Volkswagen 181 Thing

Beware of the Thing

When you think about Volkswagen, thoughts tend to steer towards the Beetle or the Golf GTI, not stripped-out off-roaders that look like the illegitimate offspring of a skip and a bread bin. That’s precisely what the Volkswagen Type 181 was. Known as the Kurierwagen in West Germany, the Trekker in the UK, the Safari in South America and the Pescaccia in Italy. In the US it was known as the Thing because in the 50s through to the late 70s Pontiac produced a station-wagon called the Safari so the name was off-limits.

History of the Volkswagen 181 Thing

The Thing was the younger, cooler cousin of the Kübelwagen, (‘bucket car’) a light military utilitarian vehicle designed by none other than Ferdinand Porsche and built by VW during the Second World War for use by both the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS.

By way of comparison, the Kübelwagen was more of a concept, in the same way we refer to large 4x4s, irrespective of brand, as jeeps – a bastardisation of the initials GP that stood for General Purpose vehicle, or, if some stories are to be believed, it was the shortening of the phrase ‘jeepers creepers!’ uttered by US Army Major General George Lynch when he first took a ride in one!

The Thing was produced between 1968 and 1983 (civilian sales ended in 1980), firstly at Volkswagen’s HQ in Wolfsburg, then in Hannover, Mexico and lastly in Indonesia. It was offered with a 1.5-litre engine – latterly upgraded to a 1.6 – and shared mechanicals with the Beetle and the pre-1968 Microbus and the floorplan, albeit slightly wider, of the Type 1 Karmann-Ghia.

The engine wasn’t ever going to compare with the Lamborghini Miura or the Porsche 911 but then the Lambo or the Porsche couldn’t traverse muddy ravines or ford streams. It was VWs own air-cooled 46 bhp flat four and the 0-60 time was a glacially-slow 24 seconds. It came with a four-speed manual gearbox and the heavy duty off-road tyres gave the Thing good ground clearance.

The interior too was never going to win any prizes for aesthetic look and feel. It was seriously stripped-out; bare metal and not a creature comfort in sight. The centrally-mounted speedo was the only thing distinguishing the interior from the inside of a metal filing cabinet and it was designed to be cleaned out from the inside with a hosepipe.

The VW 181 Thing was produced while Europe’s armies were waiting patiently for the multi-nation Europa Jeep (similar in principle to the development of the Eurofighter plane) and while the Europa Jeep project slowly died a predictable death, VW churned out more than 50,000 Things for NATO forces.

The Thing also sold in big numbers in Mexico. Customers were continually asking for something cheap and simple to run and maintain that could handle their rural road system and in the US, the top brass at VW saw the potential for a fun and hard-wearing off-roader for the ‘youth’ but they missed a big, big trick.

Priced at $3,150 for what was essentially a metal box, it was $1,000 more than a Beetle and a shade more expensive than a ’73 Mustang Mach 1. US imports topped 25,000 but by 1975, it was dead because it didn’t meet – or even come remotely close – to the stricter emission standards because it was reclassified as a ‘passenger car’ from a ‘multi-purpose vehicle’ which previously avoided such legislative issues. Thanks, Ralph Nader.