By on September 6, 2014

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

1280px-VW_Schwimmwagen_Typ_166_-_Heck

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Volkswagen-1975-Thing-ad-a1-722x1024

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.

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

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24 Comments on “Can That Thing Schwimm?...”


  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    I love the Thing. It’s a good thing that people care enough to fix ’em up.

  • avatar
    baggins

    I had one of these from around 1995 to 1999. For a short period it was my only car.

    A few notes

    – people would wave to you and or take a good look. You almost never see another one on the road, although I did once or twice.
    – people tended to cut you off / pull out in front of you
    – mine had a replacement (slightly more powerful) engine, so top speed was about 75, I think the original engine gave a top speed of 68 according the manual. It was fine around town, as it had pretty low gearing, but freeway merges were not fun
    – the windows were plastic and mine had become opaque with age. So I drove without the removable windows day and night
    – heater didnt work either – was cold at night in northern california or when the fog rolled in
    I drove very carefully, as the structure was very akin to a tin can, an with no roof and removable doors, there wasnt much around you
    – some girls thought it was cool and cute, others found it ugly. Was a good barometer as to how well we’d hit it off
    – I bought it for 900 bucks and sold it for 3400. SInce it had no rust and no body damage, I am guessing its worth even more now

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Damn, but unless you’re a male American born in the first decade of the baby boom you can’t know the appeal anything Wehrmacht has for our inner nazis.

    So much media glorification and sensationalization of the Magnificent German War Machine was fed to our eyeballs via movies, TV and toys that even this rolling mockery of their barely adequate utility vehicle would be welcomed in my driveway right now.

    • 0 avatar

      “our inner nazis”? While I’m aware of the 1930s parlor game, “Who would go Nazi?”, and few of us are complete saints, in all the movies and tv shows I saw as a male born in the first decade of the baby boom, the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS were not glorified, they lost. Or at least that’s the message I got, but then my grandfather was the last Smolinsky.

      It would be interesting, though, to take a restored Kubelwagen and a restored Ford or Willys made WWII era jeep, and put them through their paces off road and see which actually performs better.

      The Americans chose 4WD and the Germans chose a rear engined rear wheel drive vehicle for their light trucklets used by the infantry. By then the Citroen Traction Avant was on the market, so I wonder if anyone proposed a front wheel drive solution to that military need.

    • 0 avatar
      skor

      As a boy growing up in the 70s, I was fascinated with WWII. I thought the Germans had much cooler looking stuff but that hardly made me pro-Hitler.

      • 0 avatar
        petezeiss

        I’m talking 6-12 year-old males, and a tightly organized gang with discipline, ritual and the support of local adults will snag every one of them for life. It’s why hitlerjungend worked, it’s why islam works. That’s the “inner nazi”.

        In Germany’s case, add a political party running that gang that hugely improved most communities’ material well-being and co-opted the technocracy of a leading military nation burning with revanchism.

        American kids picked up that tribal vibe and while digging the big, bad Germans could in the end glory in the fact that our dads and uncles beat those proto-Darth Vaders.

        Rather than seeing Germans as losers, I think we in our hearts regard them more as an earlier, more extreme iteration of ourselves who got into some *big sh1t trouble* with the Ruskies until we went over to tame the Germans and contain the Ruskies.

        • 0 avatar
          Slow_Joe_Crow

          The demand, and relative values for German WWII militaria and the popularity of German roles among reenactors indicates that we still think the Germans had cooler looking stuff.
          From the 60s, Thor Sadler, the son of Barry Sadler of “Ballad of the Green Berets” fame was famously quoted as saying his house looked like the Germans had won the war due to the large amount of Nazi memorabilia in Sadler senior’s collection.

  • avatar
    Eric the Red

    My Uncle had one of these in the 70’s. Unfortunately he lived in Minneapolis and as already mentioned the heaters did not work well (or at all). He got frostbite once and that seemed to be the end of his liking this vehicle.
    Of course everyone else in the family had thought the vehicle tragically ugly and strange already.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    I’ve both owned air-cooled VWs and lived in Minneapolis. My fingers and toes ache just thinking about it.

    And my enduring mental image of this era’s VWs is visible body rot on a three-year old car. Especially the 412s, two-tone: yellow and rust.

  • avatar
    Joss

    Luv the Wermacht shovel or Kreigsmarine (?) paddle depending on mode. Shows complete faith. Always liked the 412 but they were considered ‘just beetle’ beneath while fuel injection was still in infancy.

    Churchull had burning oil waiting on the coast for schwimmers.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      Based on the amount of resources, planning, and intelligence that went in to Overlord, I think it is safe to say that if the Germans had tried to invade Britain they would have been massacred. It probably would have shortened the war.

      • 0 avatar

        The summer of 1940 saw both the British having to evacuate from the continent at Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain air war over London and Coventry. If any time was ripe for an invasion of the British Isles, it was then, when England was back on its heels. However, that summer was also when the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. The German navy was still very strong then and not too much engaged on the Eastern Front, but I don’t think the Nazis had enough Wehrmacht divisions available to invade the UK. I agree, deciding to start a two front war on their own would have likely been a bad strategic move for Hitler. Considering some of his other decisions, perhaps it’s surprising he didn’t invade Britain.

        • 0 avatar
          peeryog

          Actually they did not invade Russia for another year (I think it was 1941)

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Correct. The Soviet-German war began with Operation Barbarossa on June 22nd 1941 at 0315 hrs. This is the beginning of one of the more pivotal events in recorded history.

            It should be also noted, a former Soviet intelligence officer named Rezun in the 1980s postulated the Soviets were preparing an invasion of their own scheduled for July. Stalin himself is quoted say saying “War with Germany is inevitable.” in May of this year.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Barbarossa

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_offensive_plans_controversy

      • 0 avatar
        skor

        The British military was nearly in disarray after the fall of France in 1940. The Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe were at the top of their game. Had the Germans pursued the British across the Channel, it would have ended in defeat….for the British.

        So why did Hitler allow the British Army to retreat across the Channel? Why didn’t he pursue? This has been endlessly debated since 1945. My feeling is because Hitler was a lunatic, it’s as simple as that. Except for the Slovenes and Croats, long part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hitler had a pathological hatred of Slavs. As far as Hitler was concerned, Poles, Ukrainians and especially Russians were ‘subhuman’…worthy of enslavement and extermination. On the other Hand, Hitler was a well know anglophile. Even late into the war Hitler kept alive his fantasy of German-British cooperation. Unfortunately for Hitler, Churchill was not laboring under any such delusions.

        • 0 avatar
          VoGo

          Barbarossa was about oil as much as anything.

          Just like Pearl Harbor.

          Also, just like the last 3 American wars.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I won’t disagree oil in the Caucuses was not a large component, but there were also other mitigating factors. Just as oil was the primary, but not only, cause for the US-Japanese war begun later in 1941.

          • 0 avatar
            VoGo

            You’re right, 28 cars,
            Complicated events like WW2 have many causes and even more interpretations.

            But despite all the disarray the Brits experienced during the invasion of France, the Germans were in no position to mount a D-Day type of invasion themselves at that time.

          • 0 avatar
            petezeiss

            “Barbarossa was about oil as much as anything.”

            Well, that and grabbing multiple Iowas worth of dependable cropland as a peacetime destination for all the supermen produced by those busty Hitlermädel.

            boom boom boom boom

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I completely agree, Sealion was never a realistic operation even given a favorable outcome to the Battle of Britain. The war was lost on the “Halt Order” in 1940 which prevented the effective destruction of the BEF by German armored divisions.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dunkirk#Evacuation

            @petezeiss

            Another partial reason, along with the fact Abwehr believed Soviet forces to be weakened from both the Stalin purges and the 1939 Winter War with Finland. There were also political considerations which NSDAP had been propagating since the late 1920s (“living space” etc.)

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    I had already owned a couple vw beetles when the thing came out. My biggest memory is how sailors would tell me how they loved their thing and were looking forward to getting it back on the road again. Seemed like they were always broken.

  • avatar
    wbrown45

    “…..speed of 8 mph was two fast”
    to = place, direction, or position , too = also, two = 2 :)
    Sorry to nit pick. I enjoyed the article. I have a 1973 Thing that is the most primitive car I have ever owned. It makes my 1978 FJ40 Land Cruiser look plush in comparison. But, it is loved by almost everyone from young to old, male, and female in my small town. The Thing (Type 181) was only imported to the U.S. in 1973, and 1974 due to it being reclassified from a truck to a passenger car. It could not pass the safety standards for 1975. Some leftover 1974’s were sold as ’75 models.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Wish the civilian “Thing” had the first gear 4×4 that the military hardware had. Then I would lust after one.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    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


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