Curbside Classic: 1973 (or ’74) Volkswagen 181: Here’s The Thing…

1973 or '74 Volkswagen Thing. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, 7/24/2020.

My older brother’s friends in high school in the ’80s had a variety of vehicles that set my internal bar pretty high in terms of what I would aspire to later own and drive.  Among those rides were a Jeepster, a Honda Prelude, and a hump-fendered AMC Javelin, the latter of which probably kick-started my fascination with American Motors and the Javelin in particular.  I don’t recall any Escorts, Cavaliers, or other more common small cars like these among the bunch, though a girl he dated for a while drove an Omni GLH which I remember thinking was a legitimately cool hatchback.

1973 VW Thing print ad.

1973 Volkswagen Thing print ad.

My brother and many of his friends were in advanced placement high school courses, so I had always assumed that their more eclectic taste in cars reflected some sort of “advanced” automotive palate that would shun more mainstream rides like Cutlass Supremes and Camaros.  This is not at all an insult to my brother’s friends, who were all pretty cool toward me, being that I was quite a bit younger than all of them.  (And I still wanted a Trans Am.)

1973 or '74 Volkswagen Thing. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, 7/24/2020.

The most radical conveyance of all of my brother’s friends had to be a Volkswagen Thing, as it was known in the United States (called the Type 181 / 182 in most of the rest of the world), owned by one of his right-hand men.  Paul Niedermeyer had written up the 181 here, back in 2014, so you would do well to click on that link for a concise overview on this vehicle’s conception and execution.  The 181 designation was for left-hand-drive vehicles, and the 182 applied to the right-hand versions.  It was sold in the United States for just two, scant model years, 1973 and ’74, though it was available in other markets from 1968 through ’83.

1973 or '74 Volkswagen Thing. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, 7/24/2020.

Perhaps it was because of my brother’s friend’s example that I seem to recall seeing a handful of these Things around Flint, Michigan when I was growing up.  The truth is probably closer to the fact that said friend lived in our neighborhood.  Regardless, my first impression of the Thing was that it looked, to me, like a Beetle.  Like an angular, four-door, convertible Beetle that was designed using only a ruler, a straightedge and a protractor.  I later came to realize that it actually didn’t look like a Beetle at all.  Sure, the basic rear-engine configuration was there, along with the round headlamps, the grille-less front end, a very geometric look, and those taillamps.  By geometric similarity, I mean that the Thing defined straight lines the way the look of the Beetle was synonymous with semi-circles.

VW Type & Type 181 taillamps.

Enlarged Volkswagen Type 1 taillamps used from 1973 on.

It was as if a kid unfamiliar with Volkswagens had been shown one picture of a Type 1 / Beetle, just once, for maybe five minutes, before the photo was taken away and the kid was asked to build one out of Legos.  There is one stylistic detail, though, that threw off my cognitive recognition of the Thing in terms of my thinking it looked like a Beetle: the taillights.  It was because of these tri-color units that before I knew the proper model name of this vehicle here in the U.S., I thought of it as the “Weird Beetle”.  Have we evolved in the post-industrial world to recognize and associate automotive styling cues the way that our hardwired ability of face-recognition is innate?  I’m not being totally serious with that question, but let me present another example of what I’m talking about.

1974 VW Thing print ad, as sourced from the internet.

1974 Volkswagen Thing print ad.

Around this same time that my brother was in high school and I was an elementary school kid, there were still a plentiful number of Ford Pintos still running around.  It didn’t matter that we lived in a GM town.  Though the Chevrolet Chevette was still a very popular car, and even if most Vegas were in the final throes of complete and total disintegration, the plain and simple fact is that basic, reliable, and economical transportation was always going to be needed in our blue collar factory town, regardless of brand – as long as it was domestic.  Pintos were a common sight, and since the bulk of them were sold prior to the slight restyles that occurred for ’77 and ’79, many of them were going to have the taillamp assemblies that looked like this:

By contrast, and moving up a size class from subcompacts to compacts, the Pinto’s slightly older, slightly bigger sibling, the Maverick, was not that common a sight at all.  I’ve written before about how Chevrolet seemed to be the most common make of car on the streets of Flint when I was growing up (again, this is just my perception), so this would explain the presence back then of Novas and Citations dwarfing that of the Maverick, and even the popular Granada.  All of this is to say that it took me an unusually long time to finally learn the model name of the Maverick.

Ford Pinto & Maverick taillamps are the same.

Taillamps on Ford’s Pinto (l.) and Maverick (r.).

First, the type font on the Maverick’s emblem wasn’t quite as easy to read as the name of some other cars.  Second, when I was first learning to identify the makes and models of cars, taillamps and their variations from year to year were one visual cue that I came to rely on.  For the longest time, in my head, the Maverick was the “Big Pinto” because of the taillights it shared with the smaller model.  The following would have been the type of argument in the family car that I might have had with my brother.  “That’s a Pinto.  Just look at the taillights.”  “Dude, I’m telling you, that’s a Maverick.  You just have to trust me on this.”  Then, there was: “See the letter ‘t’ at the end?  That’s a ‘Chevro-lette‘!”  “Chevro-lay.  Have you ever heard of a ‘Chevro-lette’ before in your life?  Shows how much you know.”  So he was older and bigger.  And right, both times.  Whatever.

1973 or '74 Volkswagen Thing. Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, 7/24/2020.

My point is that taillamps are, to me, a strong visual cue, to the point that their presence on both the Volkswagen Thing and the 1973-forward Beetle might have subconsciously caused me to misidentify the former as a type of the latter, when the Thing was a different type of vehicle altogether.  I may not be able to do everything I’d normally want to do this summer on account of the current pandemic, but I’m still able-bodied and can walk, and I can still take pictures.  What a pleasant, throwback experience it was to spot a “Weird Beetle” on an evening walk through a nearby neighborhood.  Let’s hope this Thing still runs well.

Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Friday, July 24, 2020.
All other images as sourced from the internet.