Volkswagen Thing; photo by Michael De Vouge. Click image to enlarge
If you were to google “The Thing,” it would guide you to a well-known 1982 science fiction horror movie directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. It was a remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby film titled, The Thing from Another World.
Stick the letters V and W in front of “Thing” and what will appear is a vehicle produced by Volkswagen that looks like something from another world. It is perhaps one of the most utilitarian-looking, military-type vehicles ever produced. One might describe it as a vehicle comprised of leftover automotive parts found on the floor of the automotive design factory.
The VW Thing does possess military roots and was the resurrection of a German military vehicle known as the Kübelwagen. In the 1960s, a number of European governments were interested in building a lightweight, amphibious vehicle that could be used by the military. They were interested in producing a vehicle that would be badged the Europa Jeep. Unfortunately, it would take some time before it could be put into production.
Germany had an immediate need for such a vehicle and the manufacturer, Volkswagen, had a long-standing record of producing the very successful Volkswagen Beetle. While awaiting the Europa Jeep to go into production, Volkswagen would produce The Thing as a “stop-gap” measure. Ironically, the Europa Jeep never made it to production and the project was cancelled in 1976.
At the same time, Mexican customers were looking for a vehicle that could better manage rural roads, and the VW-based dune buggies were enjoying brisk sales in the US. Volkswagen executives were feeling that perhaps the North American market was ready for an alternative fun, durable and off-road capable vehicle. By sharing parts with the Karmen Ghia, Microbus and Beetle, production costs associated with producing The Thing would also ensure a decent profit margin.
Volkswagen Thing; photo by Michael De Vouge. Click image to enlarge
The Thing was built on the Microbus chassis and utilized VW’s air-cooled 1584-cc four-cylinder engine, producing a whopping 46 horsepower. One could consume half a cup of coffee while approaching the 100 km/h mark which took just over 23 seconds. A sports car this was not, nor was it meant to be.
Production began in 1969 with the first vehicles not making it to North American shores until the 1973 model year. Due to stricter safety standards being imposed, The Thing was only available for sale in North America for the 1973 and 1974 model years.
Just over 25,000 units were imported to the United States and Canada with approximately 2500 of those making it north of the border. In Mexico and Germany, production for civilian use continued until 1980 and until 1983 for military purposes, with most of the vehicles being purchased by NATO.
There were any number of unique features about this vehicle that made it popular amongst the young and old. Perhaps the most unique feature related to its outwardly and stripped-down appearance.
The doors were interchangeable front to rear without the need for any tools. The windshield folded down providing the driver with that “bugs in your face” driving experience and the only instrumentation was a speedometer that also contained a rather small fuel gauge. The glove box was essentially a hole in the dashboard in which one should only place non-breakable items. There was also a gasoline-fueled heater that could be added as an option for those who intended on driving it year round.
A Volkswagen marketing slogan at the time teased potential buyers that one could hose out the interior while washing the exterior. Try that with your own passenger vehicle sitting in your driveway: on second thought, probably not a good idea. The Thing also came in three very distinct colours, again adding to its uniqueness – Pumpkin Orange, Blizzard White and Sunshine Yellow.
There were several region-specific versions produced including the Acapulco Thing, designed for the Las Brisas Hotel in Acapulco. It was most identifiable by its unique colour scheme, special dual-colour upholstery and was equipped with colour-accented running boards. It also had a surrey convertible top. A hard top was available but many buyers decided to leave this option behind at the dealerships – opting for that preferred top-down driving experience.
The primary exterior colour of the Acapulco Thing was Blizzard white with blue, orange, yellow or green accents usually contained to the running boards, front and rear bumpers. If you suspect you may be the owner of one of these rare special edition Acapulco Things that may have received a re-paint, check behind the dash panels for one of the unique accent colours.
There was also a Safari edition produced for the Mexican market that was also exported to some countries south of Mexico. These vehicles were typically Blizzard white in colour with an olive green convertible top. Of interest is the fact that all Mexican-bound vehicles had low compression pistons installed that would run efficiently on the lower grade Premex fuel.
In craving uniqueness, The Thing spoke volumes to North American youth, however to a great extent pricing placed it slightly out of their reach. It was priced approximately $1,000 above a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle and was comparable in pricing to many other passenger vehicles available on the market at that time.
Prices dropped slightly in 1974, however by that time, Ralph Nader was pushing to have The Thing removed from VW dealerships on the grounds that it did not stand up to the stricter safety standards being imposed for passenger cars. Coincidently, importation to North America ceased after the 1974 model year.
The Thing could be referred to as a cult classic and in many respects it is. Its popularity has withstood the test of time and it is perhaps best known for its uniqueness and ease of maintenance.
At the time this article was written, there were twelve “Things” for sale on eBay ranging in price from $5,300 to $12,500 (Buy it Now pricing) – for the special Acapulco edition sporting a hard top. There was also one for sale that was located in Canada.
There are any number of web sites available should you wish to conduct further research and if seriously considering purchasing such a vehicle check out the various VW forums and drill down to information specific to The Thing. In conducting research for this article one of the common themes related to rust and the poor heating capabilities of the optional heater.
For enthusiasts in Canada, if you are seriously contemplating such a purchase, note this vehicle best be parked during winter months. It will no doubt however bring you great pleasure as you hit the roadways in the spring and summer.
If it is uniqueness you are looking for, this ride will provide you with all that and then some. Be prepared for lots of looks and long refueling stops as you address questions from admirers.