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The Thing

The_thing"Beautiful 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), 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, participated in World War II from the start with prototypes taking part in the invasion of Poland. It retained the airKubelwagen2 -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 aroundThingbrochure1 $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.

Special thanks to James Nantz  and his web site that provided a lot of information and the sales brochure reproduced above.

--Anthony Cagle


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Wasnt there a horrror movie that had a military green color Thing? A bunch or late teems driving it to a gas station and all hell broke loose?

Wnyway...I always wanted one. Any color.

Had a 75 Convertible Beetle about 5 years ago. After experiencing many of it's shortcomings, I decided that air cooled v dubs are more fun to admire than own...sometimes.

Every time I see a Thing I need to pull over off my bike or slow down in my car to take a closer look. I love the combination of boxie-ness and all the lights tacked on from the original Beetle...the lights, turn indicators...almost like an after thought.

Werent Things about as pricey as a BMW 2002? No wonder they didnt sell all that well.

I never thought the thing was ugly. Utilitarian yes - ugly no. This is functionalist (possibly brutalist) design with a smile. It is designed almost as an appliance with mass production as its goal and a minimum of materials and production energy expended. Really this is production engineering brilliance. And that minimum of use minimum of waste design and production philosophy would be a real benefit in reducing carbon emissions.

I'm guessing that the high cost of the thing was related to corporate optimism/greed... the same formula that marginalized Apple for so many years.

Patty & Selma approve this post!

My sister and I shared one in high school. In addition to convertible top and the removable doors, we also enjoyed the storage spaces between the inner and outer door panels. There were drain holes at the bottom, so the space was great place to add ice and beer. It was legal to have an open beer in the car, and the drinking age was still 18.
Ahhh, Texas in the mid-80s.

As I recall, new safety regs killed it.

The Thing was a marketing stunt, a try at repeating the cult status of the odd-ball Bug.

The stunt quickly failed, the Thing disappeared.

Our was yellow and we went all over northern and central Nevada with it. It was strictly a "fun" car. I can remember one night in late summer barreling down a higway with the top down, the windshield down and the lights off. Since we could see oncoming cars a couple of miles away we weren't too worried about a collision except with a cow critter. Yes, we were sober. Problems: the top didn't come down in a logical manner resulting in a bent frame; the windows were a drafty joke and very short lived but the biggest problem was the heater. Only the driver got heat and the heat usually meant one foot was baking while the rest of the body froze. All in all, I'd rather have a Baja kit on a bug convertable.

The Thing was extremely prong to rust out. With the exception of dry western states most of those that were east of the Mississippi have returned to the earth from whence they came.

>The Thing was extremely prong to rust out.<

Hmm. Karmann bodies? Can't remember who said it, but: "Karmann has the patent on rust; Fiat just makes it under license."

Mind you, Volvo rust was better.

I was a very avid builder of 1:32 military models at the time the Thing came out, and I remember thinking to myself the first time I saw the commercial, "Hey, that's a Kübelwagen!"

The high price was a result of the fact that the 181 was designed initially for military use and government contracts. Several design features would never have been included had it been intended for low-cost, high volume civilian production (hence, calling the vehicle itself a "marketing stunt" is a bit ridiculous, though repurposing it for civilian use was a marketing challenge, 20 years before the SUV craze). The advantage of all this was an extremely durable and easy to work on vehicle. The dashboard, for example, is a series of hinged panels, so that the electrical system, etc. is easily accessible.

Also, while Things were indeed prone to rust, they were no more likely to rust than most vehicles of the mid 1970s. These were high quality, low production utility vehicles, built with great care and precision. They were short on creature comforts, but quite rugged and dependable.

The roofless Wolfsburg factory was still cranking out Kubelvagens at the end of the war. They were traded to GIs for Jeeps. The Jeeps in turn were traded to the Brits for steel that kept the plant in material.

In '75 at Kino Bay a disgruntled American couple offered me $1500 to steal theirs so unhappy were they.

This was a very dangerous car. Three kids from my high school were killed in one. If they would have been in a regular car, they most likely would have survived.

Go here for the most retro "Thing":

Cozumel, Mexico. Lots of 'em.

Mister Mike: "The high price was a result of the fact that the 181 was designed initially for military use and government contracts."

I wonder if Chris Hafner, Jr. will be writing something similar in 20 years regarding the Hummer. =)

One thing I neglected to add (mainly because I couldn't find a good place): the original war-time version was modified to *reduce* its *minimum* speed to about 4 mph. They did this so that marching soldiers could keep up with it.

We just finished a complete restoration on our 1974 Thing (lovingly named the "JEPTHING). It's bright yellow and appraised and insured at $22000.00. Not one single thing on the restoration was EASY, but now it's really a CUTIE! Anyone planning on doing a restoration, keep in mind that the parts are expensive but stick with it because if you do it the right way, the results are worth it! We received a lot of help from the Thing Shop in Chandler, Arizona.


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