The Volkswagen Thing, internally named the Volkswagen Type 181, was developed by the German automaker as a Jeep-like vehicle for the West German Army as the proposed “Europa Jeep” was then still under development.

The Europa Jeep would never see the light of day and as a result the Type 181 remained in production from 1968 till 1983 with over 90,000 built in total for both military and civilian use.

Fast Facts – The Volkswagen Thing

  • The Volkswagen Thing started out as a stop-gap military vehicle to perform as a European Jeep while the official “Europa Jeep” was still in development.
  • Though it was only intended for short term use, the Thing (known as the Kurierwagen in Germany) remained in production from 1968 to 1983.
  • Military versions of the vehicle used portal axles, much like the Unimog, to gain additional ride height and ground clearance while also lowering the effective gearing.
  • Internally known as the Type 181 by Volkswagen, the vehicle was made by combining the floorpan of the Type 1 Karmann Ghia, its mechanicals with the Volkswagen Beetle, and some of the suspension elements of the Volkswagen Transporter.

The Kübelwagen “Bucket Car”

The Volkswagen Type 181 has its roots in the design of the WWII-era Type 82 Kübelwagen, an off-road military vehicle designed by Ferdinand Porsche and largely based on the underpinnings of the Volkswagen Beetle.


Image DescriptionThis is a Kübelwagen, the similarity to the VW Thing is clear from the outset although the two vehicles are said to have no shared body panels.

Although the Kübelwagen was rear-wheel drive only it proved reasonably capable off-road, in part because it was so lightweight at 725 kgs (1,598 lbs) that its passengers could simply get out and manhandle it around and over obstacles when needed.

The name Kübelwagen is German for “bucket car” and it was typically referred to by German troops simply as the Kübel or “bucket.”

53,000 were made in total, as the war progressed and the Allies made their way across Europe many Kübelwagens were captured and used by Allied troops – sometimes even with the correct markings painted on so they wouldn’t be mistaken for the enemy band fired upon.

The Volkswagen Thing – Type 181

In the early 1960s a number of European countries began to collaborate on the development of a vehicle that was known as the “Europa Jeep.” Its was planned to be a lightweight, amphibious military four-wheel drive somewhat analogous to the American Jeep of WWII.

American Troops In A Kubelwagen

Image DescriptionAmerican troops in a captured German Kübelwagen, this vehicle is showing signs of damage and is missing its headlights, windscreen glass, and front-mounted spare tire.

As the Europa Jeep was in development it was clear that a stopgap vehicle was going to be needed, Volkwagen was approached with this requirement and although they’d turned down a similar request in the 1950s they accepted it in the 1960s.

The reason for this change of heart was that VW’s lucrative Mexican market had been asking for a vehicle that was tougher and better suited for use on rough roads. This sentiment was shared by essentially all VW distributors in emerging markets.

Added to this was the success of the Meyers Manx beach buggy in the United States – a shortened VW floorpan with a fiberglass body that was proving wildly popular.

VW executives assigned a team of engineers to the new car, internally named the Type 181, with instructions to use as many pre-existing parts as possible to minimize production costs.

They developed a vehicle that was significantly influenced by the earlier Kübelwagen. It used the platform of the Type 1 Karmann Ghia as it was slightly wider than the Beetle platform. Early rear suspension was provided by the Volkswagen Transporter, and many of the drivetrain components came directly from the Beetle.

Volkswagen Thing 21

Image DescriptionHere you can see the utilitarian interior of the VW Thing including the duckboard floors, designed to keep water, mud, and beach sand out of your way and to be easy to clean.

Both military and civilian versions were developed, with the military versions getting portal axles to gain additional ride height and ground clearance while also lowering the effective gearing. This also lowered the top speed and so they weren’t used on civilian cars.

Different names were used for the Type 181 in different world markets, in the USA it was called the VW Thing, in Germany it was the Kurierwagen, in the UK it was the Trekker, it was known as the Safari in Mexico and South America, and the Pescaccia in Italy.

By the late 1970s the Europa Jeep project had completely fallen apart and the Type 181 had been there to pick up the pieces, with over 50,000 of them having been delivered to NATO military forces.

The Volkswagen Thing Shown Here

The Volkswagen Thing you see here is a 1973 model that has belonged to the current owner for 27 years. In their ownership it’s been repainted in white and a new black folding soft top has been fitted.

Volkswagen Thing 9

Image DescriptionThis VW Thing has been repainted in white and given a new black vinyl soft top and black vinyl interior, it also has lifted suspension and off-road Nanco tires.

Power is provided by a 1.6 liter VW flat-four engine, air-cooled and rear-mounted of course, mated to a 4-speed manual transaxle sending power to the rear wheels.

Inside you’ll find a back vinyl interior to match the black soft top, an Alpine AM/FM CD stereo, duckboard floors, and a simple dashboard with a speedometer and not a whole lot else.

This example has been fitted with a suspension lift kit for better off-road ability, and it rides on polished 15” Centerline wheels mounted with chunky Nanco tires.

This Thing is now being offered for sale on Bring A Trailer out of Upland, California and you can visit the listing here if you would like to read more or register to bid.

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Images courtesy of Bring A Trailer

Published by Ben Branch -