Every once in a while, a vehicle concept comes along that has you wondering what the heck is that thing?
In one particular case, an automaker asked themselves the same question while trying to name the model for the American market. To this day, Volkswagen uses some humor within their marketing, but the VW Thing remains one of their greatest hits.
Although it was originally developed for the West German Army, the VW Thing proves popular among civilians. It is more popular around the world than it is in the United States, but many VW Thing enthusiasts reside stateside.
Internally known as the Volkswagen Type 181 (Left-Hand Drive) and the Type 182 (Right-Hand Drive), the VW Thing has many names. In Germany it is the Kurierwagen, in the United Kingdom it is the Trekker. Meanwhile, in Mexico and South America it is the Safari.
No matter what you call it, this Thing is a two-wheel drive convertible with four doors. All four doors are removable and interchangeable. The windshield folds flat while the convertible top is removable for an open air driving experience.
Many Volkswagens share parts and concepts with other models. The VW Thing is no exception to that practice, it uses the same floor pan as the Karmann Ghia. It also shares mechanicals with the Beetle and Microbus, you could almost say the Thing comes together “One Piece at a Time”.
On the outside, the Volkswagen Thing certainly shows its military roots. Germany used the Volkswagen Kübelwagen during World War II, the Thing eventually emerged from the ashes of that concept. Perhaps the words boxy yet functional are the best way to describe the exterior styling of the VW Thing.
Hop inside the interior to find a very practical, almost minimalist design. Vinyl covered bucket seats put you in the driver’s seat with perforated rubber mats under your feet. You’ll notice painted sheet metal surrounding you and you’ll appreciate the interior drain holes for an easy cleaning experience.
Some of the optional equipment available with the VW Thing included a fiberglass hardtop roof or a trunk-mounted auxiliary heater. The engine is in the back, just like many other classic air-cooled Volkswagens. It offers a vintage, pre-4×4 off-road driving experience.
A dual port 1.6L 4-cylinder engine powers the rear wheels of the VW Thing. Don’t expect to go Baja racing considering you only have 46 horsepower and 71 pound-feet of torque. The 4-speed manual transmission shifts gears on your way to the top speed of 68 miles per hour.
Obviously engine swaps and other modifications can change the VW Thing driving experience. Yet, there is something organic about driving an all-original Thing with the top down on a beautiful day. Sometimes the experience of the journey is the destination.
Finding Your Thing
Although Volkswagen manufactured the Type 181 and 182 from 1968 to 1983, civilian sales were only open from 1971 to 1980. Production for the American market is unofficially limited to the 1973 and 1974 model years.
Worldwide production estimates for the VW Type 181 and 182 are around 90,883. However, only about 25,000 of them were ever imported to the United States as the VW Thing from about 1972 to 1975.
If you want one, they are very affordable considering the skyrocketing prices of most classic SUVs or similar vehicles. Average prices for one in decent condition hover around the $12,000 to $15,000 range. If you want one in good condition, expect to see prices from $20,000 to $30,000.
Concours examples will fetch $35,000 or more, customized and modified Things are usually priced accordingly. You can almost always find a decent variety of VW Things for sale. Many buyers are patient rather than paying over market value for one of these Things.
Officially classified as a military vehicle with a 4-door cabriolet sub-category, the VW Thing will definitely catch your eye in-person. It looks unique and you just do not see something like this on the road very often anymore. With the recent surge in vintage SUV interest, the Thing is enjoying a bit of a comeback presently.
Functionality over form, practicality over comfort. In some ways, the VW Thing is still the perfect desert driver or beach cruiser. Rolling around with the top down in a VW Thing is a great way to spend time with friends or family on a sunny day.
Eventual safety regulations marked the demise of the Thing in the American market, but this vehicle has an almost cult following worldwide. Show up to any show or coffee shop in a Thing and somebody will get excited to see one. Little do they know, the real excitement occurs when you are sitting behind the wheel on a gravel road.