A dazzle of Things

In the wilds of Idaho, fans of the Thing keep their VW Type 181s ready for new adventures
Volkswagen Things

You might have seen them on the roads toward Monument Valley in Utah, or the Black Hills of South Dakota: a line of boxy cars unlike anything on the road, in bright colors, maybe with their tops folded down and owners smiling in the sun.

For the past two decades, a loose collection of enthusiasts have gathered a few times a year in Idaho for drives and off-road tours in the vehicle known in America as a Volkswagen Thing, and elsewhere as the VW Type 181.
“The group doesn’t have a structure and shouldn’t be called a club,” says Mike Humeston, its chief organizer. “We’re informal and we encourage people, families, to come when they want. We send emails just to let people know when we’re going to gather – usually on Saturdays because not everyone is retired, we even have CEOs who join us – and we just spend time together restoring our Things.”

From 1989 until 1998, Humeston owned an outfitting store in Boise, Idaho. Alongside his wife, Mary, the Humestons helped customers prepare for adventures in the backcountry. While owning the store, the Humestons practiced restoring off-road vehicles as many customers would come in looking for help. And they discovered that a particular classic fit his needs for a near-daily off-roader: “Volkswagen Things work well,” Mike Humeston says, “because you have fewer parts that could go wrong.”

Designed as a light-duty, off-road capable military truck, the VW Type 181 entered production in 1969, using the powertrain of the Beetle and a unique suspension. VW executives saw the 181 drawing in civilian customers around the world who wanted either a rugged machine for dirt roads or a dune-buggy-like ride for fun. The metal interior was utilitarian to the point of barren, but you could hose it out. Not only did the windshield fold flat to help maximize off-road visibility, but the doors could be removed and swapped. Sold around the world under several names – the Trekker in Britain, and Safari in Mexico – in the United States, VW quickly named the vehicle the “Thing.”

While popular worldwide, U.S. sales of the Thing ended in 1975 after three years with sales of 25,794 vehicles sold, creating an instant cult classic. Things became a calling card for the Humestons; at one point, the yowned seven Things for off-road touring. Throughout their ownership, Mike and Mary also hosted rallies that lasted anywhere from seven to nine days. Families from across the country would drive their VW Things to a meeting point and adventure together, enjoying the opportunity to work on the cars while testing the strength and longevity of their Things.

In 1998, the couple sold the store, keeping just one Thing.

Part of Humeston’s love for Things developed because he wanted to help other people restore off-road vehicles at his store, and he could easily find parts. When the group gets together, they repair and rebuild their Things, from engines to speedometers. “We don’t build Things to be fast, we build them to run. We’re typically driving in off-road conditions,” Humeston says. “When you’re 67 miles away from a paved road, you don’t want anything to go wrong that you can’t fix. Things are pretty reliable, and you can usually fix them.”

Today, Humeston tries to keep parts in stock at all times so he can work on Things year-round in preparation for rallies. When their group convenes to work on their cars, they have “a mutual respect for each other. We don’t charge for this work. We’ve been through it all together… storms, snow and wind. We just really are blessed with the opportunity to get to know this unique group of people.”

As for the traits of a typical Thing owner, Humeston says: “Independent. And usually handy with a wrench, but not always.”

Idaho Volkswagen Things at play