Hey, There’s a Cool Car: 1973-1974 VW Thing

By Charles Krome

I was reviewing some of last year’s pictures recently, and came across this Thing, which I had shot over the summer during a road trip to the wild and wacky Dixieland Flea Market in Waterford Hills, Mich. It wasn’t for sale, but it did bring back some fond memories from my childhood days, when seeing life-sized toys like this helped bridge the gap between Hot Wheels and my first real set of wheels.

For those unfamiliar with the Volkswagen Type 181—called “The Thing” only in U.S. markets—this vehicle was in many ways the German version of the Jeep. It was born during World War II as a multi-purpose vehicle for the Nazis, stayed in production during the 1950s and 1960s for military purposes and, eventually, launched in 1969 for retail customers interested in a stripped-down, go-anywhere lifestyle-type vehicle somewhat along the lines of a Jeep CJ or, if you don’t think about it too hard, the Honda Element. And by “stripped down,” I really do mean devoid of just about anything in the way of creature comforts: You may look at that interior shot and think the bare-metal door was the result of the owner’s, uh, modifications, but it wasn’t. The exposed wiring is a different story, but the “instrument panel,” even fresh from the dealership, was more bare metal with just a solitary speedometer as its only actual instrument.

Of course, you could always just pop the doors off entirely, along with the top, and the windshield, and that added a certain paramilitary flavor to the driving experience as well.

What you couldn’t do, however, was much over 60 mph. The VW brochure lists a top speed of 68 mph, but most folks likely didn’t have the patience to verify that claim, since the Thing’s 0-60 time was about 23 seconds. Even with a curb weight of under 2,000 lbs., the 46 hp and 72 lb.-ft. on tap in the car’s air-cooled 1.5-liter engine were just that overmatched. And you didn’t exactly get a fuel sipper in return, as that same brochure showcased a fuel-consumption rate of 21 mpg. Nor did you get a four-wheel-drive system, a situation that didn’t help the Thing get too far with serious off-roaders.

One the other hand, despite its lack of content, and power, the Thing was a fairly pricey purchase. According to the experts at DasTank.com—a website for Thing aficionados—its MSRP in 1973 was $3,150; that’s $1,000 more than for a contemporary Beetle and (randomly) about $70 above the MSRP of a ’73 Ford Mustang Mach 1.

VW still managed to sell roughly 25,000 Things in the U.S. in 1973 and 1974, and it wasn’t the vehicle’s rather difficult value proposition that killed it off in this country—it was a certain Mr. Ralph “Unsafe at Any Speed” Nader. True to its roots, the Thing wasn’t technically classified as a “car” when VW initially imported it here, so it didn’t have to meet much in the way of governmental safety regulations. Nader pushed successfully to change how it was classified, and there was no way on earth the Thing would have been capable of meeting even the rudimentary standards of the early 1970s, and even less of a chance that VW would make the effort to bring it up to code. U.S. Thing lovers were thus out of luck in 1975, although it’s conceivable some made their way into this country via the gray market, as the Thing stayed in retail production elsewhere until 1980, and was sold for military-type use up until 1983.

Today, you can still find a surprising number of them lurking around on eBay (and various out-of-the-way flea markets), but the best Things in life are hardly free—they’ll set you back close to $10,000 or more.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting to see this model of Volkswagen again, but I don’t recall seeing that many in North America and less popular the further north you went. The original version, made in Australia from 1967 – 1969, known as the Country Buggy was exported to the Philippines in the early seventies, where it was known as the Sakbayan from the Pilipino words Sasakyan (Vehicle) and “Bayan” (Country). Quite popular there, but not a car of choice in the heat of Manila. The Germans took it further and produced the Type 181. Not too attractive after my own experience with the old Beetle, I remember the heating: a gas-fired heater that at best barely kept the frost off the front windscreen at -20 degrees F. It also tended to ski over deep snow and then just sit there totally stuck. The one big advantage was that you did not need to worry about antifreeze.

  2. The THING! Oh, this is very funny, I remember seeing these things around when I was a kid in the 80’s, but I haven’t seen one on the road for years.

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