Curbside Classic : 1974 VW Thing (Type 181)- We Hardly Knew Ye

It’s almost hard to believe that there was a day when our overly protective, professional busybody class inside the Washington beltway didn’t obsess over every aspect of our daily transportation like a helicopter parent at our first prom. There were (kids, ask your parents) light, breezy times when drivers could wander onto a car lot and drive away with something that was actually interesting and fun, which you could tell at a glance who made it and when. My recent trip down to the Suwannee River in Florida reminded me of this when I spotted this immaculate VW Thing patiently waiting for its (no doubt happy) owner outside the only restaurant in White Springs. This is the kind of rig that just couldn’t exist in the lo-carb, no lead, crash-survivability- index nanny state we live in today.

If you read CC, you probably already know that the Thing was an update of the WWII Kubelwagen staff car that minor Sturmbannfuhrers and Oberststurmbannfuhrers tooled around in while terrorizing Europe in the early/mid 40’s. The donor car was the humble Beetle , which lent the floorpans, driveline and build quality to a superstructure designed to traverse the trackless roads of Russia while not boiling over on patrol in the heat of North Africa. Despite having less horsepower and only two-wheel drive, the Kubelwagen did remarkably well even in difficult terrain, served with some distinction.

Fast forward 25 years. In the U.S, backwoods hunters and beach bums were chopping the front and rear overhangs off of their Beetles and making respectable off road machines with them. The lighter weight and good clearance of the Baja Buggies even supported  a few west coast companies that did nothing but conversions. This did not go unnoticed at VW HQ. South of the border, Mexican drivers were ready to pay good dinero for a vehicle that could handle their country’s road conditions, which ranged from “primitive” to downright shocking. Mr. Opportunity was knocking loudly, and VW was determined to open that door, since an updated military version was already developed.

The car debuted in Mexico and Europe in 1969 and came stateside in 1972. The Mexican version saw fair sales (it was popular at vacation spots like Acapulco and Cozumel), but never really set the world on fire.  In Mexico , it was sold as the Safari. In the U.S. VW began a long tradition of embarrassingly bad monikers by naming it…The Thing. It seems that the marketing people just threw up their hands (late on a Friday) and admitted that they couldn’t think of a proper name, so “The Thing” was it.

The U.S. Spec models came equipped with the 1.6 flat four that had made the Beetle and Karmann Ghia renowned for their durability and economy. The K-G floorpan was used in this iteration, being wider and stiffer than the Beetle’s. A four speed manual (again, borrowed from the VW parts bin) actuated via a long clutch cable got The Thing moving, if not with speed, but a certain elan that delighted its happy owners.

There’s no question, in its day, there was no thing on the road like The Thing . There was no “me too” product to compare it to, so you weren’t going to see your car at every intersection. Tops came down, doors came off and the windshield folded onto the hood for wind in your face (and bugs in your teeth) fun. The mechanicals were simple and there was plenty of room to haul the dog(s), kids and lots of outdoor toys. You could even turn a garden hose on the insides to clean off all of the fun when you were done. What was not to like?

Well, lots of things actually. Lots of Thing strengths turned out to be weaknesses when subjected to the harsh light of everyday American drivers. The Spartan interior was hot in the summer(lots of painted metal) and cold in the winter (lots of cold painted metal), the heating system was like other Vee Dubs, inadequate, and the lack of accessorization meant that like most toys, once you took it out of the package and played with it, you got bored. A propensity to rust and a balky clutch cable prone to breaking made a lot of Thing owners ex -VW owners.

But the thing that really killed The Thing was shifting federal policy that more or less regulated the car out of existence. Coming federal crash and safety regulations (that The Thing could not meet in a million years) meant that its stay on our shores was brief. After the 1974 model year,VW dropped it and concentrated its time and attention on replacing the donor cars in the hearts and minds of America. The sun was setting on the old school, air cooled flat fours that VW had built for decades. In their place, leaky, overheating, wheezy water cooled fours would wreck the reputation that were built with cars like The Thing.