1974 Volkswagen Thing
1974 Volkswagen Thing; photo by Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge

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By Bill Vance

During the Second World War, one of the Allied Forces’ best assets was the American four-wheel drive Jeep, a versatile go-anywhere, quarter-ton utility vehicle. It was manufactured by Willys-Overland, and Ford under licence, and by war’s end some 600,000 had been built.

Banking on the Jeep’s vaunted reputation, Willys-Overland began marketing a civilian version (CJ) after the war. It made a successful transition to peacetime to become the father of the sport utility vehicle.

The German army also had its “Jeep,” a light, versatile machine based on Volkswagen components and built in the giant Volkswagen plant that was completed in 1938 in Wolfsburg. It came in two versions, the two-wheel drive Kubelwagen (bucket car), and amphibious four-wheel drive Schwimmwagen fitted with a retractable propeller driven off the end of the crankshaft.

The Kubelwagen’s air-cooled engine made it particularly effective in General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps campaign in the North African desert, and advantageous on the cold Russian front.

Volkswagen Thing; photo by Wikipedia user Infrogmation
Volkswagen Thing; photo by Wikipedia user Infrogmation. Click image to enlarge

When the war ended the Volkswagen factory stopped building the little reconnaissance vehicles and turned to Volkswagen cars. The plant was under the control of the British after the war and with their help and encouragement the German workforce slowly began producing Volkswagens in quantity. It eventually became the world’s dominant small car.

Although the German army later approached Volkswagen about producing a military vehicle, they were so busy meeting the demand for Beetles and Transporter vans and trucks that general manager Heinrich “Heinz” Nordhoff had little interest in military vehicles. When Volkswagen was again approached by the army in the late 1960s, however, it agreed to develop a light, utility military vehicle.

The result was the Type 181, an updated version of the Kubelwagen, based on Volkswagen Beetle and Transporter components. It had the usual military paraphernalia such as axes, shovels and rifle mounts, and was successfully used for many years by the German army and the forces of several other countries.

With the Type 181’s military success established, Volkswagen decided to produce a civilian version aimed at public utilities, construction companies, sportsmen, farmers, etc. It was marketed as the Type 181 in Europe, the Thing in Canada and the United States, and the Safari in Mexico. Production began in 1969 in Germany and moved to Mexico in 1973, the year it went on sale in North America.

Like the Kubelwagen, the Thing was a four passenger, four-door, open phaeton with side curtains providing weather protection. Its air- cooled, flat-four Beetle engine was in the rear and engine cooling air entered through louvres behind the rear fenders. Like the Beetle, it had a platform frame, four-speed overdrive transmission and four-wheel independent, torsion bar suspension.

VW Kubelwagen interior
VW Kubelwagen interior; photo by Johann H. Addicks. Click image to enlarge

Styling was strictly utilitarian: a squarish, box-like shape with a sloping hood, a fold-down windshield and removable doors. The floor mats could be removed for hosing out, and the spare tire and fuel tank pretty well filled the space under the flat hood, so luggage was carried inside.

The Thing’s 2,400 mm (94.5 in.) wheelbase was the same as the standard Beetle (the Super Beetle’s was 20 mm, or 0.8 in., longer). At 3,780 mm (148.8 in.) long, it was about a foot (305 mm) shorter than the standard Beetle. To accommodate limited off-road use (with only two-wheel drive and no locking differential), ground clearance of 279 mm (11 in.) was 130 mm (5.1 in.) greater than the Beetle’s, achieved by reduction gears on the axles, later used in the Transporter. It weighed just over 862 kg (1,900 lb).

Performance was modest but adequate. Road & Track (10/’73) reported the Thing’s 1.6-litre, 46-horsepower engine could accelerate it to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 23.2 seconds, and to a top speed of 118 km/h (73 mph).

The Volkswagen Thing was not a serious off-roader, in spite of the fact that Volkswagen marketed it as a competitor to the Land Rover, Jeep and Toyota Land Cruiser. It was a fun-to-drive little vehicle with limited boonie bashing capability. Think of it as a kind of beach buggy or dune buggy with doors.

Volkswagen stopped building the Thing in 1980, and while production figures are hazy, there were probably at least 100,000 built during its 12-year run.

The Thing may be gone, but it is not completely forgotten. A slightly modernized version of a Thing-like Kubelwagen is being produced by Intermeccanica Inc., in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is powered by a Volkswagen air-cooled flat-four, and is quite popular in the Japanese market.

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