What is the VW Thing?

Last modified on November 12th, 2020 by Martin Sanders

Images thanks to munzi-181 and dutch_vw181.

VW is known for their occasional oddball, lets us not forget Volkswagen kept the antiquated but beloved classic beetle in production through to 2003.

The VW Thing also referred to as Type 181, was designed for the 1960s German army, created as a practical, rugged vehicle. The Thing as a go-anywhere light vehicle which would allow the military to cover vast expanses of land. Type 181 and 182 were dropped into the open market during the early 1970s as a fun, recreational vehicle. As an odd, unique car, the VW Thing is enormous fun and a vehicle with an unparalleled appeal. A VW which could have only been sold to the public in an era of low safety standards, as the beauty of the VW Thing is that it is raw and doesn’t conform to convention. No airbags, side protection or even a solid windshield here just raw Veedub fun. 

Who designed this VW Thing?

If you like your cars full of character the VW Thing has to feature high in your list of interest and novel Volkswagens. Volkswagen designed the VW Thing for West German army on a platform created by NATO’s ‘Europa Jeep’ project.

In-swinging 1960s Europe, post-war European governments decided that they needed a lightweight four-wheel-drive vehicle which would be used across the continent in various flavours. This project was embraced by the enterprising Volkswagen company and used to create the West German Type 181. From checking out this project online, it seems that West Germany leaders were the only government to use the platform as the Europa Jeep became an expensive flop.

By the 1960s Volkswagen had already seen broad success with its air-cooled engines in the ever-popular VW Beetle and commercial VW Type 1, they had also seen the popularity of the dune buggy in the United States. Hence, it is safe to say that VW understood how this unique platform could be used in the civilian marketplace. Most other European automakers at this time were considerably more restrained and happy to continue with their established auto platforms.

Adding to this foresight, it is also worth remembering their Volkswagens Mexican market had already expressed interest in a vehicle which could handle country roads. Making the Europia Jeep a perfect match to add to the VW lineup as a fun light car.

So what do you call a military derived Volkswagen?

A question which faced the Volkswagen marketing team; and depending on your part of the world will dictate what you call it. In West Germany, it’s called the Volkswagen Kurierwagen (“courier car”), in the UK we know it as the VW Trekker (RHD Type 182), in the United States it’s called the VW Thing and throughout Mexico and South America, its called the Safari.

The VW Thing is also given a Volkswagen model number of Type 181 for the left-hand-drive option and Type 182 for right-hand-drive models.

How many VW Things did they make?

The VW Thing was an odd car even back in the 1970s; however, sales were reasonably good for a niche vehicle at 90,883 units built between 1968 and 1983. Production of this funky VW was split between Mexico and West Germany, the left-hand-drive Type 181 being the more popular model.

Is the VW Thing any good?

As such a subjective question; there is no denying that the history of this cool Volkswagen makes for an exciting vehicle. The lightweight body and small 46-hp engine also make for a slow drive; however, when you have a windshield which folds down, you don’t need speed.

The removable doors, windows which either pop-open with a flap or can be tossed into storage. The VW Thing is a small, agile car which gives bags of fun and is unlike any other vehicle on the road from Volkswagen. If you are driving the VW Thing, you had better enjoy meeting new people as it is sure to draw lots of admiring looks and questions.

Can I buy a Volkswagen Thing?

While the Volkswagen Thing (Type 181 and 182) was a niche car, there are a lot of these Veedubs around. They are not as easy to source as say a Volkswagen mk1 Golf. However, they are much easier to locate than say a VW SP2. This will not be such a surprise though when we remember the VW SP2 sold just over 10,000 while the VW Thing sold over 90,000 units.

To obtain a clean, corrosion-free Volkswagen Thing, you will need to be picky. Cars imported from dry climates will always be less prone to rust.

When choosing a Volkswagen thing look for the following;

  • As with any car, check the VIN plate, this is located under the back seats. Check matching number with the code stamped on the under the hood/bonnet plate. Check that the engine has an AM stamp and the stock transition has an AV stamp.
  • Do the widefield wipers work; these are specific to the VW Thing and difficult to replace.
  • Can you see any corrosion on the windshield frame? The bottom is a weak area.
  • Does the gas-fired heater work? Remember these are old cars so be careful here.
  • Has the car been involved in a crash? Not untypical so worth checking. Check the front bean; this is a VW specific part so is expensive to replace.
  • Are the mirrors correct? There are many knock-off parts, and original VW parts are typically better quality but expensive.
  • Checking for corrosion, check body pan, double-check under the battery.
  • Rear panels, wheel arches and behind the rear seats
  • Check those funky side curtains. Are they present? Are they in good condition?
  • How does the convertible frame look? Is it free from rot?
  • The rear exhaust should come through the rear bumper via two holes in the bumper.
  • Try to get a VW Thing with stock VW 14′ wheels.
  • Check behind the spare wheel for panel corrosion.
  • Check all panels for rust; it’s an old Volkswagen.

So once you’ve got your Volkswagen Thing, you can enjoy depreciation free motoring, knowing that you have a chunk of Volkswagen history parked in your garage. It is cars like the VW Thing which make attending Volkswagen events so much fun. So if you have a unique Volkswagen and would like to share your story with the Veedubs community, please upload your details to the Veedubs gallery where we can all enjoy your cool Veedub.

Martin Sanders

A big fan of all things VW, establishing the Veedubs brand and website, sharing his interests in regular blog posts. Martin Sanders also works as a graphic designer, his work can be seen here.

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