#TBT: The Petersen Museum on The Thing

Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday, a new weekly series exploring the far reaches of Volkswagen history. Please enjoy this story on the Type 181 (a.k.a. “The Thing”) courtesy of the Petersen Museum.

The first thing one might ask about this car is “what is it?” The simple answer is “it’s a Thing.” This was only true in the United States and Europe, however. In Mexico and South America, the simply shaped vehicle was known as the Safari, and in the United Kingdom it was sold as the Trekker. It was marketed in Italy as the Pescaccia (beastly fish).

Before it became a Thing, however, the vehicle was called the Type 181. The multi-purpose vehicle was developed for the West German military in the late 1960s based on the Type 182 Kübelwagen used during World War II. In fall 1969, Volkswagen began selling the Type 181 in Europe. Though the 181 was available as a consumer car, a large portion of the vehicles were purchased by NATO. Later, Volkswagen transferred production of the 181 from Germany to Mexico, giving it new territory in which to roam.

In 1973, Volkswagen unleashed the 181 as “The Thing” into the United States, the same year that the Arab Oil Embargo began. As the United States imported much of its oil from the Middle East, the Embargo greatly reduced the amount of oil available in the United States, which increased the price of gasoline and caused fuel shortages. The Embargo spurred the United States government to institute regulations designed to reduce the fuel consumption of commercial and consumer vehicles. In response, automobile companies like Ford began programs to design vehicles that were sleek, aerodynamic, and, therefore, fuel-efficient. The Thing was none of these things.

The Volkswagen had a simple, utilitarian profile. Its sloping hood was not shaped by the desire to funnel air with as little disruption as possible over the top of the car, but by the need to see over hilltops when climbing steep terrain. Its corrugated sides helped give the bodywork strength. The Thing’s doors were removable, as was the top. The windshield folded down. Yet, it was only advisable to utilize this feature if one wanted to make goggles mandatory driving attire, as John Lamm discovered during his road test of the car in the November 1973 issue of Motor Trend Magazine.

The average Thing was available in three colors, Pumpkin Orange, Sunshine Yellow, or Blizzard White. Just in case you couldn’t figure out what type of vehicle this was, an optional “The Thing” decal was also available. The Basic Thing came equipped with many things including rugged commercial style suspension, a “12-volt electrical tap,” and a front that looked disconcertingly like a back.

This might have been because, the Thing, like the Volkswagen Beetle, had a rear mounted engine. Without an engine, the car’s front could be used to store essential items like a spare tire, the gas tank, and the Thing’s removable side curtains.

On the dashboard there was little located beside the 12-volt electric plug. Like many other cars, the Thing had a steering wheel, a shifter, and a glovebox. The Thing’s glovebox, however, did not have a door. Only a radio was mounted to the right of the steering wheel. As Lamm observed, “the seats go along with the theme, stark, but practical.”

The heart of the beast was a 96.7 cubic-inch four-cylinder 46-horsepower engine from a Volkswagen Beetle. The Thing’s transmission was also from a Beetle, as was the chassis. In fact, the Thing and the Beetle had such similar layouts that Steve Smith wrote in the March 1973 issue of Motor Trend if “you just unfasten the 18 bolts per side you can physically swap bodies.”

In an era of plush pickups, metalflaked customs, and psychedelic shag carpeted vans, the Thing offered intrepid owners a special kind of Spartan style. As suggested by its multiple monikers, the Thing was a hard vehicle to define. “It can’t be just a station wagon, a four-wheel drive pickup, or a dune buggy,” as Lamm noted, “so it walks a fine line in between.” This ambiguity nonetheless meant that with some alterations the Thing could become many other things.

With the addition of a hardtop, glass windows, upgraded floor mats, cabin insulation, a “good (read it loud) stereo,” and a powerful Porsche engine, the Thing could become “an all-purpose city-country car,” according to Lamm.

With more luxurious upgrades the Thing, Lamm mused, could be transformed into “a modern 1930s phaeton.”

Volkswagen Type 181 / The Thing

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Motor Trend procured a Thing and transformed it into “an off-road and hunting vehicle,” outfitting it with upgraded suspension, horns, extra lights, brush guards, and new wheels and tires. The camo print camper also included extra accessories like “a winch, Citizen’s Band radio, a roll-cage, and extra gas tanks.”

Like the Jeep or Land Rover, the Thing could be driven on the street and through the brush. Like a corrugated metal dune buggy, the Thing could slide through the sand. It could be a roadster or converted to a hard top SUV. The multi-purpose vehicle could be a Wild Thing or a Mild Thing. Importantly, the Thing offered this range of functionality for $2750, a price almost $1000 lower than that of a Land Rover or Jeep at the time. Unlike dune buggies that were sold as conversion kits, the Thing was ready to hit the sand right from the dealer. So, when someone asks you what this car is, you really can say that it was “just the Thing.”

By Kristin Feay // Photography by John Lamm, Pat Ganahl, and Mike Parris

All content and photos © The Petersen Museum, used with permission