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How the Thing Baffled Pros with Car Mechanic Training: A Guide to the Volkswagen 181

Published on October 4, 2018 by in Blog

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There are many, and few, ways to describe the Volkswagen Thing. Emerging onto the automotive scene in the 1970’s, this multi-purpose car quickly became an exotic oddity in North America.

Although the Thing cruised through Europe, it had a relatively brief sales run in the US. Referred to as the bucket wagon, its strange minimalistic design and quirky features made it a tough sell to a mainstream American audience, and its Frankenstein-esque appearance blended parts from the Volkswagen (VW) Beetle, Bus, and Ghia coterie, making for a difficult first impression for mechanics unfamiliar with German auto manufacturing. Here is a brief guide to the myth, the legend, the 1973 Volkswagen Thing.

So What Exactly Is the Thing?

It’s hard to know what you’re looking at when you first see the Thing. Is it an automobile or a dune-buggy? A sedan or a tank?

During World War II, Germany used a type of car known as a Kubelwagen. Wartime automotive production in Germany was limited to manufacturing vehicles for military use, and when the war was over, this notion translated to the surplus and design of cars now available for the public.

Although it was marketed in America as the ‘Thing’, the car actually had many different names, known in the UK as the Trekker, in Mexico as the Safari, or, simply, the 181 in Europe. Due to its inherent military design, it looked and behaved like no other car on the road in North America. As Volkswagen itself advertised: “It’s Ugly, But It Gets You There”.

A Look Under the Hood of the Thing for Students at Automotive School

Due to its design history, the philosophy behind the Thing centres around practicality, making the car fascinating for students in car mechanic training because of its barebones appearance above and beneath the hood.

The Thing, like many VW models, prizes function over looks

The Thing, like many VW models, prizes function over looks

The only instrumentation present on the dashboard is a speedometer with a fuel gauge, and a glove box that’s more of a glove shelf. The Thing features a foldable windshield, doors which can be detached and swapped from front to rear, and an interior that was advertized as being entirely able to be washed out with a hose.

Under the hood, Volkswagen reused many parts from its sleeper success, the Beetle, which means that replacement and mechanical parts are relatively easy to find for grads of automotive school who come across this car. The Thing features a four-speed manual transmission, and an engine essentially the same as the one present in the Beetle. With acceleration taking nearly half a minute to go from zero to 60, the Thing was built specifically for practical and off-road use. So maybe leave this one at home on race day.

Where Is the Thing Today?

The Thing had a brief run in the United States due to 1974 vehicle emissions legislations, on which the car performed notoriously poorly. Additionally, its expensive sticker price made it relatively unaffordable for American youth, its primary consumers, and it was quickly taken off the US market.

Currently, however, the Thing is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance. Its unusual design and quirky appearance makes it one of the more desired exotic vehicles for collectors. It is also highly customizable, as many features can be used from other VW models. Its versatility and simple maintenance additionally means that even amateur mechanics can get it up and running without too much trouble.

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