Truck Trend Legends: VW Thing
One day, someone should ask an automobile stylist about the peculiar beauty that results from purely functional designs. Do they see it as accidental, or is it something they might actually want to achieve with their work? For example, the look of the first Range Rover was only meant to be temporary, drawn up by an engineer with the full expectation that a pro designer would subsequently come along and create the “real thing.” The engineer’s lines remained, however, and the Range Rover won a design award.
Oh, to have been in the boardroom when Volkswagen decided to make a Jeep-like vehicle after being approached by the German army to create a light-duty, general-purpose military automobile. The result is this. To Volkswagen, it was known as the Type 181 (versions with right-hand drive were designated Type 182). In other parts of the world, it was called the Camat, the Trekker, or the Safari. In the United States, it was referred to simply as the Thing.
An all-wheel-drive, amphibious automobile—the Europa Jeep—was under development as a joint project between France, Italy, and West Germany (this was the 1960s, and the Iron Curtain was in full force). When the Europa Jeep proved slow in becoming a reality (it never did), something was needed to fill the void. Which is where Volkswagen stepped in.
This was still the company’s rear-engine/air-cooled era, so that became the layout for the four-door convertible Thing. It could easily have been called the VW Mutt, since its construction is a mish-mash of elements from the Beetle, Type 2 bus, and the Karmann Ghia two-seater.
Even though it was meant to be a Jeep-like vehicle, the Thing is rear-wheel drive. However, military versions have portal hubs (the same idea as those in the Humvee) to raise ground clearance. And the first phase, built from 1968-1973, had a rear swing axle (as found in early Beetles), which helped with traction when off-road. From 1974 to when production ceased in 1983, the Thing had the “other” kind of VW setup, the Independent Rear Suspension (IRS, as found on the 1303 Beetle) that used CV joints and was more bearable on the road, although it wasn’t quite as useful away from the tarmac.
The first engine was a 1,500cc flat-four and, despite the Thing not being that bulky—weighing around 2,000 pounds—acceleration from standstill to 60 mph has been quoted as taking a distinctly un-schnell-like 23.2 seconds. Later versions with the IRS used a 1,600cc engine, yet don’t seem to have been significantly quicker. Power output was only around 46 hp, but the low-compression pistons allowed the use of poor-quality gasoline. Military models also had a limited-slip differential as standard; civilian versions offered that as an option.
It turns out this wasn’t VW’s first attempt at a military vehicle. It made the strikingly similar Kübelwagen for Germany’s forces in World War II, designed by none other than Ferdinand Porsche. The main thing about the Thing, though, is that it used VW parts that were easy to obtain, easy to maintain, pretty cheap (and inexpensive for VW to build), and durable to the point of being virtually bulletproof.
It’s also versatile. The doors can be removed in a matter of minutes and the fronts are interchangeable with the rears. The windshield can also fold down. Instrumentation is limited to one speedometer that has a fuel gauge within it. VW also claimed the interior can be hosed down.
And so it came to pass that Things went on sale in the North America, marketed officially as the Thing. It wasn’t a nickname. They cost in the region of $3,000, the equivalent of $17,400 in today’s dollars, and pretty steep for the surfers who were expected to be the principal market. Nevertheless, the Thing found 25,000 or so American buyers in its small window of availability from 1973-1974.
Ralph Nader—consumer champion, lawyer, and occasional presidential candidate—was the man who defeated VW’s military maneuvers…in the United States, at least. He was behind a vehicle safety act that effectively banished the Thing from the country. Not unreasonable, considering the Thing has only the most rudimentary safety features like brakes and a steering wheel. But perhaps Nader also inadvertently made it a collector’s car, since demand always increases when supply decreases. Things have been known to get out of hand, fetching prices in the region of $35,000.
The Type 181 was still seeing military service as recently as 1991 in Operation Desert Storm. But maybe the most surprising aspect is that the army in Thailand uses them to this day. Every year, the country has a Royal Army Day parade, and when it took place on January 18, 2018, in Bangkok, along with the usual tanks and rocket launchers, a fleet of Things (either remarkably well-preserved or remarkably well-restored) carrying the top brass also rolled by.
Television viewers can see a Thing in action in Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” episode with Zach Galifianakis. The rest of us might be able experience a Thing ourselves if we ever take a trip to Bali and hired one. Ask the car-rental guy for a Camat.