Lifestyle

Affordable Classic: The Volkswagen Thing


This 1970s on- and off-road car inspired by a World War II vehicle offered beefy suspension, removable doors, and a folding windshield

After the success of the Volkswagen Beetle in the 1960s, VW resurrected the idea of an on- and off-road car, and called it the Type 181 "Thing." Inspired by the WWII Type 82 K?belwagen, the Thing was updated with the Beetle baseline engine and running gear, but with the beefier Transporter/Microbus suspension. Also along the lines of the K?belwagen was its Dumpsteresque??et practical??tyling. The simple doors and standard soft top could easily be removed, and the windshield folded flat. The rear-engined, rear-wheel drive car was rugged, and well-suited for unimproved roads.

First built in 1969, the Thing wasn't offered in the US until 1973. Power was the standard Beetle 1584-cc air-cooled flat four-cylinder engine, with 46 chirping horsepower, coupled to a four-speed manual transmission. In its initial year in the US, exterior colors available were Blizzard White, Sunshine Yellow and Pumpkin Orange.

In 1974, the Thing got a slight boost in power to 55 bhp (easily differentiated from the 46-bhp version by the side scoops instead of flush slotted vents in the rear quarter panels). The most desirable trim package was called the "Acapulco," and featured a bikini top and blue-and-white striped vinyl seats. The option list included a fiberglass hard top with solid door windows, luggage racks, air conditioning and a padded roll cage.

US sales were discontinued after 1974, while sales in Mexico continued until 1978.

The Thing has a small but faithful legion of followers. Panels for the unibody seem to be the most difficult parts to track down, although rustk??bels are rare. Poor insulation, which led to snow-country interior temperatures reminiscent of the Shackleton expedition's igloos, kept many of them off salty winter roads.

A definitive plus for the vehicle is its extreme commonality of functional parts with the Beetle. It also shares with its air-cooled cousin reliability and ease of repair, part and parcel of being a stepchild of one of the best-selling cars ever built. In the Southwestern states, one can pretty much do an engine rebuild simply by walking along the side of any road for about 10 miles and gathering parts.

The New Beetle craze only slightly affected Thing prices. Instead, interest in various oddball cars of the '70s (Gremlins, Pacers, etc.) has bolstered Thing pricing. Good Things can be had in the range of $2,600-$4,800. As a gauge of the lower end of the market, a non-running #4 1974 Thing with hard top (but no title) recently sold at a Midwest estate auction for $1,600. Pricing may move up somewhat in the foreseeable future, but not by much. Regardless, in an era of $25,000 Fiat Jollys, the Thing represents the best way to cruise the beach on a budget.

Years Produced: 1969-78 (officially imported to US 1973-74)

Original List Price: $2,750

Tune-up Cost: $95

Distributor Caps: $7

Chassis # Location: Stamped on the forward body lip in the trunk

Engine # Location: Stamped on block underneath the alternator

Club Info: W Type 181 Thing Registry, SE 700 Crescent Drive, Shelton, WA 98584

Web Site: http://www.type181registry.com

Alternatives: Ford Bronco, Toyota Land Cruiser (first series), Meyers Manx


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