Curbside Classic: VW Type 181 “Thing” – It Can Be Anything

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Does this Thing ever speak to me. In German, undoubtedly; which may well have something to do with the affinity I feel with it. I’m going to try to not be too chauvinistic, but there is something intrinsically Germanic, brilliant and adaptable in the basic Volkswagen design, which facilitated more permutations than any other car ever. The same basic underpinnings that created the Porsche 356 are here at work in the Type 181, the descendant of the WWII Kübelwagen.  This Thing is one of my favorite convertibles ever: where else can you get a four door rag top that will last forever, go off-roading, and doesn’t mind if it rains when the top is down. Just the thing for Oregon.

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The fact that VW updated and put into production a thirty year old design is fairly remarkable in itself. In response to the delays of the proposed Europa Jeep, an ambitious pan-European project to design an advanced amphibious four-wheel drive light military vehicle, the German Army was in desperate need of new wheels. An updated Kübelwagen was the solution, and VW agreed.  Anyway, by the late sixties, VW based off-road buggies were a huge phenomena, and the Mexican market was crying for a simple rugged vehicle. The Type 181 was just the ticket for the times, military and civilian, and it required a minimum of development time and effort.


The 181 sat on a Karman Ghia floor pan (wider than the Type 1), and used some heavier duty Transporter parts like the rear axle reduction gears, which of course got their start on the Kübelwagen.

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After 1973, the 181 switched to the newer (1968 and up) Transporter rear suspension, eliminating the reduction gears and swing axles. From the look of the positive camber on the rear wheels of this Thing, I thought it was a pre 1973, but the taillights say otherwise.  Of course, the old VW are rarely all-original, so I wouldn’t take any one clue as proff of its original year of manufacture.

The typical VW 1500 and 1600 cc engines provided motive power.

VW THing ad

Civilian sales started in 1971. US sales started in 1972 for the 1973 MY, and lasted only through the 1974 MY. By 1975 it was already gone from the US market for failing to meet new safety standards. Safety was not exactly high on the design criteria, for sure. But then it’s probably less likely to roll over than the Jeeps of yore. That was certainly the case in WWII. And it rode a hell of a lot better than the stiff-kneed Jeep.

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The Type 181 went on to be sold to European militaries until 1983, who loved its cheap purchase price  (probably a tiny fraction of a Humvee) and reliability. And the Thing has developed a cult following, with prices running ever higher; over $40k for a restored Thing at a Barrett-Jackson auction. I waited too long, once again.

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Related reading: VW Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen – Germany’s WW2 Jeeps