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1973 Volkswagen Thing

It may look like the illegitimate love child of a corrugated shipping container and a dumpster, but the Volkswagen Thing was in fact the resurrection of a German military vehicle known as the Kübelwagen. More than a specific model, the Kübelwagen was a concept; consider how Americans tend to call any military runabout a Jeep, and you've got the idea. And with Kübel meaning "bucket" and Wagen meaning "car," what could have been a better name for such a steel tub than, of course, the Thing?

But VW's convertible breadbox was called the Thing only in North America, where it went on sale in 1973; it was known elsewhere as the Trekker, the Safari, or, simply, the Type 181 (right-hand-drive models were called the Type 182). The Thing was built on the same chassis as the pre-1968 Microbus and was propelled by VW's air-cooled, 46-hp, 1600-cc flat four. A four-speed manual was the only transmission. Acceleration was ludicrously slow: 0 to 60 mph took more than 23 seconds. They only came in 3 original colors Pumpkin Orange, Sunshine Yellow and Blizard White.

The interior was the very definition of stripped. The only instrumentation was a speedometer that housed a fuel gauge on its dial, and the glove box was really just a glove hole, since it lacked a door. VW also boasted that the Thing's cabin could be hosed out.

It wasn't conveniences or ability that sucked people in, though--it was how screwy the Thing was. The windshield folded and the detachable doors were swappable front to rear. Warmth was provided by an optional gasoline-fueled heater hooked directly to the fuel tank. Most important, however, was that the Thing looked so very, very weird. It wasn't the vehicle a housewife or a two-term Republican or anybody normal would buy.

Naturally, America's youth loved the Thing--the only problem was that few of them could afford it. In 1973, the Thing cost $3150, almost as much as many sports cars and nearly $1000 more than the '73 Beetle. Prices dropped slightly for 1974, but the Thing remained expensive for such simple transportation. To downplay this fact, Volkswagen advertising talked up the Thing's modest off-road ability and pitted it against more expensive trucks such as the Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser. But the two-wheel-drive Thing, with its four-wheel independent suspension, had as much chance of keeping up with an FJ40 on the trails as a roller-derby queen with an inner-ear problem.

In 1973, Ralph Nader pushed to have the Thing pulled from the U.S. market on the grounds that it failed to meet safety standards for passenger cars. He soon got his wish, as tightened regulations forced VW to stop importation after the 1974 model year. Only about 25,000 examples were imported, and the Thing remains as goofy and unusual today as it was thirty years ago. Since so many parts are shared with the Beetle and the Microbus, the Thing is inexpensive to run and maintain--but what else would you expect from a bucket car?


WHAT TO PAY Solid drivers cost between $2500 and $5000, while perfect examples can run up to $14,000. Add five to ten percent for an Acapulco edition.

BODY STYLE Four-door convertible.

PRODUCTION About 140,000 were built between 1969 and 1980. Of those, approximately 25,000 were imported to the U.S. in 1973 and 1974.

WATCH OUT FOR Rust (everywhere)and damaged tops.

Model differences

Type 181 (Left Hand Driver) (United States)

Official Volkswagen factory designation for all of the left hand drive and a few right hand drive vehicles (the Beetle being the type 1, the bus the type 2 etc.) It was originally built for the Bundeswehr (German Federal Army) and designated Mehrzweckwagen (multi-purpose vehicle). In German-influenced markets, it is generally known as "Kübel" or "Kübelwagen" after its ancestor from WW-II, the type 82.

The Thing

In 1973 and 1974 28,930 THINGs (14,197 and 14,733 resp.) were built and exported to the U.S. for sale by Volkswagen of America. 1973 and 1974 THINGs came as a standard type 181 THING. Those few THINGS with 1975 registration have all been proven to be left-over 1974 models sold by dealers as 1975 models. All have VINs: 184XXX forever making them a 1974 THING. The importing of 1975 and later Type-181's was prohibited by the U.S. government as they could not meet crash testing standards for "passenger cars". The 1973 and 1974 were classified as "Multi-Purpose Vehicles" and were exempt from those tests. Beside that, VW couldn't sell them and wanted an excuse to drop the vehicle from its offerings anyway.
Differences from the Safari included full emissions equipment on the engine, the letter "X" (for export) following the chassis number and a U.S. DOT sticker on the left centre door post.
The first "Name" attached to these cars was to the Type-181 that was being built, or at least assembled, in Mexico, starting in late 1970. For purposes of registration, VW wanted all of these cars were to be called "The Safari", as this name had the same general meaning in all of the languages of the Americas. Unfortunately General Motors had been using the "Safari" name on Pontiac Station wagons as early as 1955 and thereby "owned" the name Safari in the U.S. market. Volkswagen of America therefore elected to call all of it's type 181 cars "The THING". The official name "The THING" is supported not only in all the VW literature, but in at least 42 states DMV registrations. Only 4 states are known to register these cars as "Type-181". Those THINGs that were sold in Canada and a few other countries, that were VW of A THINGs, were trans-shipped after delivery in the U.S., much in the same way that Type-3 notchbacks got into the U.S. from Canada.


In 1974 the THING "Acapulco" model was available, a stock THING with a few minor trim changes. They had blue and white paint & interior (look behind the dash panels, this should be blue), running boards (pans had extra nuts welded on the edge), usually a surry top and either a hardtop or a soft top. In as most of the purchasers of Acapulco's left the surry top behind at the dealers, there was no shortage of tops and frames in the middle 70's.
The earliest photo of an Acapulco prototype dates from the Puebla factory in 1972, right after they started Type-181 Safari production. As early as 1973 the Surry top and the running boards were seen in VW of America advertisements with the note that the surry top was a "Future Option". Although the parts certainly existed in Mexico at that time, it is unlikely that there were 1973 Acapulco THINGS sold by VW of America. There were some Acapulco's built in Mexico in 1973 for the resort trade, including a few with a pink and white colour scheme.


The Safari was produced for Mexican domestic sales and was also exported to countries to the south of Mexico. The Mexican domestic engines all had low compression pistons installed for about a 6.8:1 compression ratio that would run on lower grade Premex gasolines.

Type 182 (Right Hand Driver) (European)

Type 181 with right-hand drive produced in Germany for the United Kingdom. Small numbers of type 182s were produced by VW from about 1970 onwards, either as demonstrators or to specific order (example: chassis no. 181 2195 609 was shipped to Zambia in December 1970 - without any heating!). The type 182 was officially sold in Britain by VW dealers in 1974-75, under the name "Trekker". Volkswagen U.K. first attempted to introduce the type 182 into England as "The THING", but the dealers objected to the name and a "contest" was held to "Name the car".
Despite Press reports that 300 were being imported, current records only show surviving chassis no.'s. in the series 185 2086406 to -477, i.e. less than 100. Presumably plans were modified since VW overpriced it, so it didn't sell very well. These vehicles were made in Mexico (not Germany), generally to 1974 THING specification, but with European rear-lights and front flashers. In May 1997 the 181/182 Register listed 51 type 182s, 45 of which are 74/75 Trekkers and the rest being of various ages/origins.
Other type 182s were built into the middle 1970's, primarily for military use in countries where right hand drive was standard (Morocco had at least 20 units).
Visiting holiday-makers to Bali report that Indonesian vehicles are also 182s.


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