The Bible says the poor are blessed in spirit – but they sure get short-changed when it comes to transportation. The Jeep-like VW Type 181 “Thing” – sold here for only two years, 1973-1974 – didn’t even come with carpeting. Or gauges (other than a speedo). You did get a couple of small indicator lights, though.
Like the old Beetle, the Thing’s only source of heat in winter was the radiated fumes ducted into the all-metal, hose-out interior from the rear-mounted air-cooled (and leak-prone) horizontally opposed four cylinder engine.
Ah, the scent of carbon monoxide in the morning!
Another endearing feature of the Thing was its cable-actuated clutch, which ran through a tube welded into the floorboard to the back of the vehicle, where the engine and transaxle were mounted. If not fastidiously maintained, the cable would rust out, then snap – and slide back into the tube — where it was virtually impossible to fish it out without proper tools and plenty of time — leaving the driver to test his mettle at keeping the car going in whatever gear he happened to be in when the cable snapped. If you were lucky, the cable failed while you were in second gear; that gave you just enough speed to keep up with traffic without risking demolition of the 46-horsepower engine. You also had just enough leverage to get going again if you had to slow down for lights or traffic.
On the upside, the Thing was said to be capable of floating (provided it had solid, non-rusted floor boards), just like its Type 166 Schwimmwagen World War II ancestor, and could be hand-stripped of its bolt-on doors, windshield glass, and roof (hard or soft tops were available) in a matter of minutes. This helped lighten the vehicle somewhat, reducing by a few clicks the 22.5 seconds necessary to run the quarter mile and the 23.2 seconds needed to reach 60 miles per hour. It also provided some cool air during the hot summer months. Unfortunately for VW and Thing aficionados, these same kit-car qualities also meant the vehicle could not pass muster under 1975 passenger car crash test standards in the United States, ending U.S. Thing sales after the 1974 model run.
Five Fast Facts
The Thing can trace its roots back to the World War II Kubelwagen — a light-armored personnel carrier that saw service with Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. The later Schwimmwagen variant was designed to negotiate small streams. (The lesser-known Schnitzelwagen was a mobile snack kiosk.)
Volkswagen had wanted to use the name “Safari” for the U.S. market but could not do so because General Motors already owned the rights. Thus all Type 181s sold in the United States became “Things.” VW’s advertising slogan was: “Volkswagen presents the Thing. It can be anything!” (Except warm in the winter.)
The MSRP for a 1973 Thing was $2,750; an AM radio with single dash-mounted speaker cost $64 extra. The Thing had no carpet or soft interior trim. An auxiliary gas heater was a popular option to help cope with the draftiness of the poorly sealed and insulated cabin.
Over its worldwide production run of approximately seven years from 1973 to 1980, some 74,000 to 140,000 Things were produced. Not even VW is sure of the exact number.
Mexican models — which were sold as “Safaris” — have a modified engine with an ultra-low 6.8:1 compression ratio to accommodate poor-quality Pemex (Mexican state-owned company) gasoline. In the United Kingdom, the Thing was sold with right-hand drive and called the “Trekker.”