Long Form

Volkswagen 181: Loud, slow, uncomfortable, and will make you grin from ear to ear

This 1973 Volkswagen Thing has spent a great deal of its life in Wisconsin but is only allowed out when the sun shines.

Photo by Harvey Briggs

In the spring of 1971, Larry Nutson, then a young product planner for Volkswagen of America, walked into the meeting. He wasn't sure what to expect, but he certainly didn't suspect a Thing.

Director of Market and Product planning, Dr. Henry Braner had just returned from a vacation in Acapulco and was enamored with the VW Safaris he saw at the resorts and on the beaches. Dr. Braner was convinced Southern California's surfers and other adventurous individuals, who were drawn to the VW powered, Meyers Manx dune buggies of the era, would see the charm of what is officially called the Type 181, but became known in The States as the VW Thing.

1973 Volkswagen Thing The exterior of the model looks primed for wood paneling.Photo by Harvey Briggs

"I was fairly new at the company and couldn't have picked a better first project," said Nutson.

As part of the homologation team, Nutson was responsible for making sure the soon-to-be imported vehicle met not just the desires of the potential owners, but also the regulatory requirements in place at the time. That meant swapping out the taillights and turn signals with those from the contemporary Beetle, adding windshield wipers, and an approved steering column and steering wheel among other things. Emissions weren't an issue, because the Type 181 would use the currently approved Beetle engine and four-speed manual transmission. But it was pretty clear it wouldn't meet crash worthiness standards for passenger vehicles at the time.

Then someone had the brilliant idea to classify it as a "multi-purpose vehicle" like a Jeep. To do that they had to improve its off-road worthiness, so a 4.125:1 transaxle, 100-mm axels, heavy-duty CV joints, and knobbier tires were added to the mix.

At an approval meeting for the Thing with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), regulators expressed doubt about the vehicle's all-terrain capabilities since only the rear wheels were driven. Nutson, together with VW's lawyers by his side, remembers firing back, "Who says an off-road vehicle has to have four-wheel drive?" Without a good answer, NHTSA agreed with VW and the Thing was released to U.S. dealers in August of 1972 as a 1973 model.

1973 Volkswagen Thing Many do a double-take when they see a Thing coming down the road wondering what it is.Photo by Harvey Briggs

Interestingly, the Thing might not have happened at all had NATO completed a project they started about a decade earlier to create a "European Jeep". Pooling their resources, the NATO countries including Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France were trying to design and build a light-duty patrol vehicle that could be used by various armies throughout the continent. The project stalled in the mid-'60s, so the West German Army turned to Volkswagen to quickly fill the void. In 1968 the 181 was commissioned into service. Eventually VW provided over 50,000 Type 181s to NATO from 1968 – 1983.

The fast-track nature of the project meant the Type 181 was quickly assembled out of parts from a variety of existing Volkswagen vehicles, taking its inspiration from the Kübelwagen (Bucket Car) used by the German military in World War II. The foundation of the Type 181 was the floor pan from a Karmann Ghia convertible with added reinforcement for off-road use. This gave it the interior proportions necessary to hold four people and the strength to support the wide-open top. Early 181s had a rear-swing axel suspension was from from the T1 Type 2 Transporter van, and the manual transmission and iconic air-cooled, flat-four engine came from the Type 1 Beetle.

It wasn't long before the Type 181 (and it's right-hand drive twin the Type 182) were adapted for civilian use and in 1971 sales began in continental Europe as the Kurierwagen and the Safari in Mexico, where drivers were looking for something a little more rugged than their beloved Beetles. Originally produced in Wolfsburg, VW added capacity in Puebla, Mexico to fill demand for the Americas – making the Thing the first vehicle ever imported from Mexico to the United States.

1973 Volkswagen Thing Though small, the car is spacious.Photo by Harvey Briggs

The Thing was as basic as basic gets. It was only available in three colors, Blizzard White, Sunshine Yellow, and Pumpkin Orange. It featured bolt-on fenders, doors that were interchangeable from front to rear, side curtains instead of windows, and a soft top designed to keep the rain out. Smart owners always kept a towel handy to dry up the inevitable leaks.

It didn't really matter, however, because most people saw it as a vehicle to be driven in the sunshine. This ethos was also reflected in the original heating system for the Thing.

Mounted just in front of the driver under the Thing's hood was a gasoline heater produced by Eberspächer. Working independently of the engine, this heater had its own small tank you filled and then fired up when you wanted to warm up the cabin. It mustn't have been a very popular feature, because in 1974 the system was replaced by the fresh-air heater used in the Super Beetle.

The 1974 model year also saw the introduction of a new color, Avocado Green, and the Acapulco Edition, with it's special blue and white paint scheme, striped seats, and a Surrey top. In 1975, its final full year on sale in the United States, you could add air conditioning, a radio and even a winch to your Thing.

1973 Volkswagen Thing The Thing keeps its engine in the back.Photo by Harvey Briggs

Comfort wasn't the Thing's strong suit. Neither was performance. Powered by a 46-horsepower, 1,584 cc engine, and only available with a four-speed manual transmission, 0-60 mph times were better measured by calendar than stopwatch. The top speed of 68 miles per hour meant it was freeway capable, but owners tended to eschew the interstates whenever possible.

Drum brakes at all four wheels provided adequate stopping power. And even though the swing axle had been replaced by Porsche double-jointed rear axles with the independent trailing arm rear suspension from the Beetle, handling wasn't its strong suit either.

So if comfort, performance, and handling were all – let's be generous and say – marginal, what was the point of the Thing? In order to find out, I used the magic of social media to contact several owners and even found a young woman who was brave enough to let me drive her unrestored 1973 Thing for a first-hand demonstration of its charm.

1973 Volkswagen Thing This vintage model wears its 1973 Volkswagen license plate frame with pride.Photo by Harvey Briggs

Jason Fogelson purchased his 1974 Thing in the early 1980s when he was working at Michael's Volkswagen in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Canoga Park, California as a salesman to earn money to pay for college. His love affair with the model began one day when Edd Byrns (Kookie in "77 Sunset Strip") drove onto the lot in a blue and white Acapulco Thing to look for a new car. He had a Siberian husky in the passenger seat and from that moment on Jason knew he had to own one.

A few months later, a customer came in to buy a new car and wanted to trade in his orange Thing. The dealership didn't want it so Fogelson arranged to buy it from him for $2,000. He cleaned it up and thoroughly enjoyed driving it around town for the summer.

But when school started in the fall, he quickly discovered the Thing was a lousy car to serve for his 20-mile commute each way. The heater was terrible, the top leaked, it couldn't keep up with traffic, and it was so loud he couldn't hear the transistor radio he brought with him to listen to the morning news. "I couldn't get rid of it fast enough," Fogelson said, but then followed up, "And if I could find another one today, I'd buy it in a heartbeat."

1973 Volkswagen Thing The Thing rides on 14-inch wheels.Photo by Harvey Briggs

Jeff Zurschmeide, an AutomotiveMap writer and known quirky, old car enthusiast – his current collection includes a classic MINI, a dune buggy, and a 1955 M38A1 Jeep – bought his 1973 Thing in the late 1980s for $1,500 when he was living in Santa Cruz. "The car played a pivotal role in my life," said Zurschmeide, "I took the woman who was to become my wife on our first date in the Thing. I stuck my copy of Endless Summer in the tape deck, pulled off the doors, flipped down the windshield and we cruised through town. She loved it, so I knew the relationship had a chance."

When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, Zurschmeide discovered the utility and capability of the Thing. "It's a creditable off-road vehicle. I lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains very close to the epicenter of the quake. You'd drive along and there would be places where streams had changed course through a road or the ground had just sheared away and there was a six-inch step you had to climb up. The Thing just went everywhere."

Like Fogelson, he ended the interview by saying, "If an opportunity came up to get one in good shape for a good price, I would own another thing in a cold second."

Wanting to see and drive a Thing before writing this article, I had arranged to meet Wisconsinite Jennifer Mandich at the parking lot for our local baseball team, on a brisk but clear Wednesday morning.

1973 Volkswagen Thing The interior of the model is rather spartan.Photo by Harvey Briggs

Her 1973 Thing still wears its original and slightly faded orange paint. Her brother bought the car in Arizona and brought it to Wisconsin when he returned home. She'd been eyeing it for a few years while it sat in his garage undriven, and eventually convinced him to sell it to her. She drives the car only on sunny days and rarely puts up the top or takes the side curtains out from where they're stored, under the hood. The car itself is a survivor, with a few scratches, pits in the paint, and dents, but no rust thanks to her care.

The top has been replaced – something that almost all Things have in common – and the engine was rebuilt a few years ago. The interior is spartan, with the metal dashboard and simple seats with no headrest nor any side support. Legroom was adequate for my 6'3" frame, and as I started the car, all my VW memories came rushing back.

I've owned two Beetles, a Karmann Ghia, and a Type 3 Wagon, so everything about the Thing was familiar – the light clutch, the slightly rubbery shift feel, and the unassisted steering. There's a reason so many people of my generation learned to drive stick shifts in VWs, they are simple and forgiving with long clutch travel and an engine that's slow to stall. I took a quick spin around the empty parking lot to get a feel for the Thing and was completely unsurprised by any of its driving characteristics. And yet it was different from any VW I've driven in the way people reacted to it. It's a car that makes people smile, whether they're in the driver's seat, passenger seats, or on the sidewalk watching one trundle past.

1973 Volkswagen Thing This Thing, like so many others, has had its roof replaced.Photo by Harvey Briggs

Like my time behind the wheel, the Thing's availability in America was too short. 1975 saw the introduction of new safety regulations that made it illegal to sell regardless of its classification. In the three years it was on sale in the United States, 25,794 Things were sold. Many are still on the road today and they come up for sale regularly on sites like BringATrailer.com where prices range from a low of $6,300 to a high of $36,250 with most selling between $15,000 and $20,000 over the past three years.

If you're looking for an affordable classic that's loud, slow, uncomfortable and will make you grin from ear to ear every time you get behind the wheel, the VW Thing might just be your thing.

Trending News

Nuts & Bolts

 
 

This McLaren Senna GTR LM wears the classic Harrods livery.

Photo courtesy of McLaren Automobiles

The 1995 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a milestone in McLaren history. That year, five McLaren F1 GTRs finished in the top 15, placing 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 13th. Five customer-commissioned McLaren Senna GTR models celebrate that iconic race.

The five cars wear a bespoke, hand-painted livery that either replicates or pays tribute to the design of each of the 1995 cars.

Each of the models is a unique creation raking more than 800 hours of craftsmanship by McLaren Special Operations to complete. Two of the five models are headed to the U.S. - one in Gulf livery and the other an art car that required several thousand hours of work to complete its unique airbrush paintwork.

McLaren Senna GTR Le Mans 1995 Tribute Each of the models pays tribute to vehicles raced in the 1995 24 Horus of Le Mans.Photo courtesy of McLaren Automobiles

The McLaren Senna GTR is the fastest-lapping car McLaren has ever made outside of Formula 1. These models include an upgraded twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter engine that puts out 833 brake horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque.

Scroll down to see models and read descriptions of each, provided by McLaren.

McLaren Senna GTR LM 825/1

Photo courtesy of McLaren Automobiles

An homage to McLaren F1/01R, often referenced as 'The Ueno Clinic car' and the outright winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1995

The car bearing race number 59 was driven in 1995 by two-time Le Mans winner Yannick Dalmas, Japanese veteran Masanori Sekiya and former Formula One driver, JJ Lehto.

The race was one of the wettest in Le Mans' history, which played into the hands of the bulletproof reliability of the McLaren F1 and also the skills of the drivers – especially Lehto, who was so quick in the wet his team tried to persuade him to slow down.

The charcoal grey livery branded with the name of Japanese sponsor Ueno Clinic was not widely recognised at the time but has since passed into legend. The MSO team has faithfully recreated it on the McLaren Senna GTR LM, precisely matching the color by mixing a new tone dubbed 'Ueno Grey' – a fitting tribute to achievements of the car, and of course its three drivers.

This car has been very authentically reproduced from the original race-winning F1 GTR, echoing every last detail right down to recreating car 59's unique driving lamps, which have been specially commissioned by the GTR LM's owner*.

The OZ Racing wheels are finished in matching grey, completing the menacing look that still sends shivers down the spine of race fans 25 years after the chequered flag fell.

McLaren Senna GTR LM 825/6

Photo courtesy of McLaren Automobiles

An homage to McLaren F1/06R, often referenced as 'The Harrods car'

Car number 51, driven by an all-British line up of Andy Wallace, Derek Bell and Justin Bell, might well have won had it not suffered a transmission glitch two hours from the flag that saw Wallace have to nurse the car home in third place.

The car's famous yellow livery with bold green stripe bore the name of iconic London department store, Harrods – and that prestigious relationship has been reunited for the GTR LM. While the colors have been worn again by a McLaren since the 1995 race – a McLaren P1™ GTR was finished in the livery in 2015 – this is the first time that the famous Harrods logo has been seen on a McLaren for 25 years.

The MSO paint team used a vivid color called Solar Yellow for the body of the car, and that distinctive wide stripe is applied in Heritage Green, shadowed by a matching green pinstripe and green detailing within the front aero diffuser.

McLaren Senna GTR LM 825/2

Photo courtesy of McLaren Automobiles

An homage to McLaren F1/02R, often referenced as 'The Gulf car'

Brazilian Maurizio Sandro Sala joined Brits Mark Blundell and Ray Bellm behind the wheel of the McLaren F1 GTR for 291 rain-lashed laps of La Sarthe in 1995, eventually finishing in fourth place.

Car number 24 had arguably the most iconic livery of any of the cars. The Gulf Racing blue, perfectly reimagined here by MSO as Gulf 95 Blue, fits the McLaren Senna GTR LM seamlessly. Its 'Gulf 95 Orange' pinstripe traces the rear diffuser and the imposing shape of the rear wing's LMP1-style endplates, tracks along the lower sill and unites at the front with vivid orange blades on the front splitter.

The OZ Racing wheels conform to the theme, being finished in equally vivid orange, while the lower sills and roof stripe are painted in Gulf 95 Silver. The actual Gulf Oil logo appears on the bonnet and doors, and a finishing touch is provided by Ayrton Senna's signature boldly recreated on the rear quarter of the bodywork.

McLaren Senna GTR LM 825/7

Photo courtesy of McLaren Automobiles

An homage to McLaren F1/07R, often referenced as 'The Jacadi car'

Car number 50 was run by French-based customer team Giroix Racing. Two French drivers – Fabien Giroix and Olivier Grouillard – joined Swiss pilot Jean-Denis Deletraz to bring the car home in fifth place, just a lap down on the Gulf car.

The unmistakeable royal blue livery was proudly French-themed and has been preserved by the McLaren Senna GTR LM's new owner by the specification of a startlingly bright color called Le Mans Blue for the body of the car. It looks particularly stunning on the GTR LM's massive rear diffuser.

That blue is complemented by a blue metallic called 'Polaris', and further offset by the use of authentic Elf logos belonging to the French oil company which sponsored the 1995 race car. The car is the only one of the five to wear the French Tricolour flag.

McLaren Senna GTR LM 825/5

Photo courtesy of McLaren Automobiles

An homage to McLaren F1/05R, often referenced as 'The Cesar car'

Displaying the most intricate livery design of all the McLaren F1 GTRs that raced in 1995, car number 42 finished 13th position, completing the McLaren roll of honour of finishers.

Run by French team Société BBA, the striking car was driven by an all-French line-up of Jean-Luc Maury-Laribiere, Marc Sourd and Hervé Poulin. Maury-Laribiere and Poulin were pioneers of 'art cars' and asked renowned artist Cesar Baldaccini to envisage a livery for the F1 GTR they would be racing at Le Mans.

An experienced endurance racer, Poulin's fine collection of racing trophies became the inspiration for Cesar's work on the McLaren.

McLaren Senna GTR LM 825/5 is a modern reinterpretation of the livery, drawing in new elements, such as pole position lap times; contemporary race trophies and Le Mans branding cues.

An immensely complex piece of work produced using many techniques – including extensive airbrushing – this was the car that took longest to paint, to the point that MSO stopped recording the time taken. As an estimate, several thousand hours of work were needed to finish the project to the exemplary standard that is now so evident.

All five McLaren Senna GTR LMs have now been completed and will be delivered to owners in the United States, Europe and the UK. As with all bespoke commissions created by McLaren Special Operations, their value remains undisclosed unless the owners choose to share this detail.

Trending News

 
 

The 2021 Nissan Rogue is designed with families in mind.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The Nissan Rogue has been redesigned for the 2021 model year. It continues to bring a lot of what families like to the table. As one of America's top-selling SUVs, the Rogue competes directly with the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, and Ford Escape, among others. Check out the Nissan's most compelling features by scrolling down.

Every Rogue comes loaded with safety technology.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The Nissan Safety Shield 360 suite of safety and driver assist technology comes standard on the Rogue. It includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, land departure warning, high beam assist, and rear automatic braking.

Additionally, the company's Intelligent Driver Alertness and Rear Door Alert technologies are standard.

The rear doors open wide.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Nissan's engineering team has enabled the rear doors on the 2021 Rogue to open to nearly 90 degrees. That not only makes it easy to get luggage and groceries in and out, but also kids and car seats. All three rear seating positions allow for child seat installation.

Keyless entry has been expanded to the rear doors.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

No need to pull out the key to open the doors of the Rogue. Traditionally the keyless entry function works for the driver's door (and sometimes the front passenger's door) and then the driver must open the door and press the unlock button to unlock the rear doors.

Now, the Nissan Intelligent Key will allow rear doors to unlock by holding the key near the door and pressing the button on the rear door handle. All doors can be unlocked by pressing the button twice in quick succession.

Remote technology keeps you and your family warm or cool, right away.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Avaialbe Remote Engine Start technology with Intelligent Climate Control allows parents to heat or cool the cabin of the Rogue from a remote location prior to entering the vehicle. This allows young children and others relief from enduring climate extremes.

Zero Gravity fills the Rogue's universe.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Nissan's ultra-comfortable NASA-inspired Zero Gravity seats are no longer for front-row passengers. For 2021, the Rogue gets the seats in the second row - standard. The seats feature low-fatigue spinal support and are available with heated seat functionality.

Privacy and comfort, please.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

You, your passenger, and your kids can enjoy the three zones of climate control in the 2021 Rogue. The front passenger and driver each have a zone while the third is for rear-seat occupants.

Class-exclusive pull-up sunshades help keep the sun out, aiding in climate control system functionality.

Cargo storage has gotten easier.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Nissan's team has redesigned the Divide-n-Hide cargo storage system for the 2021 model year, allowing it to provide hidden storage. On the inner right side of the cargo area (behind the wheel arch), there is a space for securing wider items like a. bag of groceries or a gallon of milk.

A motion-activated tailgate is newly available for 2021.

Cords are so last year.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Now owners can connect without cords. The 2021 Rogue comes with available wireless Apple CarPlay as well as a wireless smartphone charger.

If you're an Android user, then you'll have to use a cord to connect. For those users, there are USB Type-C and Type-A charging ports.

ProPilot Assist takes the wheel.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Nissan's ProPilot Assist technology doesn't allow for hands-free driving and it's not self-driving, but it does fuse together many functionalities that make daily drive functions easier, especially when your children are doing their best to distract you.

ProPILOT Assist combines steering assist and Intelligent Cruise Control to help control acceleration. It can be used in heavy traffic and on open highways.

For 2021, ProPilot Assist has been enhanced. It has next-generation radar and camera technology that is designed to allow for smoother braking, better steering assist, and improved detection performance when vehicles cut into the lane.

Rogue's drive modes are designed to inspire confidence.

2021 Nissan Rogue

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Nissan has made the Rogue available with all-wheel drive. Those models also get five drive modes: Off-road, Snow, Standard, Eco, and Sport. The modes are engaged using the drive-mode selector mounted on the center console. The all-wheel drive system uses new technology that is designed to respond quicker when slippage is detected.

Production of the 2021 Nissan Rogue is underway now in Smyrna, Tennessee. It will arrive at dealerships later this fall.

Trending News