Some car models become long-lived fixtures in countries never envisioned by their original designers or even by the most far-out thinking of marketing directors, such as the Ford Falcon of Argentina or the 1950s American sedans made into “Dolmus” minibuses in Turkey. Among these automotive near-immortals is the VW Type 181 “Thing” — conceived for European military and North American recreational use, born in Germany in 1968 (military)/1971 (civilian), and living into the 21st Century with no end in sight as the preeminent tour vehicle of the Indonesian island of Bali, almost 7,500 miles from Wolfsburg. How The Thing arrived there and attained its current status is a testament to the fundamental soundness of the design and its suitability for its eventual destiny in Bali.
As related by Paul in his December 2014 history of The Thing, its design was a revival of the military Kubelwagen of the Second World War, using elements of late 1960s VW: a Karmann Ghia floorpan (wider than the Type 1 Beetle’s), Type 1 1500cc or 1600cc engine and transmission, and some Type 2 Transporter drivetrain and suspension parts. Produced for the Bundeswehr and other armies starting in 1968 and for civilian sales starting in 1971, it entered the U.S. market in 1972, where it lasted only until 1975 because of new federal safety standards. Production in Germany for military sales continued until 1983.
The simple, utilitarian Thing became part of Volkswagen’s move to establish factories outside of Europe for local production in developing country markets. After establishing its first overseas factories in Australia in 1953 and Brazil in 1959, Volkswagen opened plants in Puebla, Mexico in 1964 and Jakarta, Indonesia in 1972. Production of the Thing occurred in Mexico in 1970-80 and in Indonesia in 1973-80.
In Indonesia, including the remote island of Bali, the Thing was a fringe vehicle that did not sell in large numbers. This photograph in Bali shows a typical mix of vehicles then and now: small motorbikes for most people, small sedans (VW Beetle then, Toyota Corolla now), and small vans (VW Transporter then, Japanese mini- and micro-vans now), with the Thing somewhat of a curiosity.
The Thing and other classic air-cooled Volkswagens have a significant enthusiast following in Indonesia, with many cars restored or preserved and customized. This Thing at a classic VW show, with roll bars, bull bar with lights, racks, gas can, and a pickaxe, looks ready to transport Erwin Rommel across the desert.
The Things of Bali are mostly colorful and tourist-friendly rather than militaristic, though. This Thing parked in front of one of the island’s many Hindu temples is typical of the examples that have migrated to Bali in large numbers since Indonesian production in 1973-80, with pastel paint and a roll/grab bar.
Things are present in staggeringly large numbers in the island tour trade in Bali, and the reasons are obvious. Its four doors and open top are an ideal configuration for taking several tourists on a sightseeing tour, with a door for each person and panoramic views. Its lack of power is irrelevant in a place with a minimally developed road network and low speeds, and its proficiency at crawling along at low speeds on rural roads or in towns is an asset, similar to the case of the 50cc Honda Cub motorbikes that are the main form of transportation in Vietnam despite a top speed of barely over 40 miles per hour. The simple design and four decades of local experience with its maintenance and repair make the Thing an easy to use and low-cost tool for the job.
The Thing probably will continue in its role in Bali for a long time, because a comparable replacement does not exist anywhere. Four door convertibles have been a rare body style since the Second World War, extinct aside from the 1961-67 Lincoln Continental and Mercedes-Benz landaulets intended and priced for heads of state. The four door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited of 2007 onward is a possible alternative, but the Thing is probably still a superior vehicle for this role, for reasons that date back to the Jeep and Kubelwagen of the Second World War. The Jeep Wrangler offers far more power and four wheel drive, but these advantages are irrelevant on a mountainous island with slow speeds and where off-road driving would be through impassable jungle or agricultural terraces. The Thing has more interior space and a smoother ride from its four wheel independent suspension. Factor in that an old Thing is an inexpensive and easily maintained vehicle while a Jeep Wrangler would be an expensive luxury import with far more sophisticated and costly to repair systems, and the Thing appears to be secure in its role for many years to come.
So if you have had a thing for the Thing since the 1970s and are eager to experience the exotic tropical island of Bali, there is no need to hurry. Your Thing will be doing its thing, merrily putt-putting around the mountains, to the Hindu temples, and to the beach, for as long as it takes for you to get there and beyond.