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