safari” in Mexico, and the “Thing” in the States. I haven’t been able to determine exactly how it got the name but I suspect that the folks at Doyle Dane Bernbach, VW’s innovative and humorous U.S. ad agency, probably had something to do with it. After all, the same agency produced ads calling the Thing “ridiculous”. While production of the Type 181 continued into the 1980s, the last year for the Thing in the U.S. was 1975. One of the oddest of odd automotive ducks, the Thing wasn’t a great success in America and it wasn’t worth keeping it compliant with increasingly stringent federal motor vehicle safety standards.

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The three VW Things pictured here were photographed at the 2014 Vintage VW Show, held in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The Type 166 Schwimmwagen is on display at the Detroit Arsenal of Democracy museum, in suburban St Clair Shores.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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2 of 24 comments
  • PrincipalDan PrincipalDan on Sep 07, 2014

    Wish the civilian "Thing" had the first gear 4x4 that the military hardware had. Then I would lust after one.

  • -Nate -Nate on Sep 08, 2014

    Even in California , many of the '73s had gas heaters . Even with this and the optional fiberglass top it got cold in there in 40° weather. VW stopped selling these in America because of the un ending lawsuits , they were losing $ on every one sold by the time they pulled the plug . For most of the 1980's ex NATO Safaries were dirt cheap , under $1,000 in the U.S. and slow to sell , most were straight out of dead storage and low mileage and rust free . -Nate

  • ToolGuy Personally I have no idea what anyone in this video is talking about, perhaps someone can explain it to me.
  • ToolGuy Friendly reminder of two indisputable facts: A) Winners buy new vehicles (only losers buy used), and B) New vehicle buyers are geniuses (their vehicle choices prove it):
  • Groza George Stellantis live off the back of cheap V8 cars with old technology and suffers from lack of new product development. Now that regulations killed this market, they have to ditch the outdated overhead.They are not ready to face the tsunami of cheap Chinese EVs or ready to even go hybrid and will be left in the dust. I expect most of their US offerings to be made in Mexico in the future for good tariff protection and lower costs of labor instead of overpriced and inflexible union labor.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is delaying an oil change for my Highlander by a couple of weeks, as it prevented me from getting an appointment before a business trip out of town. Oh well, much worse things have happened.I also just got a dealership oil change for my BMW (thanks, loss-leader prepaid plans!) and this didn't seem to affect them at all.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Gonna need more EV fuel.